Tom and Jerry: Defenders of All Things Right and Good

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

(Belated) Credit Where Credit Is Due

Like most folks, from time to time I derive a bit of pleasure from mocking various figures in the entertainment industry - mostly for the deep fissure separating them from anything remotely approaching reality, but occasionally for being just plain unintelligent. One of those I had pegged as a permanent member of the colossal-bank-account-accompanied-by-infinitesimal-brain-activity gang was former Van Halen front-man David Lee Roth: he, it seemed, spent his entire adulthood prancing around stages as an oversexed buffoon. His career after Van Halen, whose members finally wearied of him and booted him from the band, consisted of one album that made any impression at all on the music charts, after which he (mercifully) faded from public consciousness.

However, recently I came across a piece on the First Things blog that had me rethinking my assumptions about Mr. Roth:

You’ve probably heard the decades-old tale about how the band Van Halen included a provision in their backstage concert rider that stipulated that brown M&M’s were to be banished from the band’s dressing room.

I had always assumed it was another arbitrary and outlandish demand by spoiled rock stars. But according to, the provision served a practical purpose: to provide an easy way of determining whether the technical specifications of the contract had been thoroughly read and complied with. As Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth explained in his autobiography:
Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine eighteen-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors – whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through.

The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function. So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say "Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes…" This kind of thing. And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: "There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation."

So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl...well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.

Roth understood that putting on a a concert required close attention to a broad range of details outlined in the agreement between the band and the venue. Making assumptions about what was in the contract without having read it could get people killed.

The First Things piece then goes on to ask:
Why is it that drugged-out rock stars can understand this concept and yet our own stone-sober legislators can’t quite grasp the fact that they need to read and understand the content of the bills they are voting on?

While this is a relevant question, it wasn't what first crossed my mind when I read the excerpt from Roth's autobiography. No, my first thought was "David Lee Roth wrote a book?" I had never thought of Roth as someone who has ever read a book, let alone written one. This thought was, in rather short order, eclipsed by another one: While there is certainly ample testimony about his involvement with drugs, alcohol, and women, I was impressed with how involved, profoundly cunning and, yes, smart Roth was about the requirements of staging Van Halen's shows. Whatever else can be said about him, he certainly knows an awful lot about his craft, and devised (or, at the very least, had knowledgeable appreciation of) a clever method of ensuring that all the details pertaining to the massive production that is a big-name rock concert were satisfied.

As that sank in, it reminded me of something Arsenio Hall said on this early-90s late-night TV talk show about Sylvester Stallone. Despite a decade-and-a-half Hollywood career marked by numerous box-office successes (the Rocky and Rambo series, both of which he wrote all the screenplays for; Victory; Tango and Cash), Stallone was often dismissed by critics and otherwise intelligent people as "dumb" and/or "stupid". A guest of Hall's one evening mentioned that he had met Stallone recently and was surprised at how smart he was, to which Arsenio replied:
A lot of people think Stallone is unintelligent or stupid, but let me tell you, that man has got some serious bank [millions of dollars], and you don't get that kind of bank by being stupid....

I had long dismissed David Lee Roth as a buffoon, but (paralleling Stallone) I should have realized that one does not get to be the lead vocal for a gazillion-dollar musical act like Van Halen was in the 70s and early 80s without knowing your craft inside and out.

I suppose now I shall have to rethink my opinion about Keanu Reeves......



  • Thanks, Jerry. See, at least one reader. :)


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Friday, August 14, 2009 8:30:00 AM  

  • JERRY!! all you had to do was ask ME about the brown M&Ms! I was the one who had to pick them out of the bowl when that tour rolled through Dallas, lol

    Tori is here, says HI! post us up another pic of your sweet baby girl!

    <3 Anne

    By Blogger Annie, at Monday, August 17, 2009 4:36:00 PM  

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