A Garden Party

MSG 2012 (Graham Lucas)

Since New Year’s Eve, many people in the online Phish community have been making meaning of the band covering Ricky Nelson’s “Garden Party” to open the final show of the year. Though investigating the origin of the song, one can find potential significance in this seemingly out-of-the-blue selection.

Ricky Nelson became a childhood star on the 1950s television show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. The show was set in 1950s suburbia and conveyed an idyllic image of American family life. Nelson started his music career by playing songs on the popular show, and in the late ‘50s he branched off from his family’s sitcom and formed an early era rock band. Nelson became one of rock and roll’s first teen idols and became known for his excessively clean cut image. Between 1957 and 1962 Nelson charted 30 Top 40 hits, more than any other artist besides Elvis Presley and Pat Boone.

Garden Party (1972)

Though Nelson continued to record albums, his success was stymied by the British Invasion of the 1960s. Consequently, he gravitated towards country music, becoming a pioneer of the country rock genre. After his change of tune, however, Nelson reached the Top 40 only two more times in his career—once in 1970 when he recorded Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” and for the final time in 1972 with “Garden Party,” a song written in reaction to the following incident. Nelson performed as part of a “Rock and Roll Revival” concert at Madison Square Garden on October 15, 1971, sharing the bill with other early rock legends, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Bobby Rydell, among others. Nelson emerged on stage looking different than his fans remembered him, sporting the ’70s fashion of  bell bottoms, a purple velvet shirt and shoulder-length hair. Though he began with his older classics, Nelson soon played his new country-rock material and was subsequently greeted with boos from an audience who didn’t approve of his stylistic shift. He left the stage mid-set and didn’t return for the show’s group finale. Nelson wrote “Garden Party” in disgust, documenting this experience. Confident in his new musical direction, the lyrics of “Garden Party”—“You can’t please everyone, so you gotta please yourself”—became his personal creed.

12.28.12 (G.Lucas)

Fast forward to December 31, 2012. Phish decided to debut Ricky Nelson’s song in Madison Square Garden 26 years to the day of the plane crash that took Nelson and his band from the world. While the move was a clear nod to the American legend, Nelson’s “Garden Party” clearly held parallels to Phish’s experience in the modern era. Phish has always endured a hypercritical fan base, something that Trey, himself, noted in 1997’s documentary, Bittersweet Motel. The level of public critique has only increased in 3.0 due to the onset of Phish blogs, podcasts and the always-expanding use of Internet discussion forums. As a burgeoning population of seasoned fans all have particular ideas on the way Phish shows should be played, band analysis and criticism has reached a high point in this era. Whether it’s more bust-outs, not enough funk, a lack of a second jam in “Mike’s Song,” the need to shelve “Time Turns Elastic” or playing less songs per 90-minute set, everyone has an opinion on the band’s performances and isn’t shy about sharing it. The fact that Phish fans care so much about what form the band takes is a testament to their undying passion, though I’m sure if the band members ever tuned into the omnipresent online discussions, they’d be quite amused by the copious demands. Sometimes, a sentiment in the fan community is so widespread and intense that it’d be nearly impossible for it not to get back to them. Some modern examples of this are the ardent endorsement of 2011’s Super Ball festival and the overall disappointment after the lackluster Holiday Run of the same year.

12.31.12 (J.Herzog)

Perhaps Phish’s inclusion of “Garden Party” was their own coy response to their rabid fan base, embracing Nelson’s motto of being true to themselves in the face of any and all critique. By following up “Garden Party” with “Possum,” a song that is universally considered to be overplayed in this era, and “Roses Are Free,” a song from which everybody and their mothers have called for more jams, it’s hard to ignore this probability. While “Garden Party” may have been a playful musical retort, it’s quite dubious that the maneuver represented anything more than that towards their fan base—a loyal cadre they have consistently gushed over for the duration of their careers. Phish has enjoyed one of the famous love affairs in music history with a fan base that would travel to the end of the earth to see them perform. More likely than a jab at their loyalists, “Garden Party” was positive affirmation of their own place in time. The message didn’t feel like a defensive “Hey, quit your bitching!” but rather a mature statement saying, “Everyone is welcome to have opinions, but we are here to please ourselves. Take it or leave it.” Understood in this regard, such a statement simultaneously frees their fan base to be critical and allows the band not to worry about it at all.

