I was meandering the concourse of Verizon Center, eagerly anticipating what would turn out to be a(nother) disappointing playoff loss by the Washington Capitals. This was an anxiously hopeful time of untapped promise, uniquely anticipatory and nerve-wracking as the concourses filled with playoff hockey partisans. It was the fog of war within the confines of civilization. It was that feeling in your stomach before an aspirational first date. It was the knowledge that we know nothing now, but that all will soon be revealed, for better…or worse.
The pursuit of that rush arouses passions and it draws crowds, the Average Joe crawls away from homeostasis and towards something larger than his life, whether it be the adrenalized rush of competitive sports or that of rock and roll. In even those moments of heightened awareness, though, the masses seek the warmth that accompanies familiarity. And for me, that meant the ritualistic procurement of a beer before settling in and mentally preparing myself for the game.
Of course, life rarely gives us clues as to what’s around the corner, whether it’s the gentle bend of the Verizon Center concourse or the more consequential forks in life’s road. And so it was that day: I rounded the bend, beer in hand, and almost physically ran into a 6’4, 340-ish pound man who would stand out in any crowd, let alone amongst the blazers and button-downs queuing up to enter the 100 level. I was at fault, no doubt subsumed by something inconsequential, and I inadvertently put myself in the path of a mobile mountain of a man with piercings, stretched ear lobes, tattoos galore, and the sort of intimidating presence reserved for dark alley encounters in film noir.
Except, I know this guy. Well, I don’t know him, but I know I’m not in imminent danger. During that moment of recognition, he deftly reaches out and helps avoid a collision and the untimely meeting of my beer and his shirt. He smiles, nods, and proceeds apace in that chaotic environment, knowing that both his good deed and my social ineptitude are things we’ll leave unsaid.
I’d previously encountered the gentle giant that was Josh Burdette literally hundreds of times. Even though I’d first started going to shows at 9:30 Club before he took on his omnipresent role, it’s always seemed like he was always there. Hundreds of times I’ve passed through the doors at 9th and V, NW, and seemingly, he was there each and every one. I had no conception of the club without Josh, or Josh without the club, even though he certainly didn’t live under the iconic WUST radio antenna that serves as the belfry of this venerated church of rock and roll. But this encounter was de-contextualized from my deeply engrained association. This was…Penn Quarter!
The fog grew denser, my mind puzzling over why I could only visualize him in one, particular setting. Sure, mutual recognition characterized our many encounters at some point; a nod and a good word were shared most times. Sure, our brief conversations revealed that he had interests outside that realm, outside of the familiar construct. But as I reached my seat, recalling that we’d previously discussed our shared love for hockey, I sat there somewhat stunned by the psychological dissonance of the encounter. His untimely and unsettling passing yesterday — he was only 36 years old — is an epically dissonant encounter for the legions whose lives he impacted, even if only for a minute here, a minute there.
The role that Josh played at 9:30 Club was outsized — even for a man of his prodigious size. It’s no surprise that unconnected artists, patrons, and coworkers are remembering him alike as “The Face of 9:30 Club,” because, well, there’s none other that visitors — whether interlopers or regulars — could possibly associate with the Club or its ethos.
That ethos was on display over a decade ago when an unruly patron started acting out his inner savage beast, elbowing a girl in the head and picking a fight with me for no reason other than, well, I was there. The first bouncer into the fray grabbed me and pulled me away as I protested my innocence/self-defense. Outside, Josh came to survey the scene, calmly assessed the situation and our stories, followed-up with those who had been in the area, decided that I was in fact innocent, and let me back into the show. While I’m not normally escorted out of clubs, this struck me as incredibly unusual. In that highly tense moment, he kept his cool and dug into the situation when it would have been far easier to simply expel all involved and let the streets mete out their own justice. It wasn’t my first encounter with the former psych major — although it was definitely the first of that nature — and I’d like to think that his legendary attentiveness gave him the understanding required to render quick and accurate judgment.
(Photos: Erica Bruce)
From then on, I made a point of nodding and saying hello. I can’t deny that there was initially some self-interest involved, since he was judge, jury, and executioner in an unpleasant pinch, but mostly it was out of both gratitude and respect. Over time, the once imposing figure that Mr. Burdette cut had evolved in my mind to represent the reputation of the club itself: larger-than-life, unique, intelligent, energizing, thoughtful and fair.
The “new” 9:30 Club didn’t open in the most inviting section of town. Convincing someone to join me was always a challenge — for many of my college peers in the late 1990s, U Street might have well been the DMZ — and the neighborhood retained its character for years after the club’s relocation. Necessarily pinching pennies in college, I would often ride my bike to save on ticket fees, invariably encountering some sort of harassment or undesired “thrill” along the way. But, in a strange way, that thrill and its attendant danger resembled the feeling that is prelude to playoff hockey or seeing a favorite band perform.
The club was surrounded by chaos, a sort of low, droning chaos that wasn’t in your face so much as lurking around the corner. The brief distance separating 9:30 Club from the Metro station could seem as fraught with danger as Omaha Beach. So, it’s not an accident that the club needed someone like Josh — no, they needed Josh, and Josh alone — to safely welcome music lovers into the club’s arms while keeping the riff raff away. It’s not an accident that patrons felt a lot safer inside than out, due to the oasis of professionalism and security that Josh and his colleagues imposed amidst cacophony. And once within its confines, those many, many shows gave me an innervation that nothing else could, (with the exception of playoff hockey). Portishead, Catherine Wheel, Tori Amos. Rancid, Sugar, Face to Face. The Tragically Hip, Wyclef, PJ Harvey. And on, and on, and on.
Years have passed, and the neighborhood has displaced its stasis. The legacy of the decades-earlier riots included discarded detritus and virulent vermin, low-expectations and palpable fear. Condos, gastropubs, the khaki’d and the loafer-ed have all made their way over the bridge and into the ‘hood. Ambient crowd noise has replaced ambient garbage. What is now an English gastropub — Brixton — was then a makeshift flophouse for the downtrodden, an occasional uptick in its stench formerly indicating that something bigger than a rat had died inside. Now, it’s the smell of upscaled English pub fare.
We now know what we once did not. The ‘hood is arguably safer and arguably less “interesting.” These days, you can pit stop at Brixton for an $11 beer on your way to 9:30 Club, but, you do so knowing that “That Guy At 9:30 Club” will no longer be there to warmly welcome you into the familiar arms of rock and roll. That era, sadly yet fondly, has passed on.
Special thanks to Erica Bruce for her photos, taken at a memorial service
for another recently fallen member of the 9:30 Club family, Paul Rondelli