Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Josh Burdette

If you were a serious music fan in the DC area over the past 16 years, at some point you probably met Josh Burdette. As the cliché goes, although in this case it's true, nobody who ever met him ever forgot him.

Josh with Built to Spill on an episode of Pancake Mountain. You can't miss him.

Sharing a room with Josh Burdette was a little like being in the presence of a tank. His 340 lb. build and mountainous frame carried full sleeves of tattoos and thorough facial piercings, totaling more body art than your average Ozzfest lineup. Everyone assumed that he was a bouncer, since he worked at the legendary 9:30 Club and looked like he could kill an elephant with his bare hands. But Burdette was the venue's sage, a perceptive, thoughtful and alert dude who preferred to diffuse problems before they started. Making the most of his psychology degree, he had a gentle but adamant professionalism, managing the venue the way that you'd hope a teacher would run your classroom.

"It's really a customer service job," Burdette told The Washington Post in 2006. "We're the face of the club, and we have to do our best to be as friendly, polite and accessible as we can. It's not an us-versus-them mentality here -- we want to avoid that antagonism. If you need our help, ask us. Some of us look big and scary, but we're just people, too. We're just working our jobs. Then on the rare occasion when we have to do something more on the security end of things, we've already established that we're there to help."

"Help" is an understatement. In the thankless task of being the authority figure at a rock club, Josh handled belligerent drunks, music industry egos and kids with fake IDs. He presided over DC's coolest shows with the head of a scholar and the heart of a saint. If you didn't have a ticket, you weren't getting in, no matter how much you offered to increase his salary. Watching him manage a confrontation was spellbinding--he'd listen, empathize and articulate the rules in a way that would satisfy any reasonable human. My friends and I never gave him any trouble, not because we knew he could thrash us all, but because his humanity brought out the best in everyone who knew him.

It helped that Josh, who passed away last weekend, loved people. As he told The Post, "What keeps me doing this after getting kicked in the head, fought, spit on, is seeing people leave the club with a smile on their face. I know that's a trite thing to say, but my job is to make sure people have fun."

But Josh went beyond that, earning his status as a DC music icon and the soul of the 9:30 Club. It was easy to imagine him there 40 years from now, grey-bearded but no less implacable, perking up youngin's with stories about the time Bob Dylan passed through, or the wildest bribes that he'd ever turned down. Instead, it will be the rest of us telling stories about him, maybe as a tall tale in the vein of Paul Bunyan or Captain Stormalong. Some folks won't believe that he existed, while the rest of us will think of him any time we see a show in the nation's capital, or wish he were there the next time we see crowd surfing get out of hand. Wherever Josh is now, one can be sure that nobody is getting in with a fake ID, and no one would even think about starting a fight.

I had to think hard about what song to post for him today. Maybe something from Clutch, a band that he adored, or one of the many metal bands I saw with him, either at the 9:30 Club or in the crowd at any number of venues. But one look at the final post on his Facebook page gave me a clear decision.

i blame jim henson for my obsession with the banjo. "the rainbow connection" is probably my favorite song of all. it is the only song on my ipod that is not allowed to be skipped.

anything involving kermit and a banjo is cool in my book. enjoy.


bearicaquinn said...

Ben, this is beautiful. A wonderful elegy. xoxo Bear

Ben Apatoff said...

Thank you, Bear. Means a lot to read that.