As most Van Halen fans are aware, Van Halen’s standard performance contract during their glory days in the late 70’s and early ’80s contained a provision calling for them to be provided with a bowl of M&Ms, but with all the brown candies removed. The presence of even a single brown M&M in that bowl was sufficient legal cause for Van Halen to peremptorily cancel a scheduled appearance without advance notice (and usually an excuse for them to go on a destructive rampage as well).
Naturally, David Lee Roth was the one that came up with that. As Roth explained in his autobiography, Crazy From The Heat:
More frequently than not, things are not what they seem. You may have heard of the brown M&M’s story of Van Halen. And it read like this in the contract rider: “There will be no brown M&M’s anywhere in the backstage area or immediate vicinity, upon pain of forfeiture of the show with immediate compensation.”
I would come in backstage, and if I saw brown M&M’s, I’d trash the dressing room and threaten to cancel the show, and the promoter would come backstage, all consternated. We pitched it as “Caruso forbade whistling backstage,” that it was bad luck. It’s a luck thing. It’s a charm. I made it seem like it was a complete act of self-indulgent extravagance – which I’ve always found very attractive as a performance. Or even a lifestyle. Hey, sign me up. Can she come too? Great.
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. And I’ll give you an example.
The folks in Pueblo, Colorado, at the university, took the contract rather kinda casual. They had one of these new rubberized bouncy basketball floorings in their arena. They hadn’t read the contract, and weren’t sure, really, about the weight of this production; this thing weighed like the business end of a 747.
I came backstage. I found some brown M&M’s, I went into full Shakespearean “What is this before me?” . . . you know, with the skull in one hand . . . and promptly trashed the dressing room. Dumped the buffet, kicked a hole in the door, twelve thousand dollars’ worth of fun.
The staging sank through their floor. 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&M’s and did eighty-five thousand dollars’ worth of damage to the backstage area.
Well, who am I to get in the way of a good rumor?
The legend continues …. an article posted today on MetroTimes.com reports that Van Halen was still demanding the M&M’s during their 2007-2008 tour. The Van Halen references are in purple:
No brown M & M’s!
It’s no urban myth. On their early tours, Van Halen demanded that all brown M&M’s be removed from backstage bowls at their concerts. The person in Detroit responsible for removing those candy-coated chocolates was Liz Butsicaris Jackson, owner of Queen of Cups Catering, the biggest caterer for rock and pop concerts in the area, with a territory that extends as far as Grand Rapids and Saginaw.
Jackson got into the business almost by accident. As a teen, she was friends with local promoter Gail Parenteau. “I liked boys in bands,” she admits,” “and because I knew Gail, I got to hang out backstage. And because I was shy, I’d bring cookies for the bands.” Before long, Parenteau was asking, “Can you bring sandwiches?” In no time, she graduated to deli trays.
Jackson’s late father, Jimmy, owned Lindell AC, the legendary downtown Detroit sports bar. “I was a rock ‘n’ roll hippie girl and wanted nothing to do with sports,” she recalls. But working at the bar taught her everything she needed to know about doing business. Before long, AC Lindell was a sports rock ‘n’ roll bar, catering to jocks and rockers alike; Patti Smith threw a party there during her first Detroit stop, as did Van Halen. And Jackson’s “sports” connection also landed her work as a sports reporter on the old WABX-FM. It was a job she’d maintain through the early ’80s, although at the same time, “I was cooking dinner for U2 at the Grand Circus Theatre and taking food to Roy Orbison out at Nitro.”
Queen Of Cups would evolve and grow out of those humble beginnings, and Jackson’s aim to this day is to create “a real vibe” backstage for her charges. “These folks are living on a bus,” she explains. “It’s not a very civilized way to live, and sitting down to eat is often the highlight of their day. When the crew gets off the bus in the morning, we have bacon cooking, homemade muffins ready, espresso brewing. We want them to feel comfortable and at home.
Jackson’s job is full-service, extending beyond food. Her rolodex is overflowing with numbers for anything a traveling band might desire — from “acupuncturists to swamis to S&M dungeons,” she laughs. “When Elton John needs three dozen apricot roses in his dressing room, they call me to find them.” (Jackson is also hoping to move into catering for the many films that are being shot here in Detroit; she recently helped out the catering company for Clint Eastwood’s new film when it was filming in Grosse Pointe.
She’s saving her really juicy stories for a book after she retires; she’s also working on a rock ‘n’ roll cookbook of her best recipes. She doesn’t have any real horror stories, though — even if Mötley Crüe once threw the requested roasted full turkey she’d painstakingly cooked and stuffed into the sand outside their trailer. (“Their wardrobe person told me not to be upset; they’d done the same thing every stop on the tour!”)
But generally, the stars are delighted to be treated so well. British acts are especially grateful that she brings in native U.K. treats; the members of Coldplay even went around to personally thank each member of her crew, several of whom have been “stolen” to go on tour with Dave Matthews and the Eagles, among others. N’Sync couldn’t have been more grateful when she went across the street from the Pontiac Silverdome to buy a griddle, Wonder bread, Velveeta and Campbell’s Tomato soup, cooking 300 grilled cheese sandwiches that they missed so much on the road. She’s also transformed their dressing room (locker room, actually) into a “boy’s paradise.” The Beastie Boys — who used to help Jackson’s daughter, Jane, with her homework backstage — even tried to hire her to go on the road with them.
As for those “strange” requests, like no brown M&M’s, Jackson says that artists put those in their riders just to make sure promoters actually read the contracts. She recalls a Jethro Tull rider from a few years back that had “a toothless prostitute” as one of the demands. “I went up to the band and said, ‘Honey, we’re in downtown Detroit. I can get one of those for you in five minutes if you’re really serious!'”
History even recently repeated itself during the Detroit Van Halen stop when Wolfgang Van Halen — son of Eddie, replacing original bassist Michael Anthony — requested “no brown M&M’s” in his dressing room as a tribute to his father. “We went through and took out all the brown ones for him,” she says. So what did she do with them after they were removed? “We placed them in a bowl and put them in Eddie’s dressing room!” she laughs.