Just the Man to See: Beloved musician and therapist Kevin Sousa touched thousands of South Bay lives before passing away last week 

by Ryan McDonald

In the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic, Kevin Sousa would take the short walk from his Hermosa Beach home to the Hermosa Music Company, the recording and performance space he co-founded in the city’s light industrial district. Sousa opened the Hermosa Music Company around the time COVID-19 made crowded club shows impossible. He used the space alone, accompanied by just a guitar and his thoughts.

Hermosa resident Mike Collins, a close friend of Sousa’s, owns ShockBoxx, the art gallery next door. Behind the gallery is a space Collins uses as his personal studio for painting. Like Sousa he took the enforced solitude of the pandemic as an opportunity to create.

“I would be in there painting and he’d come in [to the Hermosa Music Company], and he’d be by himself because we’re all social distancing. And I sat in there and I could hear him writing those songs, working out different phrasings, and I would just be … bawling. And not just in a sad way, because I knew what he was going through, but that guy just humbled me in the way he was digging through feelings,” Collins said.

Kevin Sousa’s wonderful worlds

Kevin Sousa performing at BeachLife in Redondo Beach, three weeks prior to his death. Photo by JP Cordero/BeachLife

Kevin Sousa (second from right) with his Cypress Crew, Mike Collins, Zeal Levin, and Nate Amor in September 2022. Photo by Garrick Rawlings

Kevin Sousa (in bow) escorting friend Mike Collins in the 32-mile Catalina Classic Paddleboard race. Sousa completed the race in 2011. Photo by Ken Pagliaro

Kevin Sousa performs during the September 2013 paddleout for Dine N’ Surf co-founder Bob Meistrell. Photo by Ken Pagliargo

Kevin Sousa (second from left) with, from left, Tom Watson, Jim Lindberg and Cooper Jones at the Second Annual Cooper Fest in July 2021. The event raised over $30,000 for The Center for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy at UCLA. Photo by Chris Miller

Kevin Sousa and Jamisen Jarvis performing at SpyderFest in 2013. Sousa emceed the annual event, which follows the Hermosa Beach Surfer Walk of Fame inductions. Photo by Kevin Cody

In September 2020, shortly after the start of the pandemic, Sousa was diagnosed with melanoma. After extensive treatment, he enjoyed roughly a year of clear cancer screenings. But last month, his condition suddenly deteriorated. The cancer had spread to his brain. He was hospitalized on the evening of May 20. He returned home with his wife Patti on May 24, and died two days later.

Sousa, a gravel-voiced musician and tender-hearted therapist, a surf-stoked waterman and volunteer of boundless energy, an intimate conversationalist and galvanizing community leader, was just 52.  But he had touched thousands of lives, and is one of few people in the South Bay who could properly be called an icon: instantly recognizable, deeply relatable, claimed, and loved by disparate communities with no connection other than him.

He was a guitarist and a singer, and on stage he evoked Animal, the manic drummer from the “The Muppet Show” house band. His thick locks hung over his face when he played, covering his eyes and amplifying the sense that his playing came from a deep, instinctual place.

“That was always the case with Kevin: The music was larger than life,” said Aragorn Wiederhold, a guitarist who began playing with Sousa 15 years ago. “It was bigger than us both. It was communicating to us and this unseen third party, this channel. He created a very big channel. It was kind of like how he was with the ocean: it was moving him and he was just catching a wave.”

After years of leading a late-night lifestyle, Sousa swore off substances, going sober for good in October 2010. He went back to school, earned a master’s in depth psychotherapy, and opened a practice on Pacific Coast Highway.

Both within and outside the formality of his practice, Sousa was perpetually sought after for advice. Dane Zaun met Sousa when he was in fifth grade. Zaun’s  sister was on the Mira Costa High School surf team when Sousa served as assistant coach. They bonded instantly, a connection that continued when Zaun arrived at Costa few years later and became one of the best surfers the famed program has ever produced. During his professional surfing career, Zaun turned to Sousa for sports therapy, and continued to think of him as “a life coach, confidant, a mentor.”

“Up until the very end, he was just one of those special people you could call on your worst day ever and hang up the phone feeling alright,” Zaun said.  

Kevin Sousa plays the Standing Room, where he had a regular gig at which many of the South Bay’s top musicians often sat in for a jam. Easy Reader file photo.

