Assumptions and Brown M&Ms

david-lee-rothI remember decades ago hearing about Van Halen’s singer David Lee Roth and his outrageously persnickety demand that there be M&Ms waiting for him backstage at all of his concerts, with all the brown ones removed!

I recall thinking, what a dick. This is rockstardom gone too far. How terrible it must be to have to work with or for this creep. Or really to have anything to do with him at all. The thing is, I always liked Van Halen’s music. I was never a huge fan the way I am with some of the other rock bands. But I always listened to their songs when they came on the radio. Even though their lead singer was a prima donna asshole.

Up until yesterday, if you had brought up Van Halen to me, the first thoughts that would have popped into my head were: Great rock band. Spectacular and innovative guitar player. Great drum and bass grooves, and great drum and bass sound. Great singer too, as a singer, but personally, I can’t stand the guy. That final opinion, the one about the singer David Lee Roth, had grown in my mind over the years, without me even realizing it, because of the M&M thing.

Everything changed yesterday in the span of a few sentences. Kay showed me an article by Dan and Chip Heath that was in the March issue of Fast Company. The writers referenced David Lee Roth and the M&M story for their purpose, which was to make a point about businesses. I will reference the M&M story for my purpose, which is to make a point about assumptions. Here is the pertinent part of the Fast Company article:

Consider Van Halen. In its 1980s heyday, the band became notorious for a clause in its touring contract that demanded a bowl of M&Ms backstage, but with all the brown ones removed. The story is true — confirmed by former lead singer David Lee Roth himself — and it became the perfect, appalling symbol of rock-star-diva behavior.

Get ready to reverse your perception. Van Halen did dozens of shows every year, and at each venue, the band would show up with nine 18-wheelers full of gear. Because of the technical complexity, the band’s standard contract with venues was thick and convoluted — Roth, in his inimitable way, said in his autobiography that it read “like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages.” A typical “article” in the contract might say, “There will be 15 amperage voltage sockets at 20-foot spaces, evenly, providing 19 amperes.”

Van Halen buried a special clause in the middle of the contract. It was called Article 126. It read, “There will be no brown M&Ms in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.” So when Roth would arrive at a new venue, he’d walk backstage and glance at the M&M bowl. If he saw a brown M&M, he’d demand a line check of the entire production. “Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error,” he wrote. “They didn’t read the contract…. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show.”

In other words, Roth was no diva. He was an operations expert. He couldn’t spend hours every night checking the amperage of each socket. He needed a way to assess quickly whether the stagehands at each venue were paying attention — whether they had read every word of the contract and taken it seriously. In Roth’s world, a brown M&M was the canary in the coal mine.

Today, wanting to verify all of this, and also curious as to why Roth would let the M&M story live and thrive since it painted him ugly, I searched the web, and I found everything I was hoping to find in one paragraph at Wikipedia:

In 1997, Roth wrote a well-received memoir, entitled Crazy From the Heat. The 359-page book was whittled down from over 1,200 pages of monologues, which were recorded and transcribed by a Princeton University graduate who followed Roth around for almost a year. Among the book’s revelations, aside from stories about backyard parties, Van Halen, and catching malaria in Third world jungles, was the infamous “Brown M&Ms” clause written into Van Halen’s early contract riders. The clause was included in contracts not because of ego, but rather to make sure that structural stage specifications in the contract were read thoroughly and were adequately provided. Roth writes of a time when he found brown M&Ms in a bowl and subsequently had a fit. In the press, he was accused of causing US$85,000 worth of damage to the arena. Most of the monetary damages were due to Van Halen’s staging sinking through the floor. Roth writes, “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&Ms and did $85,000 worth of damage to the backstage area. Well, who am I to get in the way of a good rumor?”

If I had a nickle for every time I have made a wrong assumption about someone that caused me or them suffering, I’d have an incalculable sum, because most of the wrong assumptions I make remain wrong forever because I never find out they are wrong. Or at least that’s what I assume.

