I first met Joe Long in 1991 in a Turkish bath in East Berlin. He was on tour and playing tambourine for Iggy Pop. I saved his life that night, he repaid the favor eight years ago by giving me a job.
This is the story of how we met.
It was July evening when, I am in East Berlin for my first station assignment as an operative for the CIA. That’s my real job. My cover is I am a DJ for a radio station operated by a German national. It’s the first commercial, non-state sponsored radio station in Germany and part of a program aimed at bringing democratic ideals to the former Soviet backed East Germany. In the morning I’m the promotions guy, from noon to four I’m the midday jock spinning tunes and espousing the virtues of democracy. Three to four nights a week you could find me at any number of concerts or clubs either DJing or doing stage announcements and introducing bands at concerts sponsored by the radio station. In between I’m reporting back to my superiors and making contacts. (I really can’t tell you anymore, most of what I did is still classified and lives would be put in danger. Plus it’s just rude to show-off because I was really awesome there.)
The radio station brought Iggy Pop to East Berlin thanks to a previous relationship I had with Iggy’s that dated back to the 70s. (He and my mother had a short fling during a period of strife in my parents’ marriage. They remain friends to this day.) Iggy was excited to help our fledgling cause with a show at the famous GrockenStrauss Haus.
Iggy and the band came into Berlin the day before to play a private acoustic show for US service members and their families in the afternoon. After the show at the Clayalle we gathered for a fancy dinner at the Ritz Carlton and then went to a show at one of the small clubs near the Brandenburg Gate. We were just beginning the pre-dinner drinking portion of the evening when Iggy first told me about his tambourine master
“Teddy, I got a guy I want to meet.” He looked around the bar. “My tambourine player, Joe, is from your neck to world and I thought it would be fun to get the two of you together.” He strained to find Joe. “Guess he’s not here right now.”
After dinner we went to the club and bore witness to one of the greatest moments in music history.
The show ended at 12:30, but Iggy wasn’t ready to shut it down. As we walked around the corner from the club he spotted a Turkish bath house and insisted we all join him for some early morning fun.
After soaking in the pools and getting the best massage of my life I caught back up with Iggy and his band in the steam room.
“Teddy, I want to meet the greatest tambourine man in the world.” He beckoned Joe to join us from the other side of the steam room. “You two share something in common.”
Joe walked over and we shook hands. “What’s that Jim?” I asked him.
“You both hale from the fine state of Colorado.”
“No shit?” I looked at Joe. “Where you from?”
“Denver.” I could tell Joe was not happy to be put on the spot and to have his relaxation interrupted. In my experience tambourine players are never happy to be in the spotlight or to be interrupted while they are relaxing, but those are stories for another day.
“What high school?”
“TJ” I could tell Joe didn’t want to talk much, he was carrying a bundle of eucalyptus branches and hit himself on the chest and back as part of the steam room treatment..
“How’d you end with with this guy.” I pointed at Iggy.
“I found him in a bar on Colfax playing drums for a ratty punk band that was ripping off my songs.” Iggy didn’t give Joe a chance to answer “Good drummer even better tambourine player, his timing was impeccable and I knew I just had to have him.”
I looked over at Joe who shrugged.
Iggy continued ”That was three months ago. He’s done wonders to band’s groove. The man is a true artist.”
“My true love is the tambourine.” Joe got the wistful look in his eyes.
“Lookout, he’s starting up.” Iggy moved up a seat.
“It’s simple, and refined and yet so powerful.” Joe closed his eyes and started to sway to a tune only he could hear. “The tambourine allows me to bath in the music. It surrounds and penetrates me; it binds me to the band and us to the music.”
“Dude, you sound like Yoda.” I looked over at Iggy and smiled.
“He is a Jedi master with a tambourine rather than a lightsaber.” Iggy got up. “I’m cooked. Let’s get out of here and get some breakfast then some sleep.”
We decided to walk back to the Ritz. It was only four blocks.
“Ask him what’s in his bag.” Iggy nudged me and with his thumb pointed back to Joe who was carrying a mid size back pack across one shoulder. “He’s never without them.”