Close friends and casual acquaintances alike were floored by Sousa’s death. Only a small circle was aware of the diagnosis, and on social media, many struggled to reconcile his death with the jovial, energetic performance he and his band gave at the Beach Life Festival in Redondo Beach less than three weeks prior. 

Hermosa resident Gavin Rubin was among the few who did know of Sousa’s illness. They met in 2011, and bonded over their shared Philadelphia roots and love of the ocean. Six days before he died, Sousa and his wife stopped by Rubin’s house. Sousa and Rubin took Rubin’s new electric pickup truck out for a spin, and had a lengthy conversation sitting in the truck bed. 

On May 11, Sousa had suffered a seizure while at the gym. An MRI revealed lesions on his brain. Yet a few days later he was seeing patients again, and with Rubin seemed confident a new radiation treatment would work. He mentioned an upcoming show at Terranea Resort, and invited Rubin on a trip to Maui to surf.

Sousa would be hospitalized later that night, and die six days later.

Rubin, like others interviewed for this story, saw Sousa throw himself even more deeply into his passions following his diagnosis. “I’ve never seen him work harder, be more focused,” Rubin said. But because Sousa genuinely seemed to believe he would survive cancer, Rubin suspects that the intensity he witnessed in his friend came from a source beyond desperation.

“I don’t think he was doing things because it was his last chance. I think it was more like, he met with you because, there’s X amount of time in the day, and he just wanted to make sure that whomever he spent it with, it was well spent,” Rubin said. “His time became more valuable.”

Kevin and Patti Sousa at No on Oil victory party at Standing Room in March 2015. That evening Sousa led fellow Measure O opponents in a celebratory take-off on the Pennywise anthem “Bro Hymn.” Photo by Kevin Cody

Patti, Sousa’s wife of more than 17 years, spent some of the days after her husband’s death reflecting on her last words to him, wanting “to make sure I was telling him the truth.” She had long known how much her husband meant to people, and reassured him that his life of listening and caring had left the world prepared to carry on in his absence.

“I told him, ‘You’ve given everyone the tools. You’ve gotten everyone up to speed to keep going, and nothing’s going to stop.’ Nothing that he was involved in, with the people whom he was readying for their next phase without him, nobody is ill-equipped,” she said. “I think that was the truth, and I think he did that by design.”


Sousa grew up on the East Coast, and headed west after graduating from Villanova University in 1992. While in college he played in bands in the Philadelphia area, including one called Rugby Road. He carried his passion for music with him to Southern California, and became the stage manager at the then newly opened House of Blues in West Hollywood. 

Steve “Shag” Aguilar met Sousa around this time. Aguilar, who would become a frequent Sousa collaborator, was in a band called World Tribe that played at the House of Blues. They had to take direction about setting up and sound check.

“He was large and in charge, with the walkie-talkie thing in his ear, screaming at people to get their s–t done, get things happening,” Aguilar said with a laugh. “I was scared of the guy. I was like, Jesus, glad I don’t work for this guy.”

Sousa also became a touring guitar tech for Eagles’ frontman Glenn Frey. In a past Easy Reader interview, Sousa recalled that Frey would bring him out on stage by saying, “This is Kevin from Villanova. Now he tunes my guitars.”

Sousa became close with Frey, and often spoke of the musician’s kindness, but seemed to know that he was not meant for the glitz of the Sunset Strip. In the song “California,” from his 2016 EP “Wait, What?” Sousa looks back on his journey with the state, and refers to “the Hollywood fantasy.”

Sousa met Patti on the patio of Patrick Molloy’s in Hermosa. Their connection was instantaneous and profound. “He never stopped looking directly in my eyes,” she recalled in an email. Two years later, they got engaged in Palos Verdes, and later married at the Pepperdine Chapel in Malibu.

At the time, Sousa was working at Mira Costa. Along with helping coach the surf team, he taught video production and theater arts. He served as the technical manager at the school’s auditorium and forged a close bond with many students, including Mike Sutherland.

Sutherland met Sousa in the sixth period technical theater course. (Coincidentally, Sousa had moved into a house in Hermosa directly behind Sutherland’s childhood home; when Sousa’s truck broke down, Sutherland gave him a ride to school.) Many had signed up for technical theater thinking it would be a do-nothing class, but Sousa found a way to “push their buttons,” Sutherland said. Sousa had an ability to connect with those who didn’t fit the mold of high school success, and that even those that got written off as “bad kids” loved Sousa.

“He kind of let people be who they were and in the long term he pushed people in directions that he saw them going. In positive ways, not negative: if he saw somebody’s talents lying in a certain area, he would kind of push that,” Sutherland said.

