Monday, August 3, 2009

Sometimes Revisionist History Makes More Sense

This is very nearly a crosspost from my personal blog The Truth and The Signal but not quite. I wanted to look at the same item from a skeptical perspective but it wasn't an item I felt like subjecting my real world friends to from that viewpoint.

Okay, the goods:

If you are within a decade of my age (If you were born between 1960 and 1980) and probably beyond in many cases you have heard the tale of how the David Lee Roth era Van Halen used to include a clause in their contract that required that there be a bowl of M&Ms in their dressing room... and that all the brown ones be removed.

This could be interpreted a number of ways. I'm led to believe that the majority of people subscribe to the 'diva' version of the tale. That someone or ones or combination thereof loved M&Ms but had a pathological response to brown dye, or maybe the colour brown itself, and that led to the bizarre demand and consequent hi-jinx that would follow. I, on the other hand believed that it was nothing more than whimsy - perhaps fuelled by a bit of "holy crap we're proverbially bigger than Jesus" hubris - that led to the self-amusing demand for something absurdly frivolous.

Now, if you were aware of the M&M clause you are almost certainly aware that on at least one occassion Diamond Dave himself lost his shit over the appearance of the loathesome brown M&Ms in a backstage bowl in Pueblo Colorado during a 1980 tour and did to the tune of 85 thousand dollars worth of damage to the dressing room.

So that's the story. But here's the thing. It's bullshit. Or at least, it probably is, and if it isn't then the revised version is. Heck, maybe both are!

So, what is the "revised version?"

Van Halen was huge. Both in terms of stardom, but also in terms of their stage show. There had been other big shows before, but Van Halen were the first to take their lights, fog and lazers into tertiary markets. Places that weren't so prepared for a stage set-up that was that big - literally big. Platforms, lights, effects, and of course audio equipment galore. It took a lot of power to run it all and it required that the venue be capable of physically handling the sheer mass of all that (ahem) heavy metal. The ceiling needed to be rated to handle the extra weight that was to be hung from it. The floors needed to be sturdy enough to support the massive risers and the tonnes of speakers and so on that would be put on it. Even the access - the doors - needed to be big enough to allow the various pieces to fit.

In short, there was a shit load of things that could go wrong. And any one of those details could compromise the show, or worse endanger lives.

In order to ensure that all those specifications were met there was an additional document to the contract - the rider - which itemized each element in painstaking detail. But that was not enough. Most of those details had to be handled by long distance by representatives of the promoter (not even of the band) and no matter how many times it was impressed upon them "go over every line-item fastidiously" it didn't always happen. People got lazy and made assumptions or only casually looked at the details. But those details were very specifc and specific for very good reasons. Failures caused problems - often enormous problems.

So Van Halen came up with a test. A legal canary in the coalmine.

The M&M clause. Actually, it wasn't even it's own clause. It was buried within the food requirements section (though the stipulation that there be no brown ones was entirely unambiguous, preceded by the word "Warning" and all of it in capital letters and underlined).

Everyone on the inside knew that if there were M&Ms with brown ones, that the contract rider had not been adequately perused and that that meant going over the entire rider piece by piece to be sure that nothing that could endanger the show or lives had been over-looked.

And what about the eighty-five thousand dollar Diamond Dave hissy fit?

Yeah, that happened. At least the fit did.

According to Roth's biography "Crazy fron the Heat" the a rider had not be properly read - brown M&Ms. Roth got angry knowing that the brown M&Ms were a harbinger of worse to come. In his words: "They didn't bother to look at the weight requirements or anything, and [the stage] 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?"

So what is the truth and what is the fiction?

I'm kind of limited to searching on-line material...

According to the ever reliable (that is facetious, BTW) Wikipedia, the $85,000 was connected to an incident that nearly killed a road-crew member and caused equipment damage. The provenance of Wikipedia is dubious at best, but it's not necessarily a bad place to start... I'll address that in some later post - it's a separate issue.

The Smoking Gun has a copy of the infamous rider with the M&M line item on page 40. To the best of my knowledge Smoking Gun is actually quite reliable as far as the documentation they uncover goes. If they weren't their reputation would fail pretty quickly. (It should be noted that a number of news & blog stories have identified the M&M stipulation as 'Article 126' - that does not appear to be the case here. It could be likely that different versions existed for different tours)

Snopes has an entry about the incident where they quote the DLR biography quite extensively. Snopes probably didn't put as much effort into this item as ones with greater impact. But they are one of the most reliable sources for urban myth research.

Here's a Detroit Metro Times article that references it the M&Ms clause - with an amusing coda. Not much but anecdotal evidence, but there is going to be a lot of that in this case.

Admittedly finding 'first sources' on the internet is a dubious direction to go, but let's not dwell too much on that.

