Lehrer’s Dylan, Information Literacy, and Van Halen’s Brown M&M’s

I don’t want to pile on Jonah Lehrer — if you want the low-down on what happened to the up-and-coming and now down-and-falling star of pop cognitive science, you can get your fix on the Google.

But I am interested in the lessons we can learn about information literacy from this, particularly because I think I failed personally to apply my own information literacy skills in the case of Lehrer. And from such things come great lessons.

What do I mean? When I read Lehrer’s Imagine, I didn’t know all of the topics Lehrer discussed at a level of detail — I’ve never worked at Pixar, I’m unfamiliar with modeling urban design, etc. But I did know one of the subjects quite well — Lehrer opens with a Dylan story, and I am a longstanding Dylan fan (Such a big fan that I actually read Bob Dylan’s unreadable Finnegan’s Wake like book Tarantula at one point. Yeah.)

Lehrer got some of the details on Dylan wrong, in the way that most people tend to get them wrong. To take just one example, people who aren’t terribly familiar with Dylan but know a bit tend to think that “Like a Rolling Stone” was a turning point in Dylan’s career. In fact, the shift to electric happens an album before that, and the vocal style of the of the song is pretty firmly ensconced in Dylan’s work before the electric change. As far as the lyrics, which is what Lehrer focuses on, that shift too comes much earlier — there’s a scene in Chronicles, Bob Dylan’s autobiography, where Dylan is watching a musical, and he realizes that one can essentially write musical theater without the theater. You can listen to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or “Maggie’s Farm” on Bringing It All Back Home, and hear how that works out — there’s that blues element, but there’s also this sense of dropping into a middle of a story, with so many references to external elements that our mind has to build a crazy surrealist backstory to it (What medicine, exactly, is Johnny mixing up anyway?).

So what “Like a Rolling Stone” is, really, is not a creative breakthrough, but it’s the point where Dylan turns all those dials up to eleven at once. Any serious study of Dylan will show you that.

Lehrer doesn’t see it that way, and shifts around some facts to make it the breakthrough moment lyrical moment he needs. And reading through the book I gave it to him — after all, it’s kind of a subtle point, right?

But here’s the thing — it’s not a point that he is making in a blog post or a conversation over beers. It’s not a slide in a conference presentation on a tangential matter. It’s a chapter in a published book.

Which brings me to Van Halen’s famous “bowl of M&M’s with the brown ones removed” rider. The request for this has been portrayed as rock star vanity, but it was far from that. Here’s why Van Halen requested this at all their gigs, from the rock star gigolo, David Lee Roth:

“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.”

To me, this is what most information literacy looks like. In non-academic life, you can’t check everything. You can’t check every reference, and redo every computation. You have to trust people most of the time. But when you find brown M&M’s in the green room, it’s time to freak out a bit. You either cancel the show, or you start checking everything you can.

The Dylan mistakes were the telltale M&M’s, and I should have known enough to stop there, and treat the book from that point on as a hostile witness. But I didn’t, and a lot of people didn’t. And pretty soon the stage was collapsing under  us.

These things matter, and when we find such things, we should take a lesson from the patron saint of Information Literacy, David Lee Roth. What did you do, David, when you found brown M&M’s in a green room in Pueblo?

“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?”

Now that’s what a critical consumer of information looks like.

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