Sunday, March 6, 2011

Beware the Brown M&Ms

Even people who have never heard a Van Halen song may know the rock band for its infamous performance clause calling for a backstage bowl of M&Ms with all the brown candies removed.  Until recently, I had simply chocked this extravagance up to sex and drugs and David Lee Roth’s outsized ego.

But I was wrong.

Many years ago at Sensitech there would be an almost annual changing-of-the-guard when it came to the company’s cleaning services.  Our Office Manager would hire a “great new” service which would be new for a while and great for just a little while longer before their performance tailed off.   Then, inevitably, we’d get another great new cleaning service.

I used to bring a box of raisins to work occasionally as a snack, and one day tossed a raisin at the CFO, missed, and saw it land in the far corner of my office, the one furthest from the door.  At first I was too lazy to pick it up.  Then I forgot about it.

The next morning I happened to look over and, lo and behold, the raisin was still there.

To make a long story slightly longer, over time I perfected the raisin test: If a raisin in the far corner wasn't vacuumed up in two days or less, our cleaning service was almost inevitably on the way out the door.

Little things like that mean a lot.

One of my professors in business school used to say that if you pulled the seat tray down on an airplane and it was dirty, you had to wonder if they airline had missed some important engine maintenance as well.

Little things really can mean a lot.

In my freshman year at college I volunteered at WBRU-FM.  The station was required to maintain a public access file which could be examined by anyone off the street during normal business hours.  The general manger was in charge of maintaining the file, and in those days at least, it was considered important business.

One day I overheard some of the general manager’s buddies kidding him about the file, saying he hadn’t opened it once during the year and had no clue what was in it.  He disagreed vehemently.  The next day I watched as they placed a tuna fish sandwich in a plastic bag, marked a green hanging file "Tuna Fish Sandwich," and proceeded to file the sandwich in the "T"s.

Three months later the general manager still hadn't found the sandwich in the files.

Little things mean a lot.  Little smelly things especially.

I had not intended this post to be about food, but hopefully you get my point.  Well into the 20th century miners in the U.S. and U.K. would bring a canary into a coal mine as an early warning indicator for methane and carbon dioxide.  There used to be a guy in Boston who would size up an interview candidate by how polished his shoes were.  My mother could judge most of Western Civilization by whether they sent a thank-you note.  My dad could judge the quality of a roofing job by how many stray nails he found in the grass after the crew had allegedly "cleaned up” for the day.  (Unfair, perhaps, except that his wayward children did walk around barefoot much of the summer.)

So now, maybe, the brown M&Ms make more sense.  David Lee Roth explained in his autobiography that Van Halen was one of the first bands to take huge productions into smaller markets.  By huge, we're talking nine eighteen-wheelers full of sound equipment, props and rigging.  And, Roth remembered, there were many, many problems at these smaller venues, from inadequate power, to floors that would sink, to issues that might even be life threatening for the band.

Roth wrote: 

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 find a technical error.  They didn’t read the contract. 
A lowly raisin.  A pair of scuffed shoes.  An errant nail in the grass.  A canary.  An alphabetized tuna fish sandwich.
You never know what will give someone away.  
Beware the brown M&Ms.