Here’s what was particularly wrong about my wrong assumption about David Lee Roth and his M&Ms. One of the traits I most admire in a person, and especially in an artist, is someone who, in the words of the Heath brothers, is an “operations expert.” A detail freak. A geek in expressionist clothing. A minutia man. A preparer. Not surprisingly, I admire these qualities because that’s how I want to be. So for 25 years, I have been scolding Roth in my mind, when actually, I should have been praising him for his admirable priorities, and his clever tactic, but I couldn’t, because one wrong assumption has been in the way.

Bottom line: I heretofore commit to continually recommitting to trying to like hell to not make assumptions about people and their priorities and just take things as they are when they are without adding on my usual heaps of judgments and assumptions and other pain-causing crap.



  • Márcio Posted March 1, 2010 8:30 am

    Dear Tommy,

    You’re a joy to read, sir. It’s just great the way you put the details in your life in perspective. Just got your book and it’s genious. Keep up inspiring me/us. Hope I can meet you at a poker table someday.

  • Lee Jones Posted March 1, 2010 9:56 am

    This blows my mind. I had, of course, heard that story too, and thought the same thing.

    But it’s just as you say, “A geek in expressionist clothing”.

    All that said, I still can’t stand his phase-shifted scream cliche that came out in what seemed like every song they made.

    Regards, Lee

  • Anna Paradox Posted March 1, 2010 12:39 pm

    I like it when he said, “Who am I to get in the way of a good rumor?” Or as Byron Katie says, if she has one prayer, it would be: “God spare me from the desire for love, approval and appreciation.”

  • Spike The Cat Posted March 1, 2010 1:53 pm

    Exceedingly cool. A control freak with a sense of humor and one of life’s little lessons buried in the tale — with which I really connected.

    Back in high school I was certain my English teacher wasn’t reading our essays. So I inserted in the middle of a sentence, “Mary had a little lamb.”

    The paper was returned with a note, “and you just got ‘fleeced’ — of 10 points.”

    Miss Raycroft instantly became my favorite teacher.

  • admin Posted March 1, 2010 2:12 pm

    Great story Spike!

  • eric stoner Posted March 5, 2010 9:54 pm

    This was just brilliant. My perceptions of Diamond Dave have just changed.

    I always have to remember that there are indeed two sides to every story/situation.

  • Palsport Posted March 6, 2010 12:51 pm

    In a rider in his contract for every show, Barry Manilow demands an enclosed passageway from his dressing room to backstage, so he can’t be viewed pre-show. Think of it as a birth canal. What a moist fetus! I have no point. Good story Tommy- love you.

  • JD Posted March 10, 2010 9:13 am


    I have a somewhat similar story to tell. A few years ago, in a philosophy class I had to take in college, the only evaluation was an essay on the ethics of (whatever topic we chose that got approved by the teacher). It was a small class (8 people), so the teacher agreed to take a look at every 2-person team’s paper about a week before the deadline so nobody would be completely off track. The team would sit in his office while he read it and commented out loud.

    I’d clashed once or twice with this professor because, while I agreed with his views for the most part, he was completely unobjective and I found that intolerable. Having heard that this teacher graded on how he liked you and not your actual work, my colleague and I tried something: we inserted, in the middle of a sentence

    (no kitten huffing allowed)

    [an Uncyclopedia reference. Also, being in Quebec, our essay was in French]

    We expected him to read it out loud, say “What’s that?” and then us saying “Oh, sorry. You know, when you’ve been working a few hours straight, goofing off relieves some stress. That’s just an inside joke we wrote down but forgot to delete”. By now you probably expect what happened: he read our essay, giving generic comments about every other paragraph, and he skipped the paragraph that had (no kitten huffing allowed) inserted.

    So we left it in the final essay. We got the lowest grade of the four teams, B+, and we never heard any comment about kitten huffing, despite running into that teacher a few more times over the following days/weeks.

    So the next time you hear someone say “Some teachers don’t read assignments at all and just grade arbitrarily” and someone else says “No, that’s completely unprofessional!”, well, I’ve actually had a teacher grade a paper after not-reading it in my face.

  • stacks Posted March 23, 2010 3:35 pm

    The M&M rider in the Van Halen contract was mentioned in the prologue of episode #386 of ‘This American Life.’

    I had a similar reaction when I heard this story; Thanks for reminding me.

  • Humberto Venosh Posted May 11, 2010 1:47 am

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