When exactly were those Pueblo Colorado dates?

According to the archived Official Van Halen site (the current site has no tour date history) the 1980 Women and Children First Tour had NO Pueblo dates. In fact, according to this complete tour date history of the DLR days of Van Halen (which appears to match everywhere it overlaps with the previous link) - Van Halen only ever played in Colorado four times - twice in '79 and twice in '80. In Boulder and Denver respectively. Never Pueblo.

I drilled about ten pages down into Google searches on a variety of searches including combinations of: Van Halen, David Lee Roth, M&Ms, Contract, Rider, Pueblo Colorado, Colorado University, $85000, fit, 1980, Crazy from the Heat.

I also did specific news archive search - but seeing as the events in question happened in 1980 there isn't really much available.

A large amount of the information that comes up quotes the "Crazy from the Heat" biography to various degrees. So most of the stories are based on the Diamond Dave account.

David Lee Roth's history as a reliable source is spotted. I doubt it's a co-incidence that he is regularly called an ego maniac and a diva by people who work with him - and not just his Van Halen ex-co-horts - it's a spectrum.

So where does that leave us?

Well... what are the claims?

1) Van Halen had a specific demand for M&Ms back stage at their shows in their contract.

2) The contract requirement was rock-star excess of some flavour.

3) The contract requirement was a clever test for their promoters.

4) David Lee Roth threw a fit once when the article was not met.

5) The fit in question happened in at the University of Colorado State in Pueblo in 1980.

6) DLR did $85000 worth of damage to the dressing room in the fit.

7) The majority of the damage was in fact done by the weight of the stage sinking into the rubberized basket-ball court.

And how does the evidence look to each of those individually?

Claim 1: I don't think there is any real dispute about this. I'm not even sure why anyone would go to the lengths it appears one would have to go to to fabricate this and perpetuate it over the course of nearly thirty years. So let's say this is TRUE.

Claim 2: I'd say that the original story does made sense on the surface. It seems consistent with the image of the excess of the 70s & 80s heavy metal scene... but then again this story itself is a cornerstone of the mythology. I'd give this claim a "Plausible" if it weren't for the fact that it is nearly mutually exclusive of the next claim - which seems more plausible. I think Occam's Razor makes this one the UNLIKELY story.

Claim 3: I've tipped my hand here already. I believe - though this is really little more than an opinion - that the details of this, the revised story - makes more sense than the previous claim. It is internally consistent. It also seems to be the story that insiders subscribe to - including John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants. PLAUSIBLE.

Claim 4: There doesn't seem to be anyone denying this. Not the least the perp himself. The only thing that is under question is the timing and quality of the fit. TRUE.

Claim 5: The possibility that the tour date in question for any number of reasons does not appear on any available schedule I could find not withstanding, it seems that Diamond Dave's specific memory isn't quite right. That's fine. The human memory is faulty - no one should be held too accountable for creating false details. The fit more likely occurred at a Denver date on the 1980 tour. FALSE.

Claim 6: Imagine what it would take to do $85000 damage to a dressing room. That's a lot of work. It also requires that no one stops you as you carry on and on and on. OR it requires that you were not in the dressing room, but in the more immediate backstage area and attacked equipment. And the chances of someone NOT stopping that immediately gets even less likely as the leasing company has reps and techs right there. Additionally, I venture that doing that much damage borders on a criminal misdemeanour and nowhere in my research was there the slightest indication that there was any legal response to the fit ever. This is to say nothing of the out-lying indications that the $85000 may be a number mined from a totally separate incident. I'm calling this item UNLIKELY.

Claim 7: Considering that the alternate explanation seems so dubious, it lends credibility to this claim. This claim is also central to the sense of the revised version. It is totally consistent. PLAUSIBLE.

Consolidate all of that and what are we left with? The revised version seems to be the more likely version - except it seems Pueblo Colorado was not the place it happened.

So... what is the point?

Well, there is no definitive explanation based upon the available evidence. Perhaps being able to access more original records and speak to more people directly involved would clarify things further. But it appears as though the revised version holds up better to scrutiny.

Even though this is clearly a story which skeptically speaking is absolute fluff, it serves to illustrate a point. There is detail to be gleaned by digging deeper. Comparing sources and trying to find the information with the best provenance possible is revealling - even when what it reveals is that the bulk of information available in fact comes from the same source (In this case "Crazy from the Heat.") and there are more than likely details that are still either being fabricated or mis-remembered. History has an unfortunate tendency towards subjectivity, but the flexibility of that subjectivity can be ameliorated by looking deeper than the surface, exploring the truth of the details (the devil is in there!) and applying some critical analysis.

Critical thinking doesn't always (indeed, often doesn't) lead to absolute answers, but it does lead to more clarity as to what the answers most likely are.

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