Legend holds that Van Halen once demanded that their dressing room furnishings include a bowl of M&Ms with the brown ones removed. I’ve heard and told this story for years; rock-star wannabes hand it around regularly, in the paradoxical spirits of both Spinal-Tap-esque haughtiness gone too far and “some day that’ll be me.”
In yet another sign that the world is far less dramatic than urban legend and chain emails would have us believe, this story has been—well, not debunked, exactly, but clarified. I first read the details in a review of the Checklist Manifesto. Now, we have corroboration in The Greatest Music Stories Never Told: 100 Tales from Music History to Astonish, Bewilder, and Stupefy, by Rick Beyer.
It's surely a sign of either nascent wisdom or impending dementia that I find the truth more notable than the fiction. The band did indeed demand the bowl of brownless M&Ms— but it was not a sign of excess but rather of (gasp!) efficiency and meticulous attention to safety.
Van Halen’s shows during the 1980s were monstrous affairs for the time: Catwalks and scaffolding and generators and tractor-trailers full of gear, all to be assembled and disassembled frequently and quickly.
To address all of the potential hazards and liabilities, the contract grew to 53 pages. On a tight schedule, how could they be sure that the venue management had read and understood the safety requirements? Answer: They buried the M&Ms request on page 40. Then, when they arrived, a quick glance into the dressing room-- and the absence of M&Ms or the presence of brown ones-- was a sign that the contract had not been read carefully. Everything ground to a halt, and the operations were reviewed against the contract, point by point.
Beyer’s book is a great summer read for those of us inclined to this sort of subject matter. And it’s not all rock and roll, either: He manages to include neat little factoids, anecdotes, and two-page vignettes on topics ranging from Emperor Nero to Post-Its. Other favorite entries:
- What the song “New York, New York” owes to Robert DeNiro
- The story of “The City of New Orleans”
- The forehead-slapping origins of karaoke
- How “Over the Rainbow” was almost cut from the Wizard of Oz
- What “La Cucaracha” has to offer on the subject of substance abuse
But don't look for a clear-headed explanation for any event in the life of Jim Morrison. That dude was just messed up.