By Jenn Marks; originally posted with Did We Jam
I can’t figure out how to start this post. I imagine by the time you read this, you already know the sad news. I hope you do; I don’t want this to be the way you learn. Then again, maybe this rambling tribute is the right way to learn.
On December 9, 2021, Rod Pursell passed away and my life is radically changed. I’m still wavering between disbelief and acceptance and there are a lot (A LOT) of tears as a backdrop to those feelings.
I still vividly remember the first time that I ‘met’ Rod. We had noticed each other at shows for some time, but had never spoken. It was Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2015 and Andee was in town. Andee and I were doing our regular stage-hopping and as we walked towards one stage (I believe we were heading to the Banjo stage), Rod was walking away from the stage passing us. He looked at me and he said ‘oh, you again.’ and just kept walking. Something about the snarkiness of it all struck me in just the right way. And so a friendship was made; a friendship that really changed my life for the past 6 years.
And I can’t believe it’s only been 6 years; it feels like there was never a time since I returned to the Bay Area that Rod wasn’t around, but I added him to the Live Music email list (the predecessor of this blog) on November 2, 2015. One of the listings in that particular Live Music email was as follows:
An Evening with Cowboy Junkies at GAMH on Thursday, January 21st and Friday, January 22nd. The last time I went to see Cowboy Junkies, I fell asleep so I’ll probably pass on this.
Rod responded to the email / list saying that it was quite a list and talked about his next shows, etc and then he wrote the following and sent me the photo below.
“I do have one word of advice when talking music with me: Careful what you say about the Cowboy Junkies. 😉 I absolutely love them. I will be there both nights at GAMH, and the next two nights in Grass Valley and Santa Cruz. Here’s a picture from several years ago”
FWIW – My response to his email was ‘who’s the guy in the photo? ;-)’ I never saw Rod without his beard; only photos. His beard was sometimes the reason people would approach us at shows. If I had a $1 for every time some dude approached Rod to talk about his beard, I could definitely buy you and me a good local IPA (SF prices) and probably leave a very reasonable tip as well. Women also would comment, but the beard wasn’t the siren call for them that it seemed to be for men.
From one of my live music email / correspondences with a dude named Joe after a Damien Jurado show at the Chapel: Who is the dude next to you with the huge beard? He makes so many shows and always up front. Impressive. I spoke with him once – what makes it more impressive (or crazy) is he comes all the way from Los Banos!
When I first met Rod, he was still employed and would drive 4 – 5 hours roundtrip for shows in SF, but his work limited him sometimes. He was already talking about his retirement day when we met. I can’t actually remember when he retired, but he retired as soon as he could and once he retired, there was nothing to stop him from making the drive and going to the show. I’m so glad that he had those years of retirement and that I got to benefit from his availability and also his passion for live music.
The first show that Rod and I went to and hung out at in my calendar was Lucero at the Fillmore on November 20th. I know there were shows between HSB and that Lucero show where we talked (because one of those shows must have been the show where he gave me his email address so that he could be added to the Live Music list), but Lucero is the first one in my books where I included Rod’s name as part of the group of us. I’m pretty sure he was at The Lone Bellow show at the Fillmore on October 7, 2015. I’m also pretty sure that he was wearing his Shovels & Rope shirt (the one with cartoon / skeletal faces of Cary Ann and Michael that I also own, see below) and I’m pretty sure that Jessica struck up a conversation with him about that fact. I’m pretty sure that night was the first time that Rod and I actually talked, but his name isn’t listed in my notes. My memory isn’t what it should be, but this is the story that I will continue to tell.
Side Note / Request: If any of you have my annual recaps of the shows that I attended and the people who were with me, could you please contact me and let me know or if you have my email address, email them to me. When facebook deleted their notes, I lost many years of those lists (e.g., I have 2015 and 2017, but 2016 is definitely missing).
