My stomach lurched as the tires of the plane hit the tarmac when we touched down in San Diego. I felt incredibly nervous. I hadn’t seen these people for almost ten years now, and I wasn’t sure exactly how everything would unfold.
A week ago today, I was invited to be part of a private Celebration of Life for Steve Rodriguez. I did something I’ve never done in my life: I bought a ticket to fly down and back in the same day. It felt like kind of a rock-star-ish thing to do, but the price was right and it was really the only way I could fit it into my busy schedule. I knew I had to be there in person, to be part of this celebration for a man and a band that had touched my life in such extraordinary ways.
We sat on the runway for over an hour while technicians fiddled with an armrest, trying to fix it, but finally opting to just remove it so we could be on our way. Thank God I wasn’t making a connecting flight. I had a reservation to pick up a car so I could get to my destination, but I was nervous about that too. I had only rented a car one other time in my life and I wasn’t really sure how it all was gonna work.
Originally I had planned to meet up with George Startswithans for drinks and lunch before the memorial. I was supposed to have several hours before the memorial, so this seemed like a good way to relax a bit before the celebration. We had never met in person, but he had interviewed me for his book, Band Together; The Definitive Entry Level Guide to Forming A Rock Band. I really loved how great it had turned out and the care that had gone into making it. He lived in San Diego and said he and his friends met up every Sunday morning for Bloody Marys at the Small Bar, so we made plans to meet there.
Of course by the time I got to San Diego and got my car, it was almost noon. Thankfully for GPS, I found the bar pretty easily and rushed in all apologies at my tardiness. My blood sugar was dropping, and I was starting to get shaky, so I was pretty scattered as we chatted and got to know each other. I didn’t want to drink because I was driving, and I needed to eat something fast. Luckily, a nice bartender (George told me he used to play in Rocket From The Crypt!) gave me a bowlful of cottage potatoes, which he had just ordered for himself. I wolfed them down, and then had to leave so I could find the mortuary where the memorial would be held in just a half hour.
Again, thank God for GPS! I have no idea how we used to navigate in strange cities before it! I found the mortuary easily, but parking was another matter. After driving up and down and around and around for about ten minutes, I finally found a shady spot on the street in front of a quaint old house surrounded by an overgrown tropical garden about eight blocks from the funeral home. It was a really warm day, I don’t know if it’s always like that, but I left my hoodie in the car and hoofed it as fast as I could.
The funeral home was a lovely Old Spanish style building tucked in between little pubs and boutiques. I was so nervous when I walked in; my mouth was dry and I could hardly swallow. I was late, and tried not to make any noise as I opened the heavy wooden door. The little foyer held flowers, and many pictures of Steve. Several other guests who had arrived late were standing looking into the main room where a gentleman dressed in a dark suit was speaking at the pulpit. The mortuary team told me there was no more seating inside, but they found a chair for me at the back of the room where I could sit down and still hear and see the service.
I didn’t see anyone I recognized, so I just sat and listened to the words being shared by those who knew and loved Steve. Shortly after I got there, one of his relatives started to play a slide show with pictures of Steve as a little boy. This was a whole part of Steve I never knew, and I watched in rapt attention as the sweet pictures of this small smiling boy who would grow up to be a rock and roll musician flash before my eyes. And then music started playing, Lynard Skynard’s Simple Man, and suddenly, all the grief I had been feeling welled up and spilled over as tears rolled down my cheeks.
Mama told me when I was young
Come sit beside me, my only son
And listen closely to what I say.
And if you do this
It will help you some sunny day.
Take your time... Don't live too fast,
Troubles will come and they will pass.
Go find a woman and you'll find love,
And don't forget son,
There is someone up above.
The words to this song were so perfect for this kind gentle soul who apparently was struggling with some demons that I never knew about because it had been ten years since we talked. I thought about his mom as the words to the song sunk in, and I cried for her and his wife and young son. After the slide show, several friends and family members shared memories of Steve, and I thought about how much one life could touch so many. And how music can touch us so deeply that we can’t even put into words how it makes us feel, and then all of the sudden it touches a spot deep inside and the emotions pour out. I looked around at all those faces and even though I only knew a handful of them, we were all there because this beautiful smiling soul had touched each one of us in some way. We all had Steve as our connection to each other.
Afterwards we were invited to The Tractor Room, a lovely little pub just a few doors down. One of Steve’s long-time friends owned it and he had graciously opened his doors for us to eat, drink and celebrate Steve’s life further. As we all got up to leave I was thrilled to see Jarrod and his lovely wife Marcie. They had met during The Dragons/Wildhearts tour, which kicked off in Austin at SXSW 2004, and I was so happy to see them still together. It felt like it was just yesterday and we hugged and laughed and cried. Their small son was with them, and I smiled as I was introduced to him. His name was Dragen, how appropriate! I saw Mario and there was more hugs and laughter. He introduced me to his lovely fiancé Maren and we chatted as we ambled towards the door and out into the hot San Diego afternoon. Ken and his sweet wife were also there, and again, more hugs and laugher and talk about how long it had been since we had all seen each other. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder and as I turned, a large man whom I had completely forgotten about stood there smiling at me. Joel, the Dragons tour manager introduced me to his wife and “talked story” about his four kids and life since being on the road with the band. Dennis, the man who had opened his house to The Dragons while they were on tour in Philadelphia so long ago was there as well. It was at his house that the story I shared previously took place. I couldn’t even remember his name for that story, but as soon as I saw his face, I knew I had to share it with him. We cried and hugged and it was just like that, another connection came full circle.
The afternoon flew by, with shared memories, forgotten stories, and catching up on what we had all been up to. I had been nervous for no reason. We all had a common bond bringing us back together: the music and our love for the smiling face of Steve Rodriguez. I met his mother for the first time and hugged her as if I had known her forever. And Jamie, Steve’s wife, beautiful in her black and white dress hugged me like sisters even though it had been over ten years since we met that one time. I finally met Jesse, Steve’s handsome son, now a young man, with his father’s large brown eyes staring out behind shaggy dark bangs. I had only seen pictures of him as a baby, and here he was now, a gentle, composed young man, surrounded by people who knew and loved his dad. I met many people that day that all had their own special memories of Steve, and I felt so grateful to be there, sharing and celebrating with them.
As I sat on the plane, wedged into the middle seat on my way back to Sacramento that night, I reflected on how much we touch those around us. We take for granted the people we love know how we feel about them, but rarely do we tell those we work with or have a casual relationship with how they affect our lives. I feel deeply honored that I got to work with Steve and the Dragons for so long. But I never told the band how much their music and friendship meant to me as I worked with them. Of course I was focused on trying to do my best for them, and maybe actions speak louder than words. But I never told them how much I loved and respected them. Being in that room surrounded by all those lovely people that Steve had left an impression on made me realize how important it is to share these feelings while these people are alive. I don’t know if Steve really knew how he affected the people he came in contact with. How he changed lives, and touched those around him with his music and warmth. I hope he knew, but if he didn’t while he was alive, this day of celebrating his life was loud and clear; I know he heard us in heaven and was smiling his big beautiful beaming smile.
Cheers to you Steve Rodriguez, you will be missed by all those who loved you and who's lives you touched.
Rock 'n' Roll/Automotive Journalist, Influencer, Editor and Publisher of Gearhead Magazine,