The most famous contract rider in rock-and-roll history may be the one Van Halen used that stipulated that “There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.” The most tragic contract rider in history, on the other hand, was the one sent ahead to the small bars and nightclubs on the 2003 tour of “Jack Russell’s Great White,” the touring remnant of the group behind late-80s hits like “Once Bitten, Twice Shy.” That rider led, in a very direct way, to the deaths of 100 concert-goers in The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island, on this day in 2003.
Even in its heyday, Great White was no Van Halen. Yet one can be sure that the contract rider enumerating their onstage and backstage needs circa 1988 must have looked rather different from the one they were using 15 years later. The latter document was a model of restraint. Beverages? Bottled water, orange juice, coffee, tea and a few Red Bulls. Lunch? Something from the venue kitchen, or sandwiches from Subway. The rider specified gel colors for the lights and dimensions for the merchandise table, but in the detailed stage diagram it made no mention of three pyrotechnic devices—spark fountains called “gerbs”—that the band’s tour manager liked to set off just as Jack Russell’s Great White tore into their opening number. Those devices would start the fourth deadliest fire in American history, killing 100 patrons of The Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, on the night of February 20, 2003.
It was an awful combination of bad decisions by multiple parties that led to the disastrous loss of life at The Station, from the local fire authorities’ decision not to require sprinklers at the club, to the club owners’ dangerous and illegal decision to use cheap, flammable packing foam around the stage area rather than fire-retardant soundproofing. Nevertheless, if there had been no sparks from the unplanned-for pyrotechnic devices, there would have been no fire in the first place. This highlights the importance of strict adherence to contract riders by performers and concert venues—the very point Van Halen was making with their famous M&M provision. As David Lee Roth explained in his autobiography, “When I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl…we’d 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.”