Saturday, January 09, 2010

"A bowl of M&M's . . . with all brown ones removed"

I had heard the stories. Perhaps you did, too.

Van Halen included a notorious clause in all of its contracts: Concert promoters had to provide a bowl of M&M's backstage, but every single brown candy had to be removed. I had heard that. I hadn't heard that if the band found any brown candies the show would be forfeit and the band was to be paid anyway.

But, it turns out, the contract was, indeed, "that bad"!

Indeed, the "no brown candies" clause was toward the end of an astonishingly detailed 40- or 50-page contract. (Here is a copy of the page with the M&M's clause: page 9 in an 11-page rider to the main contract.)

No question, the clause existed. But why? It's part of the "spoiled brat" culture of celebrity, isn't it?

I was surprised this morning to find a different suggestion in The last word article at the back of this week's The Week magazine--a condensed portion of a new book by surgeon Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto:
Listening to the radio one day, I heard the story behind rocker David Lee Roth’s notorious insistence that Van Halen’s contracts with concert promoters contain a clause specifying that a bowl of M&M’s has to be provided backstage, but with every single brown candy removed. . . . At least once, Van Halen actually followed through, peremptorily canceling a show in Colorado when Roth found some brown M&M’s in his dressing room.

This turned out to be, however, not another example of the insane demands of power-mad celebrities but of an ingenious ruse.

As Roth explained in his memoir, Crazy From the Heat, “Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine 18-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors—whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through. The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function.”

So just as a little test, buried somewhere in the middle of the rider, would be Article 126, the no-brown-M&M’s clause.

“When I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl,” he wrote, “well, we’d line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem.”

The mistakes could be life-threatening, the radio story pointed out. In Colorado, the band found that the local promoters had failed to read the weight requirements and that the staging would have fallen through the arena floor.
Sounds reasonable.

Not sure why I decided to dig deeper, but as I read up on this story I found enough inconsistencies that, though I think the story makes a worthy object lesson as told, I don't think it's "the truth." It's part urban legend.

First, if Roth is to be believed, the band did not immediately cancel its engagement. And it's not that the staging "would have" fallen through the arena floor, but, according to Roth, it actually did fall through:
The folks in Pueblo, Colorado, at the university, took the contract rather kinda casual. They had one of these new rubberized bouncy basketball floorings in their arena. They hadn’t read the contract, and weren’t sure, really, about the weight of this production; this thing weighed like the business end of a 747.

I came backstage. I found some brown M&M’s, I went into full Shakespearean “What is this before me?” . . . you know, with the skull in one hand . . . and promptly trashed the dressing room. Dumped the buffet, kicked a hole in the door, twelve thousand dollars’ worth of fun.

The staging sank through their floor. They didn’t bother to look at the weight requirements or anything, and this sank through their new flooring and did eighty thousand dollars’ worth of damage to the arena floor. The whole thing had to be replaced. It came out in the press that I discovered brown M&M’s and did eighty-five thousand dollars’ worth of damage to the backstage area.

Well, who am I to get in the way of a good rumor?
But there's at least one more problem with the story--at least as I read it in light of the actual contract rider as presented. The problem: At least according to the one copy of the contract that we can see, the M&M's didn't have to be provided until one hour before the show--long, long after equipment would have been off-loaded from the trucks and set up on the stage. Moreover--and this, I think, too, speaks against the idea that the M&M's were some kind of unique "test": There were plenty of other minute details in the contract, any one of which could have served as a "test" of the producers' attention to detail.

No. In the end, I think the brown M&M's clause was the result, simply, of one of the band member's personal preference. And as long as he could ask for it, he might as well get it.

Again: I like the parable. I think Gawande's larger message is still valid. It's just too bad that this particular story--my impression--cannot possibly be true as told.
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