Misjudging a Diva: The Brown M&Ms Tripwire
I’ve never been a fan of hard-rock bands, especially badly behaved hard-rock bands. Destructive acts of egotistical entitlement and outrageous obnoxiousness set my teeth on edge.
Van Halen was one of the bands I was quick to loathe. Van Halen were known for completely destroying hotel rooms and backstage areas. In the liner notes of their Van Halen II album, the band thanks the Sheraton hotel in Madison, Wisconsin and “all the hall managers who waded through the rubble of Van Halenized backstages around the world.”
Destruction of the seventh floor of the Sheraton happened before the band became famous. Apparently, Van Halen and Montrose were both opening for Journey. The stage in Wisconsin was too small to hold the equipment of all three bands. When Journey chose Montrose to open, Van Halen had a tantrum. They: smashed hotel room mirrors; used lamps as drumsticks; tore bathroom doors off hinges; had fights with fire extinguishers, and threw furniture and televisions out the windows. Lead singer David Lee Roth brags, in his autobiography, that they weren’t the only hard-rock band to toss televisions, but they were the only ones to plug in enough extension cords so that the televisions could stay on all the way to the ground.
I feel intense anger even typing that last paragraph. Fortunately, the trashing of hotel rooms by celebrities doesn’t happen as much anymore (Charlie Sheen being a notable exception). Nevertheless, I can’t understand why it was ever tolerated.
Given my ‘no tolerance’ position, it will come as no surprise that I have long been disgusted by Article 126 of Van Halen’s very lengthy performance contract. Article 126 reads: “There will be no brown M&Ms in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.”
The Wisdom of the Brown M&Ms
I still think Van Halen were obnoxious jerks, whose shows should have been boycotted by everyone. However, in the case of the brown M&Ms, those obnoxious jerks were brilliant and I was wrong.
It turns out that Van Halen put on enormous stage productions; shows far larger and more complex than any other rock bands of their time. Most hard-rock bands travelled with three eighteen-wheelers full of equipment. Van Halen required nine.
Because the band was so popular, and dashing from show to show, they had to rely on stagehands at the venues to ensure that stages were set exactly as demanded in the contract rider. Failure to do so could easily result in injury or death of a band member or someone in the audience.
As explained in Chip Heath’s and Dan Heath’s wonderful book, Decisive, the brown M&Ms served as a ‘tripwire’ for the band. If Article 126 hadn’t been read, who knew what else might have been missed? The evidence of even a single brown M&M was a signal that every requirement of the contract rider would need to be checked, line by line.
Tripwires Have Value, Even for Non-Divas
The term ‘tripwire’ (or trip wire) comes from the military. A tripwire is a wire stretched low above the ground that activates an explosive device when someone trips over it. A tripwire, in our case, serves the similar function of getting us to pay attention, but without the violent, life-altering, response if we don’t.
You can think of a tripwire as a technique you use to take your mind off autopilot. It’s a reminder to make or review a decision, or to take an action. A simple example of a tripwire is the habit of setting an alarm during lunch hour at work so you can go for a walk, rather than continue to chat with friends.
Tripwires are useful in our lives and we have Van Halen to thank (grudgingly) for a fascinating, WOW Note worthy example of their power.
Comments about Van Halen, divas, tripwires or M&Ms are welcome.