In all likelihood, the cover of “Garden Party” had a bit to do with several aspects of the night—the fact that Phish had, literally, created a garden out of the Garden for New Year’s Eve, the 26 year anniversary of Ricky Nelson’s passing and a tongue-in-cheek comment to their feverish fan base that Phish will be Phish. And in the end, though fans will be fans, I don’t think there is anyone who really wants them to change. If they are happy, we are happy and if we are happy, they are happy. This has worked for 30 years, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

12.31.12 (Richard Lawless)

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1,320 Responses to “A Garden Party”

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  1. [an unrelated] Wilson Says:

    remember this, from about ’96?

    –begin internet quote—

    Trey has put these quotes on his footpedals in this order: “The end and the begining of all philosophy is freedom”, I’ve been all around the world and I have never seen a statue of a critic”, and “A man has to shoot his own dog”

    –end internet quote—

    that always stuck with me. if it’s true, there’s your answer.

  2. KungKungKung Says:

    I have a big love-hate relationship with the almost always over-hyperbole-usage essays from you, but this one is fantastic. We are all excited to see what 2013 has to offer!!!!

  3. Baxter Says:

    Mr. Miner, Thanks for addressing this, because I thought it was a middle finger to Phantasy Tour. I didn’t know it was the anniversary of Nelson’s death. I have been a fan since 1987, and couldn’t be happier with where the band is at now, and love how they put so much thought into the set lists. Happy 2013 and Phish 30th Anniversary!

  4. MiA Says:

    Maybe my favorite piece by you Mr. Miner. I nice bit of introspection and very mature. Like your other pieces in thoughtfulness, and poignant.

    If Phish communicated to the blogging community (and phans) through that track… Fantastic.

    I am happy when people don’t scream out songs for them to play. Or hold up signs, or immediately quit paying attention when a new song is played. Don’t shove your expectations in their face, and trust they know what is right.

    It’s tough enough not to lower

  5. MiA Says:

    Oops. Deleted a bunch of garbage, but not enough.

  6. bhizzle Says:


    You forgot about these two dudes!

  7. c0wfunk Says:

    And in the end, though fans will be fans, I don’t think there is anyone who really wants them to change. If they are happy, we are happy and if we are happy, they are happy. This has worked for 30 years, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

    ^this. Nicely put.

  8. xpun Says:

    Great read. I didn’t take it as a jab. Didn’t know the song before they played it, so didnt get the significance of “garden party” title and just had the lyrics to go on. agreed the chorus was “take it or leave it, we’re having fun”. Set the tone for the evening and I knew it would be a fun night.

    Phish has always had a better relationship w their fans than any other band I’ve ever known about. They’ve also now made it 30 years of never conforming to popular music or its critics. Fans have always grown to like phish music, not phish growing into fans tastes. They have had great and meaningful musical careers are Healthy and happy, and proud of their accomplishments. They’ve pleased themselves.

  9. xpun Says:

    So Ricky was Matthew and Gunners dad? Weren’t they related to Willie somehow too?

  10. c0wfunk Says:

    I’ll add..

    This was personally poignant as I went through some issues with various family members who’ve been an ongoing source of stress for me. I drew a line in the sand and backed away from a few. This somehow was an affirmation that I was making the right decision and is sort of a new theme song. The microcosm of my life always seems to dovetail with the macrocosm of this band in a curiously cosmically delightful way.

  11. c0wfunk Says:


    Yeah Ricky nelsons sons… Not Willie. Didn’t realize they’d done the bill and teds ttheme

  12. bob dylan Says:

    Nice post miner. Dig the positive spin. Def can’t take this shit as seriously as I do. It’s only rock and roll and I like it. I think my own weird day on the 29th was in line with everyone else’s and no waves jam had me wanting to throw tomatoes. Gonna remember if Phish has an off night they bring it back the next.

