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He's privy to the stars' dirty laundry - because he washes it
ONE afternoon in November, Hans-Jürgen Topf walked through the backstage area of the Mercedes-Benz Arena, where dozens of crew members were unloading the equipment for the final stop of U2's "Experience + Innocence" tour.
After enthusiastically greeting and hugging several of the workers, Mr Topf, 62, came to a sweltering room filled with humming washing machines and dryers.
"This is my life," he said. "The artists live their life, and I live my laundry life."
The world's top specialist for tour laundry, Mr Topf has travelled with many of the world's biggest music acts, including Madonna, Pink and Beyoncé.
As tours have become bigger and more professionalised, their logistics have become increasingly daunting. The U2 tour, which lasted about seven months and spanned two continents, included roughly 150 people, all of whom needed food, housing and clean clothes.
That's where "der Topf", as he likes to call himself, comes in. His company, Rock 'n' Roll Laundry, provides equipment and laundry staff for touring productions.
Although Mr Topf didn't join the U2 tour because of a back injury, he was in Berlin to pick up machines he had rented to the crew. (He mostly stays within Germany these days, because of his back, but previous tours have taken him as far as South America and Australia.)
"My reputation precedes me," Mr Topf said, adding that, in the music world, "nobody tackled the subject of laundry, nobody wanted to learn it, until I developed a system for it."
"He is a pioneer," Jake Berry, the tour's production director, said. Twenty years ago, Mr Berry remembered, most tour laundry had to be done quickly during tour stops at a local laundromat. He said the clothes would come back wet, or, "you'd find a girl's thong in there."
In the early 2000s, Mr Berry said, a "little man" - Mr Topf - began appearing outside German venues with a van, offering to pick up, wash and return the production's clothes. Mr Berry said that the items were returned "pristine and folded". Soon after that, he invited Mr Topf to join him on tour. "It's very hard to find someone who is passionate about laundry," Mr Berry added. "He is passionate."
A few weeks after the U2 concert, Mr Topf, who has a gray beard and wears metal-rimmed glasses, was in the basement at the Max-Schmeling-Halle, another venue in Berlin, helping his son Achim, 31, do laundry for Die Fantastischen Vier, a popular German rap act.
The biggest challenge of doing tour laundry, Mr Topf explained, was the volume, which can vary unpredictably, and the need to work without fixed facilities. He often had to work outside or wherever he could find running water, he said, including, at one point, in empty holding cells intended for disorderly fans in a South African stadium.
"I know every disabled bathroom in every German football stadium," he said.
When he is on tour, Mr Topf begins almost every day by washing the performers' clothes, which usually have to be air-dried with a small fan. The most soiled garments he ever handled, he said, were coveralls worn by the metal band Slipknot that had been sprayed with beer, cream and fake blood, and left in garbage bags for three days.
The most common stains on performers' clothes, he said, were sweat and aluminium dust from truck ramps carried onstage by equipment-case wheels. The dust gets on the clothes when performers throw themselves on their knees or roll around onstage. The best solution, he said, was for crew members to put down mats: "It's better for the pants."
Washing artists' clothing involves high stakes. Mr Topf recalled one incident, in which Joe Cocker grew furious after a discoloured line appeared in pants that Mr Topf had washed. "I haven't forgotten that my whole life," he said.
He also once shrank a golden pair of pants that belonged to David Hasselhoff, and a mistake by a dry cleaner Mr Topf had hired once ruined a US$3,000 vest belonging to Janet Jackson, he said. But he is quick to point out that mishaps are rare: "Der Topf is mega-reliable."
When on tour, he often spends three to four hours every afternoon ironing the performers' clothing, his least favourite part of the job, while simultaneously washing the crew's garments. On some tours, he spends up to 20 hours a day doing laundry, he said. After a show, the machines go into specially built rolling cases, so they can be loaded onto trucks and brought to the next location.
Mr Topf pointed out that the touring business has become much more professional and business-oriented since he began. He used to find drugs in the clothes all the time, he said, adding, "These days, I'm more likely to find an herbal tea bag."
Joe Pomponio, a stage manager for numerous festivals in Europe who has worked frequently with Mr Topf, said that, for many acts that have spent years on the road, comforts like professionally done laundry have become vital.
He added that he did not know anybody who offered services comparable to Mr Topf's, and that Rock 'n' Roll Laundry was a fixture on the European festival circuit. "Der Topf is everywhere," he noted. NYTIMES