Back in the early 80s, when Van Halen was the biggest rock band on earth, their contract with performance venues included the requirement there couldn’t be any brown M&Ms backstage. If brown M&Ms were found, the venue forfeited its cut of the gate. Well, come on, right? That’s ridiculous! What a preposterous example of rock star ego and excess. David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen; what a couple of puffed-up dolts.
Except maybe not. In a recent interview, David Lee Roth explained why Van Halen contracts included that rider.
In case you don’t want to watch the whole five minute video, here’s a synopsis: Van Halen concerts back then featured a spectacular light show; ground-breaking, really. David Lee Roth, their lead singer, helped design it, and used lighting instruments bigger and more powerful than anyone else was using back then. The band carefully budgeted their tour around what they thought were realistic projections about how much time it would take to load-in. And when negotiating contracts with the venues, they included page after page of specific details about their technical requirements. A lot of venues didn’t have, off hand, the technical capacity to accommodate the show. So the venue would need to bring in extra generators, or plan for extra crew, or make whatever other arrangements they needed to properly prepare for the band.
So Roth included the brown M&M rider in the contract, as a quick check to see that the venue had actually read the whole thing through. He knew that if he showed up, and found brown M&Ms backstage, it meant venue management hadn’t read the technical specifications, and that meant that load-in time would be longer than anticipated, that the crew costs were likely to go up, probably paying overtime. All this affected Van Halen’s bottom line. So he’d trash the dressing room, as a warning, before calling Van Halen’s attorneys.
Now, the brown M&M thing became part of the Van Halen narrative, symptomatic of rock star hubris and arrogance and ego. This wasn’t a bad thing for Van Halen’s image–their fan base liked the band, in part, because of the swagger they projected. But actually, the M&M rider served a far more sensible purpose. Van Halen was, after all, not just a rock band, but a commercial enterprise: Van Halen Inc.. If load-in took twice as long as it needed to because of venue mismanagement, that cut into the band’s bottom line. And I imagine there were also safety considerations.
I love the brown M&M story, though, because it reminds me not to draw immediate or facile conclusions. We do that all the time; hear part of a story–especially a story that feeds our own prejudices and pre-conceptions–and react with what may be misplaced outrage.
I told my son the brown M&M story, and he reminded me of the McDonald’s coffee story. In 1994, a woman named Stella Liebeck spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee on herself, was badly burned, and sued. It’s a famous case–usually used to suggest how foolishly litigious our society has become, and how over-the-top juries can get with their judgments. It’s used all the time by politicians arguing for tort reform; the very definition of a frivolous lawsuit. But the more you study the case, the more convinced you become that the jury verdict in that trial was completely justified. There’s a terrific documentary, Hot Coffee, on the Liebeck case, and on the whole question of tort reform. Our initial response–she sued over a cup of coffee, outrageous!–turns out, on further examination, to be overly hasty.
A recent internet meme, again, relies on our knee-jerk judgment for its effectiveness. I couldn’t find the actual graphic, but it shows Jason Collins, the basketball player, who recently came out as gay, and Chris Kyle, a recently deceased Navy SEAL, who was the most effective sniper in US military history. The meme compares the two men, and points out that President Obama called Collins to congratulate him on coming out, but has not mentioned Kyle in any of his speeches, including the State of the Union. This is supposed to demonstrate the President’s supposedly unpatriotic priorities–he privileges a gay basketball player over honoring a genuine American hero.
But it’s a false analogy. It’s not like there was some moment where the President had to choose between which of the men he would honor (“you know, heck with the sniper guy, let’s talk about the basketball player instead”). Of course, the very meme hints at homophobia. But there’s also a very good reason not to mention Chris Kyle in the State of the Union–he was murdered by a fellow soldier, Eddie Routh, who was suffering from PTSD and who Kyle had befriended. I think it’s likely that the President weighed the value of honoring Kyle against the very real pain such an honor would cause the Routh family, and chose sensitivity over expediency.
Brown M&M stories abound in the world of politics anyway. We’re constantly hearing stories about 400 dollar wrenches or 600 dollar ashtrays, and they all speak to massive government waste and fraud and mismanagement. They’re all brown M&Ms. We’re constantly reading stories from the Heritage Foundation or Cato Institute specifying inefficient government spending, with headlines like: Top Ten Examples of Government Waste, or Twenty Five Wasteful Government Programs. When you dig deeper, though, it’s often the case that the programs are actually effective. The expensive ashtray is specifically designed to be used on submarines, for example, or the expensive wrench has to have design features enabling it to be used on certain aircraft.
Remember the brown M&Ms. The story may be more complicated than you originally thought.