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.

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  1. Thanks for a fascinating post, Karen. It was filled with tons of stuff that I didn’t know and/or had never thought about before. I am now curious to learn more. I will start by keeping a look out for the Heath Brothers’ book. Thanks again for sharing.

  2. Wow note indeed! Now that you have explained the whole tripwire thing with the brown M&Ms it does make sense. It was really smart of Van Halen to include that in their contract for those reasons. My issue is with all of the other diva requirements of other bands and performers. I did some research as well just now. Did you know Sir Paul McCartney demands 20 dozen clean towels outside of the production office? That’s 240 towels! Kanye West requires a barber chair in his dressing room, Carmex Lip Balm, and shower shoes and a plethora of alcohol. Some of the performers I checked out had reasonable demands for example Adele requires 1 Electric kettle for BOILING water and 6 Large mugs for tea. All mugs should be new, washed and dried. Now that I can get behind! Go Adele! LOL

    This was an extremely interesting post-Karen, I guess the takeaway here could be that before we judge what may seem like outlandish requests we should look at the reason behind such a request. If it is just a spoiled diva request it is one thing but if there is a meaning behind it as in the case of the brown M&Ms it is another thing entirely. Like the tripwire you mentioned this could apply to our lives as well when it comes to requests from friends or family…is there meaning behind what is being asked of us or is it just something they are too lazy to do for themselves?

  3. The research you did is really interesting, Susan. I wonder how many of the 240 towels Sir Paul McCartney actually uses? A barber chair for Kanye? I wonder what that’s about – a clean shave before every performance? I’m assuming that the barber comes with the barber chair.
    Go Adele indeed! I love that story and now I love her even more. Her ability to keep her feet planted firmly on terra firma is so impressive. I hope she can hang on to that through her career. Somehow I suspect she will be one of the few who can.
    Thanks for your comment. And for your additional research.

    1. You’re welcome. 🙂 It was reading your post that inspired me to do the research to find out the backstage demands of some of my favorite artists and then I went looking for the bizarre requests. Thank you for posting such thoroughly researched and interesting topics. I too, really love Adele, her music is deep and meaningful and now her requirement for a kettle and large mugs for tea just endears her more to me as well. I think you are right, she will be one of the few to stay “real” on and off the stage. I have seen interviews with her and in each one, she was real, honest and forthcoming with faults and all.

  4. Hi Karen, this was a really interesting post! I worked for many years at a performing arts hall and dealt with bands such as Van Halen – nothing they did (including their “music”) impressed me. I’m not surprised they didn’t want brown M&Ms backstage; had it not been that, no doubt it would have been something else. David Copperfield insisted on having his asparagus cooked PRECISELY 3 1/4 minutes and became very upset if it wasn’t exactly as he wanted. I came to believe however, that most of the performers were superstitious; rather like baseball players with their beards, but found also that many of them truly were, as Susan said, divas, and working with them, for the stage manager and the rest of the staff, was challenging indeed.

  5. I would have found it really difficult to stay calm in the circumstances you mention. At the same time, it must have been fascinating to see the idiosyncrasies of people. The world full of wackos Kristofferson sings about!

    I do think, though, that the brown M&Ms was brilliant as a tripwire. It doesn’t redeem Van Halen for me, but I was gratified to know that there was a real reason, and a good reason, for that particular contract rider.

    Thanks for your comment, Anna.

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