The Real John Redden: An Inside Look at the Life and Mind of the Man Who Made the Barbary

There’s a saying by Roman philosopher Seneca that goes, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” These wise words spoken long ago destroyed the notion of luck and happenstance. From an outsider’s perspective, luck is all that John Redden, owner of The Barbary and Danger Salon, has had in business. But even with lady luck on his side, Redden — a leather-clad, ‘75 Norton Commando-riding punk rocker with a gut-wrenching grip on intuition — is closing the most successful dance club Fishtown never saw coming.

 Lots of things can be (and have been) said about The Barbary. Yelp reviews of the nightclub, which Redden claims he never reads, range from benevolent (“Absolutely no frills about this bar, just a big, sweaty, beautiful dance party”) to very critical (“‘hell is real and I am in it’ — my first night in the barbary”), to just downright weird (“I love a place where both me and my parents can dance”). But if you are looking for a review that really sums up The Barbary, here it is: “If you don’t mind smelling like a mixture of piss, PBR, and sweat than this is the place for you.” 

 As an alternative dance club, The Barbary hosts regular “parties”, each with its own theme. Things can get pretty hot in here — between the booze, party drugs, and constant friction between its perspiring millennial clientele, The Barbary has obtained a reputation for debauchery and wasted youth. That reputation will soon become the stuff of legend, though — on March 9, 2016 Redden announced that he plans on closing and selling the Barbary.

 It’s March 2016 and we’re at the first Barbary staff meeting since Redden announced his plans for the club. It’s time to take shots and the staff seems more concerned about whether their whiskey or tequila order was heard than the fact that their favorite hangout has been set for closure. It’s not just Barbary employees here — there are hair stylists, record label owners, motorcycle shop mechanics and artists — and none seemed phased by the club’s closing, which, by many standards, is surprising.

Group shot of John Redden and The Barbary family./Megan Matuzak

 “Everyone be quiet!” Redden shouts as he raises his shot glass. He looks around the room and takes a mental picture of the moment where he was not only surrounded by his friends and employees, but the people who The Barbary will always be part of.

 “(The Barbary) provides me with the liberty to not only be myself, but pursue endeavors in life like performing with touring bands, running marathons & DJing,” Edward Gieda said. Gieda, an employee of The Barbary, has known Redden for 15 years. “Most importantly, the people who are my coworkers are by brothers and sisters. They’re family to me. I love them.”

 Some employees are more defensive of Redden, like Chris Doyle, a bartender at The Barbary for 9 years. 

 “As a boss, (Redden) has a design,” Doyle said. “It makes me laugh when people short change him on his actual handling of business. I don’t have time for any of those people.”

WILL THE REAL JOHN REDDEN PLEASE STAND UP?

 A conversation with John Redden, at least from an outsider’s perspective, is a lot like a game of cat and mouse… or rather cat and cat: One always guesses where the other is leading and pounces with a quick answer. There are also many distractions, like the almost constant ringing of the Facebook Messenger notification tone from his cell phone. But hey, he’s a busy guy. He also has an image to maintain.

/Megan Matuzak

 “I doubt if anyone really knows me,” Redden, 38, who has his DJ stage name “JHN RDN” tattooed across his knuckles, speculates from across the table in the Fishtown home he bought in 2004. A house, to be specific, with a front door serving as a testament to intricate woodworking magic and a late 70s Porsche, with the license plate “DNGR”, parked outside on Dauphin Street — There’s no doubt Redden’s house matches a lavish state of mind. According to past roommates and house guests, the Redden abode has gone from a “Trainspotting” squatter spot to a domesticated punk palace over the years. Both descriptions easily fit into the Redden persona.

 Redden moved around a bit as a child, but spent a considerable amount of time in Havertown, Pa., just west of Philadelphia. According to his twin sister, Danielle, John loved to spend time outdoors as a kid.

 “We had a strict upbringing and did not really start going out until we moved out of our mom’s house, even though we grew up a mile from the city,” Danielle said.