It wasn’t long before he was giving me rides to the closest bus stop after the show and then it wasn’t much longer after that before he was giving me rides home after shows. I’m sure by early 2016, he was both picking me up before shows and dropping me off after them. By the end of it, he would park when he came to get me if there was time, so that he could come in and visit with Spike* before we left for the show. In the beginning, I didn’t want to take the rides because I thought they were an inconvenience for him (and if you don’t already know me, I can be very fiercely independent, some might even say stubborn), but then I learned that he was already driving 4 – 5 hours roundtrip for these shows so his feeling was what were a few more minutes / miles. Eventually it was just an assumption that I would have a ride home from every show that Rod attended and that I would likely have a ride there too. The funny thing was that if he offered other people a ride home, he would check in with me to make sure I was okay with it. As if!
My car, Ellie, died on January 1, 2016 which severely limited my ability to attend shows in Marin or other areas where there was no public transit, but not for long. I have an email from Rod where he explains that he has to go through the city to get to Mill Valley anyway, so he might as well pick me up for a show at the Sweetwater. I don’t remember what show; I just remember the rationale (which I don’t even think is true now that I think about it). Later he started to pick me up in the city and we would drive to Santa Cruz for shows. We went to Moe’s Alley and the Crepe Place and of course, The Catalyst. Sometimes we would make a day of it and stop at The Pescadero Country Store and wind our way down Highway 1. We went to Fresno to see our boys, The Brothers Comatose. He took me to places I hadn’t been and introduced me to bands and singers / songwriters that I didn’t know. So much new music! We always had such a good time together. He knew me so well; I sometimes thought he was in my head. I can remember being at show and having him lean forward from behind me and say ‘you are hating every minute of this, aren’t you?’ and my being shocked that he knew that I hated it; he couldn’t see my face and I hadn’t said anything, but he knew.
We also established our friendship as purely platonic pretty early on when Rod told me that he liked his women half crazy, but I was too crazy for him. We were at the UC Theatre at a Brothers Comatose show when he said it to me. I still do not know what prompted the statement (not denying my craziness, but this did not appear to be in response to a specific incident). I guess it’s the timing of that comment that I questioned.
And like Andee said on the facebook post, I love how much he took care of everyone but not in an overprotective way. He really did take care of me and the rest of the LOLMs. When my cousin Jamie died, he was so freaking caring and careful. I can’t explain it but we had a big group going to a Shovels & Rope show at the Fillmore for my birthday celebration with pre-gaming at The Social Study and he helped make it all okay.
He was my bodyguard at shows. I could be right up front and he was right behind me. I rarely got jostled. I always had a drink in my hand (usually water the past few years, but sometimes it was Rod or Pat’s beer and in the beginning it was mine). At HSB (and other festivals), he and his Ford Focus were our chariot to and from the park and he was our sherpa. Because of his prominence in my life, my mom requested that Rod come to meet her when she visited in December 2019. With my mom visiting, I wasn’t going to any shows; therefore, Rod and I didn’t have any plans to see each other. He was in town to see a show with his buddy, John, and he made the time to come over to meet my mom. My mom loved him. She called him the big guy and she always asked about him.
When we were going to the outdoor shows (especially in this past 6 – 9 months or so), he’d grab my seltzers and add them to his cooler that it seemed he always had with him. If a chair was needed, he’d bring one for me (because I have a bad habit of losing chairs; I can’t explain it, but this is why I can’t have nice things.) That cooler and the plastic bag in his car that had all his ‘tricks’; his pipe and weed and lighter, his edibles, his ear protection. Life was so good! It’ll definitely be different now.
Before Rod, I went to a lot of shows by myself. Often I would meet new people at the show, but I would be alone. After Rod, it was rare to go to a show by myself and even if I did, I would run into people that Rod and I had met at other shows. In October when the Felice Brothers were at the Great American, Rod was out of town and I went to the show alone. I wasn’t there long before I ran into Brian and Drew and John. We met so many people at shows! And when we met new people, Rod used to pimp me out (or at least pimp out our blog). He’d be talking to someone new or he’d see me talking to someone new and he’d immediately ask me or remind me to give them a DidWeJam card.