Sousa rocks out with bandmate Zeal Levin at the BeachLife festival on May 6. Photo by Fabien Castro

Through the course, Sutherland developed a keen interest in stage production, and Sousa became a mentor. Last fall, Sutherland became the house production manager at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. After he found out he got the job, Sousa was his first call.I also met Sousa while attending Mira Costa. Then, right after graduating from college, I got a job at Sharks Cove, a sports bar in Manhattan Beach where Sousa was playing music on Thursday nights, one of the gigs that helped establish him as a musician in the South Bay.

Sousa also did shifts tending bar at Sharks Cove, so we saw each other often. He was always kind to me, but seemed vaguely alarmed that I was working there. I had been an excellent student at Costa, and I came to see he feared that I would get sucked into the bar lifestyle — an echo, perhaps, of his sense of what had happened to himself.

Sousa was not what is often called a “bad drunk.” He was voluble and swaggering, an embodiment of the life-of-the-party state many people hope to achieve by drinking. Musicians who have played with both sober and intoxicated versions of Sousa said that Sousa has always been “high functioning.”

But drinking and drugs wore on him in a way that was, if harder to observe, more deeply wounding. In “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” the anthropologist Ruth Benedict distinguishes between shame, a force that relies on “external sanction” to influence behavior, and guilt, which comes from not “living up to one’s own picture of oneself.”

“Kevin’s darkness was after everybody went home,” Patti said.

Collins, the owner of ShockBoxx, met Sousa after a mutual friend put them in touch and said Sousa was considering sobriety. Collins had been sober for years, and told Sousa that his journey to sobriety might go better if he had a project or goal. He had seen Sousa in the ocean, and suggested paddleboarding. Sousa gave up substance use for good on Oct. 4, 2010, and the following summer, he completed the 32-mile Catalina Classic paddleboard race, from Catalina Island to the Manhattan Beach pier. Sousa turned the experience of getting sober and doing the Classic into a suite of songs that would form part of his master’s thesis to become a therapist.  

Collins, a therapist himself, recalled a professor in grad school who showed the class a clip of “Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley,” the recurring Saturday Night Live skit from the early ‘90s in which Al Franken plays a limp-wristed booster of self-help positivity, who preached looking into a mirror and saying “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

“We’re all laughing, and [the professor] goes, It’s funny, but at the end of this, that’s what you’re all going to be doing: getting people to understand that they’re good enough and they’re smart enough,” Collins recalled. He found the remark especially apt for Sousa, who did not try to “fix” people but rather reveal to them the wonder they already contained. “I think for Kevin it was: It’s all there for all of us: for you, for me, for everyone.”

Mike Parenteau met Sousa at Gold’s Gym in Redondo Beach in 2005, not long after moving to Southern California. Parenteau, whose thick non-rhotic accent earned him the name “Boston Mikey,” got a job at Sharks Cove, and he and Sousa became close friends. They would work out together and also go out drinking, and they remained close long after Sousa got sober.

Sousa was a groomsman at Parenteau’s wedding in Mexico in 2016. Parenteau recalled that, the morning of the ceremony, he was almost too nervous to function. Sousa came into his hotel room and spent 45 minutes sitting with Parenteau, leading a meditation to calm him down.

“At the time I missed the old Kevin, because we used to go out and get wasted,” Parenteau said. “But the new Kevin was the better Kevin.”


In March 2012, the City of Hermosa Beach signed a legal agreement to hold an election on the possibility of drilling for oil in the city yard, just blocks from Sousa’s home. Sousa joined other residents to figure out how to stop it.

Stacey Armato was present at the earliest organizing meetings. She recalled that, apart from George Schmeltzer, a former Hermosa city councilmember, those leading the movement were new to politics, often figuring things out as they went. Sousa, she said, helped transform a campaign into a movement.

“Kevin just had such a knack for parlaying our messaging in a way that resonated with so many people — the people he would normally be able to interact with and engage with because of his musical talent, and doing it in a way where they felt they were impacted by it, too, and in turn get them motivated to either vote themselves or get the people who were registered in Hermosa to get out and vote,” she said.

Patti worked closely with Sousa on what would become the No on O campaign, perhaps better known as “Keep Hermosa Hermosa.” It added a new depth to their relationship. Of the ways Kevin spent most of his time — playing music and seeing patients in therapy — she was usually able to experience them only from the outside. Collaborating on the anti-oil campaign helped her better understand what he was capable of giving to others.