  13. spunround Says:

    Nicely played Minor. Bravo!

  14. _Carini_ Says:

    If one looks at the whole weekend as a whole. It makes one appreciate Saturday in a whole new direction. Crowd Control-we are here to do what we want how we want and when we want. If Saturday wasn’t played stylistically as it was in turn the 30th wouldn’t have come off as sick. Lets stop whining as a community about the ins and outs because we’ve now reached the Age of Aquarious and new enlightenment. This song Garden Party set not only a show but a concept our community should grab ahold of and appreciate Our Band the way they do.

  15. btb Says:

    Well Done Miner.

    ::Throws rose onto stage::

  16. HYHU Says:

    Miner, you forgot to put yourself into this category of overly critical fans that you speak of. You did mean yourself though, right?

  17. Buddysmyles Says:

    12/29/94 was my awaking… I hated that show so much cause the band i fell in love didnt play the songs i wanted to hear or how i wanted them played period. I mean 30mins of Bowie with whistling & lassie calls? Where was my prog based band that turned on a dime? It was on that long cold ride home to Vermont that i learned that Phish will play whatever whenever & i can only hop on for the ride. No longer did i go to a show with expectations or hopes of a song. Looking back now that 12/29/94 show is a beast. Its a shame that i couldnt allow myself to enjoy it for what it was. Never has a band made me laugh & cry at the same time….

  18. Dr Pronoia Says:

    Nice piece, Miner

    Lots of you remember when this place turned to LostThoughts every week a few years ago. Well I was just walking Quinn to daycare when right outside his door was standing Benjamin Linus, who I guess is in some show called Person of Interest that is shooting on their block. I was getting Q riled up for school like I normally do and he was shrieking, and Ben came over and talked to me for a few minutes about how enthusiastic Q was for school and how that’s great.

    The whole time I just wanted to punch him in the face repeatedly, and/or pump him with questions about the finale, but I restrained myself to just say that I was a big fan of the show. Super gracious, nice guy

    back to phish…

  19. SillyWilly Says:


    Nice essay, Mr. Miner!

    This is popular theory at it’s finest. You open up the history behind the song and Ricky Nelson, then you connect it to Phish, and then, most importantly, you offer an interpretation that is inclusive and opens possibilities instead of cutting them off.

    and all of this in one night probably, huh?


  20. MiA Says:


  21. c0wfunk Says:

    Love the 12/29/94 story… A friend who toured a lot in the prog rock days recently told me his tale of being at the fall 97 runaway jam show.. Said he got bored , took a walk, the room was dead. The fan base has always evolved and will continue to. As long as the band follows their instinct we’ll be in good shape and I’ll watch with interest.

    For all the talk that there’s 50 bands out there playing big rock shows… Well we all know those arent phish shows. As long as they’re happy onstage, I’m interested. It’d be nice to see some new material come out of the next year, though.

  22. bob dylan Says:

    Face palm @hyhu. Go get some coffee and come back more with it.

  23. jdub Says:

    Nicely done Miner! One of my favorite aspects of this band is there ability to make us ponder the greater meaning of their music nightly, with no clear answer. Garden Party seems pretty clear, but still.

    Seems this run truly had a little bit of something for everyone. Which makes Garden Party a bit tongue in cheek. The bands intent is for our delight. I saw 2 shows, 29th and 30th. I thoroughly enjoyed both. But the 29th left a far greater impression on my buddy who is not a jaded jam chaser but an appreciative music fan. Great music was played. The 30th with the to die for DWD>20YL>Carini and Slave,Hood bliss made my year. It’s why I go. Amazes me how this band can touch such a diverse fan base.

    Any hoo, enjoy the day folks.

  24. ren Says:

    Mornin’ all. Great post Miner!….glad you decided to do this one. As usual, you more eloquently represented something I was trying to articulate yesterday.


    Will be commencing my first respin today…starting from the top with the 28th…..then on to the 30th during the weekend….in the dark…vaped to high heaven

  25. c0wfunk Says:

    Anyone identified best aud sources for the run? Still haven’t listened back to any or heard 28th at all

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