I slowed my walk to let Joe catch up to me as Iggy walked ahead. “I guess you can take a tambourine anywhere. Almost as good as a harmonica.”
“The harp is good and all, but I just feel like I can’t immerse myself in the music if I don’t have my arms free.” He swung the pack around and opened the middle zipper and handed me a 10” tambourine then opened the larger pocket and pulled out a 14” model. He pulled the pack onto both shoulders then stared to play and kind of dance down the sidewalk. On cue other members of the band started clapping and singing, not words but melodies. Iggy joined in and before I knew it we had a 2:30 AM parade around the Bradenburg gate; Iggy singing Passenger, his backing band singing their parts, with me and Joe on tambourines. A couple laps around the Brandenburg gate then down the Platz to the hotel. Joe and Iggy in the lead, I was following with the band and the radio staff trailing in song. It was a moment for the ages, I wish my wife had been there but she had to leave early because of work the next morning.
Joe got caught up in the moment and veered off from Iggy, playing with more energy than before. He stepped off the sidewalk and into the road mid-block, completely unaware of his surroundings. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a trash truck coming and realized the impeding tragedy. Joe was a Whirling Dervish, immersed in his music and in the dark under an unlit streetlamp he was invisible to the truck. I ran at Joe, yelling at him to get out of the road. He couldn’t hear me whirling faster as I ran to him. I had only one choice and as long as Joe stayed in place my plan would work. Luckily the trash truck was the only vehicle in the street. I leapt from the curb, grabbed Joe at the waist and felt the trash truck slam against my left foot and turned over so Joe would land on top of me. Instead his energy kept us kept us upright, I’m not sure how, and we never hit the ground. Joe whirled to a stop and I tried to stand, instead the pain told me otherwise as I looked down at my left foot now pointing at the 9 o’clock position. Joe looked down at my foot, violently threw up and passed out. The trash truck never stopped.
I had saved Joe Long’s life.
Two band members grabbed Joe under the arms to drag him to the sidewalk while I hopped on my good leg to a bench. Joe woke up after a couple of minutes, got to his feet and joined me on the bench. He threw up again when he looked at my foot pointing at him. After a few minutes we gathered ourselves up for the walk back to the hotel. Two co-workers carried me while Iggy’s bassist held my leg. Iggy did run ahead and brought some help in the form of the doorman and a luggage cart that I rode the last block-and-a-half to the hotel. An ambulance ride, several hours in the ER, a temporary splint, a shower, a quick nap, a lecture from my wife, and I was on stage at GrockenStrauss Haus in a wheelchair with my leg propped up and a beer in my hand. Iggy was awesome.
I said goodbye to Iggy the next day from my hospital bed as they were prepping me for surgery. Joe came with him to say thank you. He also gave me one of his favorite tambourines. I was speechless until Iggy returned to the room.
“He’s got a whole big road box full of the things. He breaks at least two a week.” Iggy winked and I could hear him laughing all the way down the hall.
I would see Joe at Iggy shows for the next couple of years both in Europe and in the states. We would hug back stage and drink beers together after the show. In 1995, while working in Denver I saw Joe in the crowd instead of on stage. He had left Iggy three months earlier to finish his degree. He told me of his grand plans to dominate the employee benefits world. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.
I didn’t see Joe again until 2008. I was marketing for a commercial restoration company and meeting with Brian Henry and Steve Bateski at the Hays office; espousing to them the virtues of catastrophe planning for their clients. I ran into Joe in the office lobby that day as I was leaving my meeting. We hugged and promised to get together for lunch. I never did get any work out from them, but several months later when Joe heard I needed a job he called and offered me the opportunity to join Hays. I have to say it was one of the best things I have ever done.
I will tell you the job offer came with one stipulation, I was never to tell anyone at Hays the story of Joe’s tambourine prowess. I never really understood why because, as you may know, I believe in tooting your horn. If you’re good at something tell the world about. But I respected Joe’s decision. You see the tambourine is a powerful instrument and no-one can fully appreciate it until they’ve held one in their hands and succumbed to its awesomeness.
Joe Long knows.