Friday, July 31, 2009

Crazy from the Heat

But not in the sense of "this heat wave is driving me nuts"... well, it IS - I'd love to have a night of sleep under my belt, I'm getting cranky. But that's beside the point.

If you listened to This American Life this past week you already know this story, but I felt like it was worth re-iterating in my own words.

If you were a teenager in the 80s you must have heard the tale about VanHalen having it in their contract with their promoter that they had to have a bowl of M&Ms backstage in their dressing rooms and that all the brown ones had to be removed.

If they didn't have it they were in their rights to cancel the show and still recieve their entire fee. Apparently in one case they even did $100Gs worth of damage to the dressing room.

This was taken usually one of two ways:
Either as an extreme example of spoiled diva behaviour; or - and not terribly different - as an example of a rock-band with enough money and chutzpah to put something totally frivolous in their contract just for yuks.

But apparently there was a real and practical reason for the clause. One that was easily missed in favour of the more colourful story.

So let's say you are a rock band. You have a certain style and flaire that really has to be seen to fully appreciate. You've come up with a show that - well it's a capital 'S' "Show." Fog and lasers and lights and stacks of Marshall amps and PAs, plus the people who have learned how it all goes together. It takes a LOT of power and it's a big mass o' stuff. There is - pardon me - a LOT of heavy metal. Plus the man-power it takes to operate it - the people who are on your travelling crew; plus a small army of local hires. The Show is BIG.

There are a whole schwack of details. There has to be enough wattage available at the venue; the structure of the building needs to be able to support - literally - the show, you need a thick cement floor - no basketball courts, and the ceiling rafters need to be able to bear extra load; there needs to be sufficent lodging for the road crew - who don't get to go to their hotels 'til after the show is over, so they also need to be fed; and the locals need to be both properly skilled and there needs to be the right number of them - not too many, not too few... and they need to be sober.

Lots of stuff has to go right every single stop along the way. Yes there is someone whose job it is to do their best to make sure that happens, but when it comes down to it every single show needs to have someone on the ground locally - typically hired by the local promoting partner - from the time the show is booked until the cages are swept out and the circus heads for the next town. Someone who can liase with the venue, who knows the local IATSE folks and has the contacts and know how to make all those little finnicky details happen.

Those finnicky details? They aren't so finnicky. One single simple example to demonstrate the point: I mentioned the ceiling needs to be able to bear sufficient load. Every venue knows it's specs - or at least figures them out in short order because of details like this. Let's say one night your band plays the civic arena in Mid-nowhere Alberta. The civic arena is really just the old curling club that was converted in 1927. Your lighting rig is usually hung from the steel I-beams of places like Pacific Colesieum. But the Mid-nowhere Civic Arena is actually made entirely of wood. The ceiling joists are old brittle cedar beams that have been soaking up the moisture of spring-melt, baking through the summer drought and then freezing in the dead of winter since long before the conversion that happened 82 years ago. So when your lighting rig pulls down the roof on the mosh-pit in the middle of your hit song "Chicken Li'l"... who exactly is to blame?

THAT is why those contracts exist. They are actually called riders - they are an addition to the contract, what the specific legal difference and explanation is, I can't really say. But every single line in that contract has a very specific important purpose. It may be as critical as keeping your fans alive, like in the example above; or it might be about keeping your locals sober enough to do their part (Apologies to IATSE members everywhere, I know you are typically far more responsible than two mentions of drunkeness in one blog entry implies - I just got off on a jag.); or it could be about making sure that your feather-allergic road manager actually gets a bed he can sleep the night through in so he can be rested enough to go through it all again tomorrow.

Van Halen.

They had a really clever idea. Their show was HUGE. Far bigger than your band's "S"how. (That's why we've heard of Van Halen and not your one-hit-wonder band and their stupid forget-me hit "Chicken L'il", despite the infamous Mid-nowhere Civic Arena disaster.) The details for their shows were way beyond what most promoters were accustomed to and many of those details were critical in the sense of "if this goes wrong, people die" or "if this doesn't happen the electircal grid for the surrounding city collapses and the show is over, like it or not" variety. Now they could say to the promoter as many times as they liked, as emphatically as possible "make sure you go through every line-item in the rider very very very carefully" - and presumably, they did. But that was hardly a guarantee that these things would actually happen.

So, rather than hold the hand of the folks at every venue along the tour, they came up with a simple, seemingly frivolous canary in their coalmine. The bowl of M&Ms. Buried on page 9 of the 11 page rider... an innocuous little item.

And thus they knew that if they were to show up and there were brown M&Ms in the bowl - the rider had not been carefully read and they needed to check the details of the show line by line if they were going to perform at all.

As to the alleged hundred thousand dollars worth of dressing room trashing?

In his biography "Crazy from the Heat" (See, it all comes 'round.) David Lee Roth wrote that he once found brown M&Ms in a bowl and threw a fit. But most of the damages were caused by the stage set-up sinking into the wooden floor of the arena. To quote Diamond Dave, "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?"

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