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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.

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? Maybe we need the equivalent of a brown M&M test to ensure that they understand what is in legislation that affects our lives. The vote of any legislator who failed the test would then be nullified.

What is distressing is how many members of Congress think the idea of having them (rather than staffers) read the legislation is some kind of absurd demand by a public that doesn’t understand how things work in Congress. No doubt you’ve already seen these examples—Congressman Conyers and Wu and Senator Specter— but I’ll post them here as a reminder of just how clueless our representatives have become.

Rep. Conyers

Sen. Specter

Rep. Wu

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