When we weren’t at shows together, we sent each other photos or video clips from the shows where we were. I can remember being at Red Wing Roots (RWR) in VA and texting Rod to tell him how much he would love the current performer and then he would go and research them and let me know if they were going to be in SF. Kuinka is a great example of one of these bands. It was so easy to get him to go to a show and I know I’ve said it before, but we always had such a damned good time. I’m thinking about the Chuck Prophet show with Garland Jeffreys at GAMH in April 2016 and the Sweet Spirit show at Brick and Mortar in May 2017. God, we had fun! It such a jumble of memories right now and each one takes me somewhere else. I could probably write a book at this point (I’ve been writing this for two full days now), so I’ll try to keep it to a few highlights. February 2017 when Rod got us into a sold out show at the Boathouse in Berkeley to see Birds of Chicago (Thanks Tom Downing!). August 2017 when he got us into a sold out show at the Hotel Utah to see Tyler Childers right as Tyler Childers was starting to take off (Thanks Sarah Rosenberg!). I mean think about it… we saw Tyler Childers at the Hotel Utah! I talked to him! I’m not even sure if Rod knew who Tyler Childers was when that show was announced; I only knew one song, but I LOVED that song (Charleston Girl). It was a great show (except for people who like to talk in / through shows; they’re everywhere).
Even during the pandemic in SF when we weren’t allowed to see people if they didn’t live with us and there were no live music events, Rod would drive the 2-1/2 hours into the city to hang out in my backyard. As soon as I could get us invited to outdoor shows, he was my ride to Piedmont for shows at the Fox Den. Our first show back together was on April 20th when we went to see John Craigie with Pat but we went to as many others as we could; he introduced me to Evie Laden who I loved and we also were able to see Steve Poltz and Terrier (for anyone who doesn’t know that’s Ben Morrison from The Brothers Comatose and Erika Tietjen from The T Sisters band). That was a really good show! They all were! Even when the show itself wasn’t good (which was rare), something happened to make it good or at least memorable.
The last show that Rod and I went to together was The Mavericks at the Fillmore on November 14th. It was our first time back to the Fillmore since the before times. It was a sold out show and we got a poster. It had been a really good show and a really good night. I imagine that when he dropped me at my house and I was getting out of the car and poking my head in to say goodbye and try to nail down what was next, he said ‘We’ll talk.’ as he did almost every night when he dropped me at my door. We didn’t talk. We texted up until the day his heart failed, but we didn’t talk again. I’m pretty sure next was John Moreland at the Independent.
We had a good run leading up to that last show. We had gone to three shows the week before that (Carsie Blanton at the Freight where we even had a little bit of a crew, Carsie at Moe’s the next night, and then Paul Thorn at Cornerstone for my and Crystelle’s birthday. Rod and I didn’t take a lot of selfies when it was only us at the shows, so the last selfie I have is this one from The Wood Brothers at the Fox in October. It was a fantastic show and we had a damned good time.
*Spike needs his own special section of this Rod tribute: Spike is my cat. He’s an old guy now; he’s 17 or so. Rod was pretty much Spike’s favorite person. He was one of Spike’s regular caretakers when I was out of town. This was a win-win as it gave Rod a place in the city to crash for a couple nights so he didn’t have to do all that driving (though he was always welcome to crash here) and it gave Spike extra access to Rod. I remember one day Rod was here in the afternoon and he was napping on my couch. I think I had just gotten home from a trip and we were going to a show together than evening. I walked in to the living room to find Rod on his back on the couch and Spike sleeping on his chest under Rod’s beard as if Rod’s beard was a blanket. It was one of the funniest things and I wish I had gotten a photo. If you want to know more about Spike, you can check out my personal Instagram account or look for his hashtag (#selfieswithspike). Even RBG Skittles (#rgbskittles among others #notmycat #mightbemycat), the feral who adopted me and doesn’t like anyone but me is willing to sniff Rod.
If you knew Rod, you knew that his motto was ‘always go to the show’. He even had it on a tee-shirt. In your honor, my friend, I will do my best to *always* go to the show! It will be more difficult now, without you, and I imagine that there will be some tears, but I will continue to try to live by that motto.
RIP Rod Pursell. I’m going to miss you! I loved you! Thank you so much for leaving me with so many fond memories.