 The twins were close and not just because they share the same birthday. They attended Villanova University (where their mother worked as a secretary) together and Danielle recalls their college years as a collection of dancing in clubs and DJing together. 

 After freshmen year ended, John moved to a house at Columbia and Girard Avenues at the ripe age of 19. 

 “I convinced all of my friends to move out here,” Redden said. “All of my neighbors were telling me that I should buy a house because it was cheaper than rent[ing]. Back then they would give a mortgage to, like, anybody.” 

 A few years later, with only one class left to go at ‘Nova before graduating, he ditched his pursuit of a marketing degree because companies were already chomping at the bit to hire Redden. His psychology minor at school and intuitive business tactics were attractive to potential employers. Shortly after buying a house on Sepviva Street, he was working for a then-unknown company, Vitaminwater, promoting their brand.

GETTING THE PARTY STARTED

 As part of his job, Redden had to have 20 palettes of Vitaminwater around him at all times. To store his stockpile of sports drinks, he confidently purchased the warehouse on Frankford Avenue that is now houses Liberty Works, a shop that sells Triumph and Norton motorcycles. Brad Carney, a local artist and teacher who lived with Redden on Sepviva until 2011, felt like Redden struck the gold mine with his Vitaminwater gig.

 “If I could tell every artist that I know anything, I would tell them to find all of the marketing people they can and live with them,” Carney said, laughing. “[If you were living with Redden] in your 20s, you have access to promotional items, coffee, beer, cigarettes… I think someone even got a link to Aunt Annie’s Bunny Macaroni. As an artist not making a lot of money at 23, I had everything covered [via Redden and the other marketing roommates].

 Redden, Carney, bands Sideshow Prophets and The Old Souls, and the rest of the Sepviva Street dwellers used to hop on their motorcycles on Sundays to ride to Silk City for drinks. This was before Mark Bee owned the bar and David Cassidy (aka DJ DeeJay) threw knockout parties there. On one occasion, the gang discussed hosting a weekly party of their own at Silk City.

 About a month later, Redden, in what really kicked off his now-infamous party throwing career, announced he would be putting on a weekly party on Sunday nights called “Socket” with his sister. It was an instant success.

 This was also around the same time that Redden started to throw “Hands and Knees”, a new dance party at The M Room on Friday nights. According to Redden, these parties, which went on to become one of the most popular monthly events at The Barbary, were the only reason people went to the The M Room. 

 With the success of “Socket” and “Hands and Knees”, Redden began looking for a proper venue to bring both events — and all of their sweaty, lustful patrons — under one roof. The Barbary, which Redden stressed “No-o-o-o one went to” at the time, was up for sale

A BARBARY IS BORN

  Purchased by Redden in 2007 for $750,000, The Barbary was once a bar in need of a Kardasian-level face lift. Before Redden came into the picture, the venue hosted a few crusty punk shows here and there, but that was about it. By all accounts, the place was a dump, so when Redden told his roommates, friends and DJ cohorts about his purchase, they were shocked. He suddenly quit his job at Vitaminwater and threw all his time and effort into this new venture.

 “I was one of the first marketing people [Vitaminwater] hired,” Redden said. “I did that for a while, it was a really, really great job. They were being bought out by Coca Cola, which was going to change everything and I decided I wanted to do something different.”

/Megan Matuzak

 Ian Saint Laurent, a 14-year friend of Redden’s and DJ, remembers when Redden broke the news to him. “He had called me one day shortly after leaving his marketing job at Vitaminwater out of the blue,” Saint Laurent said, “and told me, ‘I know what I’m gonna do — I’m gonna buy a club.’” 

 “The word rippled through the DJ scene, especially to us who were promoting parties that were displaced [following the closure of the old Silk City],” Edward Gieda said. “I was DJing and promoting a mod/60s event called “Immediate” at The M-Room [at the time], but we quickly moved shop over to The Barbary.”

 Redden, with a tireless urge to challenge himself, locked down the spot on Frankford Avenue under United Pirates, LLC. Within half a year of purchase, Redden opened his new alternative music dance club in Fishtown. The venue burst into a neighborhood that was, at the time, the textbook definition of “off the beaten path.” 

