Josh Burdette, 9:30 Club security head, dies at 36

Josh Burdette talks about the first show he saw at the 9:30 Club in a 2010 interview. The long-time head of security at the club died Sept. 1 at age 36. (Alexandra Garcia/The Washington Post)
September 5, 2013

Josh Burdette, who died Sept. 1 at 36, was called many things. Head of security. Door-staff supervisor. Crew chief. Newspapers and magazines trotted out all sorts of euphemisms for the 9:30 Club bouncer, who over the past decade became one of the most unforgettable and unforgettably recognizable staples of Washington’s nightlife scene.

“First off, I hate the word ‘bouncer,’ ” he once said, noting its connotations of brute force and bribe-taking. “I’m not a bouncer. And once I’ve established that with somebody, I take it personally if they call me a bouncer. I do security.”

Security doer, then, because when a fellow is 6-foot-4 and 340 pounds, shaves his slab of head, lets his beard scraggle downward like a forgotten member of ZZ Top, has dragon tattoos slithering over nearly every pore, has his earlobes stretched like a tribesman’s, has a sorority’s worth of piercings over his face, deliberately burns symbols into his fingers and generally freaks people out with the silver horns protruding from his nostrils, one is inclined to call him whatever he wants to be called.

James Brown, who walked into the club one night, was apparently shocked. “Did he come out his mama lookin’ like that?!” the Godfather of Soul quipped to an associate.

Mr. Burdette freely told the story, admitting he was “physically hard to forget.” To the thousands of customers who streamed into the city’s premier nightclub to hear established and rising acts, Mr. Burdette was a footnote, really, to their evening of entertainment. He said he was often called “That Guy,” a nickname that managed to be anonymous, universal and intimidating all at once. Used in a sentence, it was frequently, “Oh, my God, do you see eee that guy?”

He embraced “That Guy” as part of his e-mail handle, and he played the part of “That Guy” for the past 16 years.

“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,” he told The Washington Post in 2006. “I know that’s a trite thing to say, but my job is to make sure people have fun.”

The Maryland chief examiner’s office said Thursday that Mr. Burdette’s death at his Kensington home was a suicide. Efforts to reach his family were unsuccessful.

Behind the imposing facade, Mr. Burdette was widely regarded as a gentleman and a gentle man in the role of gatekeeper. “I have a degree in psychology, so I watch people — it’s what I do,” the University of Maryland graduate once said. He sparingly resorted to toughness to resolve disputes. He prided himself on identifying troublemakers before they could act — the 21-year-old guys paired with much-younger girls, the beer-spilling customers who needed a pit stop outside in the fresh air, the hinky types “puffing” on joints hidden inside pieces of fruit.

But in the nightclub trade, where the darker forces of humanity sometimes reveal themselves, the surprises never cease.

“I could tell you about the biggest brawl I’ve ever been in, but that’s the exception, not the rule,” he once told The Washington Post. “If we have a fight, it’s once every six months. And one of the worst fights we’ve ever had was at a Super Diamond show — and that’s a Neil Diamond tribute band! It was a doctor and a dentist. You just never know.”

The 9:30 Club, at 815 V St. NW, has been around since the 1980s and still has cachet as a venue where rock stars can have intense interactions with fans.

“9:30 was the place we always dreamed we got to, the rock-and-roll destination,” said Marc Roberge, lead singer of the rock band O.A.R. “They can position the stage so that the crowd is almost being on top of you, completely involved in the performance. That’s why you get into rock-and-roll in the first place. You want to bring people together. It’s very hard to match that.”

Roberge, whose Washington-bred band has sold 2 million albums over its career, said Mr. Burdette “made bands like us feel welcome at a place we’d always dreamed of getting to. Sometimes when you get to a place you’ve always tried to play, they shut you down and you can really feel it. He represented the 9:30 Club with such a good vibe, they could not have chosen a better person to be a part of the history of that place.”

Joshua Burdette weighed 10 pounds at his birth Sept. 4, 1976. Growing up in Kensington, he was urged by his father, a Methodist minister and family counselor, not to use his physical might to bully others.

“He grew up in an environment that taught him the way the world gets along best,” Robert Burdette, his father, told the Diamondback newspaper at the University of Maryland. “At home, at school, at church . . . he was taught that [his size] was extra responsibility, not more privilege.”

There were times, he said, when other boys tested him, tried to lure him into fights, even got in a few punches. He said he would grab hold of the offending boy until school security arrived.

Mr. Burdette once said he “made a lot of choices that set me aside from general society.” They began with tattoos at 12 or 13, followed by piercings once he entered the University of Maryland. He graduated in 1998 as part of the university honors program. He told the Diamondback that he earned extra cash by “basically just sitting out on the front porch of these frat parties in College Park” in case security was needed.

Working at the 9:30 Club, he said, was not glamorous. His job was to check IDs (he said he confiscated more than 500 fake ones), take tickets and collaborate with the security personnel of the big-name bands. He also hauled trash and performed other physical labor.

In Washington, a city where people often wield their clout in unpleasant ways, Mr. Burdette was often called on to defuse situations where the entitled wanted to get inside the 9:30 Club when all the tickets were sold and the building was at capacity. “If you know my boss well enough,” he calmly advised, “give him a call.”

There was ample opportunity for corruption. At major draws such as Red Hot Chili Peppers and Radiohead, he said, he could have made more cash in bribes in a weekend than he made all year.

“And everything gets offered,” he told The Post. “I had one show where I had a limo of 11 strippers show up. I was told that I could do whatever I wanted with them if I let them into the show.”

He said he did not give in to temptation.

For years, Mr. Burdette lived with his grandmother in Kensington and relished what he regarded as a suburban haven of front lawns and children on bicycles. He played video games to take the edge off after work.

The hobby that most intrigued him was tattooing, and he spent hundreds of hours getting images of dragons gunned into his arms, chest and back. He chose the image because he was born in the year of the dragon, according to the Chinese zodiac.

None of the monsters had eyes, he told the Diamondback, because of something he read once in a Chinese legend. Giving them eyes would allow them to awaken and leave.

“I apply that concept to tattoos,” he wrote on his Web site years ago, “and I plan to make arrangements to have the eyes added to my dragons when I die so that they can be free again. I don’t know if anything will happen, but I think that it is a beautiful concept.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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