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”

  1. Guyute711 Says:

    Seems like its gonna be tough for me to get an asshole Friday going. Fuck yous people!!!

  2. bob dylan Says:

    Just gave ghost a solid attention span. #standupghost

    Love the gorge gin guitar reference in there and the “digicrap” trey goes into the last min.

  3. ren Says:

    Nice DIGICRAP reference….finally got to watch that vid and was fascinated!

  4. Pete Says:

    wow…talk about over analyzing something. They played Garden Party because they were in Madison Square GARDEN and they had a lawn set up on stage…end of story.

  5. ren Says:

    It was a set opener for NYE….which would make it a big statement regardless….the lyrics cannot be overlooked. It was a very careful and thoughtful choice. Who even knew that song existed? I thought it was fresh material actually….which made it even more poignant in the moment.

  6. xpun Says:

    Oh I see.

    Plenty of songs about grass and gardens to choose from. Have to think the lyrics were somewhat meaningful to the band.

  7. sumodie Says:

    Excellent piece, Miner. Echoes my thoughts exactly

    Didnt catch that Nelson & band had died 26 yrs to the day of the NYE show, ouch

    Thanks again for the time & effort!

  8. Kaveh Says:

    Nice post today @Miner. Thanks.

  9. JamsOnly Says:

    Nice research and a good read, thanks Miner.

  10. harryhood Says:

    Hey, any of you guys live near Woosta?

  11. Willowed Says:

    Great read Miner.

  12. xpun Says:

    “Talk about over analyzing ”

    One of the basic traits of any phish fan IMO. I over analyze all kinds of shit at shows. What makes them so fun for me.

  13. MiA Says:

    Time keeps on ticking ticking ticking … Into the future…

  14. sumodie Says:

    HHood, I’m an 1hr 15min west of woosta. T3, Halcyon, and Kenny Powers are near Woosta

  15. MiA Says:

    I disclosed to Xpun last night that when the prisms and rainbows kick in on the boomers … I have a natural desire to listen to Steve Miller band and look at prism stickers.

    Best of Steve Miller has been a landing pad for MiA often.

  16. MiA Says:

    Err… Steve Miller’s Greatest Hits.

  17. ren Says:

    The boomers and mawl combo during the run was the perfect headspace inducing combo…which I’ve been fine tuning over the past two years. Get hit in your perma grin/melted face with rainbows….and I don’t have to hide under my chair during the Carini sacrifice jam.


  18. MiA Says:

    So glad Page played the intro afterwards. I think Troy jumped the gun a little there and forgot Page opened up the song.

  19. DryIceFactory Says:

    I typically try to not overanalyze the band’s intent with song selection, but in this case, I think the selection of Garden Party does have meaning. They played what I would consider, basically a jamless show on the biggest night of the year. If they WANTED to drop 45 minutes of improv in *gulp* both the 2nd and 3rd sets, they could have. When they have the intent to jam, they basically always come out with stunning results. (I’m looking at you 8/31/12) Name the last 15+ minute type II excursion that didn’t hit home with most of us. Even something like ‘Ball Tweezer (a disconnected jam all together) is a fan favorite and something I LOVE to listen to regularly.

    If they wanted to jam their faces off, they would have kicked off with Makisupa->Garden Grove (Sublime)->Makisupa, jammed roses in the 3 slot, dropped a 2nd jam in Mike’s and thrown down the biggest set 1 of the year. They don’t get nervous about jamming, they just choose not to sometimes. The lyric in Garden Party was present to make us realize that after the essentially jamless NYE show, we should just realize that we have no need to critique and worry, the band just wanted to have fun and play songs for a night, then drop a monster run of shows in 2013.

    2013 is going to make Fall ’95, 97 and 99 look like trips to the f**king sandbox. Disease>20YL>Carini is our foreshadowing. They could have dropped a YEM right there and sealed the deal on the night, bringing back the 4 song set that they know everyone is longing for. But they CHOSE not to. This band has a switch, they turn it on and off as they please. And that, to me, just makes the thrill of the hunt all that much more fun.

  20. MiA Says:

    That is a great cocktail. Add a screwdriver and a Xanax and you have my ’90s phish show.

    Enough Adam so I don’t get pissed at people around me and yawn all night. Enough electricity that I don’t talk to anyone. A screwdriver for the muscles, and a Xanax, well … Why not.

  21. stapes Says:

    I want to hang out with MiA and fun guy.

  22. Guyute711 Says:

    Yeah they better not be playing any Steve Miller at the shows I go to this summer. What’s next Black Eyed Peas?

  23. MiA Says:

    Screw you G$$$.

  24. Guyute711 Says:

    Ha ha, Steve Miller sucks balls.

  25. MiA Says:

    Honestly I had a dream they did HYHU and Fishman came out and sang “Call Me Maybe” with vacuum solo.

    Steve Miller isn’t that bad.

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