 This was before the SugarHouse redeveloped the Delaware waterfront and well before the Fillmore opened. There was no Frankford Hall, Barcade or food trucks at the nearby intersection of Frankford and Girard — Johnny Brenda’s was just about the only neighborhood destination at the time. “I like for people to have to work to get there, not be convenient,” Redden said with a chuckle.

 But Redden made The Barbary a destination and soon the club’s roster of DJs, events and misfit party-goers began to grow. Gieda’s party, “Immediate”, merged with “The Turnaround” to create one large 60s/mod party called “Turnaround vs. The Media.” “White Tee’s White Belts,” a classic Hip-Hop warehouse party ran by Emil Nassar and Bo Blizzard came on as “The Bounce.” Redden then asked his friends Hollie Sue and Jonas Oesterle to bring their obscure 50s/60s house dance party, “Bouffant Bangout,” to The Barbary. 

 Redden was building a calendar that simply couldn’t fail due to the fact that it was so diverse. And the parties were legendary — two floors packed to the brim with rad kids dancing to cool music. Whether you are diving into nostalgia with 90s throwback party, “Space Jams”, feeding your emo appetite with “Through Being Cool” or just want to let loose on a Monday with “Tigerbeats”, there were plenty of avenues for party goers to have a night you could never forget (not completely anyway).  

 But just as Rome fell and as the late, great Prince sang so elegantly in “Sometimes It Snows In April”: “…all good things, they say, will never last…”

“SHIRTS ARE OFF!”

  Back at the March staff party, after the shot glasses are collected it’s time for a group picture — a feat accomplished before, but a feat nonetheless. Redden organizes the large group, moving people around and giving orders. 

 After a few pictures are taken (and some encouragement) Redden rips his shirt off. It’s one of his trademark moves. Between a few quick snaps, Redden’s dynamic takes form. “Shirts are off!” a few say through laughs. A few others join him while everyone else screams and throws their arms up into the air.

“Shirts are off!”/Megan Matuzak

 If you ever have a chance to talk business with Rdden and  chat specifically about The Barbary, the “off the beaten path” mantra will undoubtedly get massaged into the conversation. It’s not only the selling point and the brand of The Barbary, but the reliable indicator of Redden’s character. 

 “I always just trust my instincts, I just go for it immediately… like immediately,” Redden said.

 Judging from the overwhelming success The Barbary has had, it’s no surprise that “the bug” bit him again, as Redden puts it, as he dove deeper into entrepreneurship. In 2014, Redden signed an agreement to rent 108 E. Girard Ave. Today, this storefront is home to Danger Salon — a unisex hair salon that harnesses “a decadent aesthetic referencing classic punk & rock enterprises.” Again, Redden was intentionally throwing himself head first into a venture he knew next to nothing about. This, yet again, surprised no one.

 Danger Salon’s specialty is hair color, which is a lazy generalization if you follow their Instagram account. Apart from the rainbow headed clients who leave the establishment, there is also no boundaries to the nail work that happens there. The stylist are unassumingly eccentric and “cool” and the decor is effortlessly gothic, topped with a floor-to-ceiling collage of 70s superstars like Bowie and The Ramones. It’s Redden’s second successful destination point and is affectionately nicknamed “The Barbary Salon.”

Redden sits in one of the salon chairs at Danger Salon./Megan Matuzak

 “The thing that is very similar between Barbary and Danger is that we are all kind of his misfits,” Sonja Century, Danger stylist, manager and Redden’s fiancee, said. “Everyone who works at The Barbary is insanely amazing, [and] have their own side projects. Here we are the misfits of the hair industry.” 

 Much like the Barbary, Danger brings artists of all walks of life together and Redden’s encouragement has helped the employees of the salon reach their artistic goals, especially Century. “I look up to him like he’s my senpai,” she laughs from the counter in the mixing station she’s perched on.

 Everyone who works there is part of a team and uses it as a means to accomplish their artistic goals,” Redden said “All said and done, if anybody asks if the salon was a success, it is, but the main reason would be because I met [Sonja].”