“It kind of made me understand how people feel when they get to work on something with Kevin,” she said.

The resounding triumph of the campaign — the city’s voters wound up opposing drilling by 4 to 1 — cemented Sousa’s status as something close to a local celebrity. His music career was also taking off as he began booking bigger and bigger stages, playing large civic events like Hermosa’s Holiday Tree Lighting.

Once, when headlining the main stage at Fiesta Hermosa, Sousa shouted to the crowd, “I’m going to bring up my friend Zeal!” He was referring to Zeal Levin, who became friends with Sousa after sitting in at one of Sousa’s gigs at the Standing Room. Levin climbed on stage, unsure what to expect.

“The band is playing ‘Benny and the Jets.’ They’re already playing the intro. And I’m on stage, and I say to Kevin, ‘Hey, bro, you know, I don’t know this song.’ And I’m on stage, you know? And he’s like, ‘Ah, don’t worry about it. Just at the end, say “Beh-nay, Beh-nay, Beh-nay!”’” Levin said, smiling as he drifted into Sousa’s remembered falsetto.

Behind the good vibes, though, was a demanding musical partner, someone who could ask a guitarist for two dozen takes of a solo when recording a song and still be unsatisfied. Sousa had the rare ability to expect a lot out of people without making them feel overly pressured, of setting high expectations as a way of showing people what they were capable of achieving. 

“It was his realness. I could just feel that he was not trying to be anyone but himself,” Levin said. Levin would become studio manager at Hermosa Music Company, and a member of Sousa’s band. “And then when we started playing together, I saw him just try to encourage people to become the best versions of themselves. He wanted you for you.”

Meanwhile, Sousa’s therapy practice was expanding. Along with taking in more private clients, he became the clinical director at Miriam’s House, a sober living program for mothers in recovery. He also volunteered with the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation, a local charity devoted to surf therapy, and eventually became the foundation’s program and clinical director.

“Kinda like he does on stage, he has a commanding presence. He’s a big guy, with a full head of hair and a booming voice, and he just established his presence and authority on the beach,” said Andy Dellenbach, the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation’s chief executive officer. “People may have initially been intimidated, but the way he presents himself and the way he comes off is just as a big teddy bear, a lover who’s there to help people.”

Sousa felt a particular connection to working with those who had served in the military, Dellenbach said, and the Marines are planning to hold a service and paddleout for Sousa at Camp Pendleton. Dellenbach believed Sousa felt a connection between the sponsor-based structure of 12-step programs and the “no man left behind” mentality of the military. 

“It was his way of giving back to those who had helped him through his addictions,” Dellenbach said.

Sousa once described surfing as being “like three months of therapy in an hour.” The foundation’s primacy within the surf therapy world means that the work Sousa has done will influence the treatment of thousands of patients he will never have the chance to meet. Between January and March of this year, Dellenbach said, he and Sousa rewrote large parts of the foundation’s operations manual, a document that guides organizations providing surf therapy throughout the world.

At the time of his death, Sousa was putting the finishing touches on “Hermosa and Free,” an album he began writing following his diagnosis. (Levin said he and others are still figuring out when to release the album.) As the song ideas accumulated, Sousa sent them to Aguilar, who fleshed out possibilities in his home studio and sent them back. From there, the two began recording other musicians, including a violinist. What began as the sketches Collins heard Sousa working on his own inside the empty Hermosa Music Company have become what fellow musicians call Sousa’s fullest and deepest work yet.

“It was like his heart had opened up to new levels,” Aguilar said.

Patti said that her favorite song Kevin played was the acoustic version of “The Perfect Wave.” The song was first recorded in 2012, part of the suite of songs that Sousa wrote about sobriety and paddling. In its original manifestation it features a full band, and the minor-key riff that opens the song would not sound out of place on a Metallica album.

The acoustic version, released in 2021 — on Sousa’s 51st birthday and roughly nine months after his cancer diagnosis — is stark and spare. And for a man who seemed driven to fill his days to their maximum, it is also at a notably slower tempo: it takes Sousa nearly 45 seconds longer to get through the same measures and lyrics. The song’s most arresting feature becomes a recurring silence separating verse and chorus that had once been filled by a kickdrum. The effect is that of the dawning of new meaning in an old song.

“Time won’t wait for me anymore,” Sousa sings. “Time to find out, what I got, time to do, not try.” ER 


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