  Just as Redden created opportunities for local stylists at Danger Salon, he has also continued to help cultivate a new generation of DJs at The Barbary. While many of Redden’s classic parties, like “Hands and Knees”, have graced The Barbary from the beginning, the last big, new party to come out of the club is “Space James”, a 90s dance party fronted by Chris Coulton and Craig Almquist. 90s parties are typically a bro magnet, but surprisingly it has still held footing with the alternative crowdsince the party kicked off in 2014.

  “The idea of Space Jams was pitched as an ‘experience,’” Coulton said. “John is a marketer, just like I am. So we both understand each other when we talk about branding of parties and treat nightlife events like a business. (The Barbary is) dark enough to feel gritty… visuals on the screen two fog machines, large disco ball. It’s the place you went for that flavor, and you always knew you were getting something special.”

  Bananas and basketballs hang from the ceiling and inflatable palm trees accent the DJ booth. Nelly, LL Cool J, TLC and R. Kelly boom out of the system and the patrons are dressed like 1996 or 1999 came back with a vengeance. You can hit up the photobooth or go upstairs for a change in scenery DJ-wise. Additionally “Space Jams Overtime”, a smaller version of the party, takes over the upstairs during Hands & Knees.

  “If it’s going to be a genre that is more accessible, as long as you make it something ridiculous and unique, I am all for it. That is pretty much the angle [Coulton and Almquist] went for,” Redden says. “It was something that they wanted to do that wasn’t being done in Philadelphia the way they were doing it. That’s really all it takes. There are very, very, very few promoters, DJs, whatever, that do it in that way and take things that seriously.”

THROUGH BEING COOL

 Even as both of his businesses boom, Redden has faced his share of hurdles as well. Starting in October 2014, a series of blows were handed down to The Barbary from License and Inspections (L&I). The club’s second floor, called The Barbarella, had to close as a result of it. Due to the amount of people who could (and did) occupy that space, the fire codes just weren’t up to snuff. For all intents and purposes, it was very dangerous.

  But on August 3, 2015, all of the red tape and uncertainty was put away and the second floor was reopened. “We never gave up, we never lost hope. We refused to let anyone else dictate how The Barbary story will unfold,” Redden wrote in a Facebook post accompanied by a wide grinning picture of himself holding up Barbary’s forms and “in tears”, he adds.

 The Barbary is also an infamously selective place to party and dance until you black out. For example, if DJs spot less-than-alternative folks trying to dominate the dance floor, they will spin music that they know mainstreamers (bros, squares, etc.) won’t like. 

 “That’s one of those things: For venues in an area that isn’t quite ‘the spot’, once it becomes a real hot spot, it’s just inevitable that venues have to get all their cobwebs sorted, so to speak,” Redden admits.

 Upon the announcement that The Barbary was closing there was a bit of a panic among party goers. The L&I incident, although Redden would never admit it, was the tip of the iceberg for closing. But the reality of the situation is that Fishtown is changing again and Redden’s “off the beaten path” brand can not survive that change. Call it “broverflow”, or call it how it is — Fishtown just isn’t as cool or edgy as it used to.

 “I know that in Philadelphia… there aren’t any [venues, parties, or events] that I know of that truly ended while they were on top. That was always really, really important for me. And it’s important for The Barbary and what it is,” Redden said. “I want people to remember it as something that was really important to them and it’s very tricky where if you hold on for too long, you can really dilute that.”

 As of the time that this article went to print, Redden says there are about 6 months left to party before The Barbary’s doors close for good. But what of Redden — What’s next for Fishtown’s favorite bad-boy entrepreneur? In classic fashion, Redden has left things open-ended to an extent. “The next thing is right around the corner,” Redden hinted with a smile.

 As that March meeting officially concluded, a few Barbary employees lit their cigarettes as they buddied up to head over to North Bowl for a staff party Redden was throwing for them. While some walked toward Richmond Street to “cut through”, others headed to their bikes. Redden was the last to leave. He hopped on his bike, revved the engine and looked back to wave. And then he was gone.