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. Spasm Waiter Says:

    @Stupe- concensus is strong yay. Silly said it best. “I loved it despite the feeling that I was about to get stabbed…”

  2. Stupendous Says:

    MIA was stellar, maybe part of it was that i was living in FL at the time….

  3. BNCB Says:

    Miami was pretty empty upper deck on the 28th. More peeps each night. They announced late and were just getting back in 09. If we return in 2014 it won’t be so undersold.

  4. Stupendous Says:

    ya when i think MIA NYE i think 12/29/03 everyone walked out of that show vibrating!!! there was even an impromptu drum circle on the rail of the arena on the outside while everyone was walking out….

  5. Stupendous Says:

    lol @Silly & @Spasm

  6. MiA Says:

    I agree 100% about Miami on the 29th. Don’t remember the drum circle, but do remember the tiny parking lot across the street that served as shakedown.

  7. SillyWilly Says:

    Miami is warm…

  8. roberto luongo Says:

    use the custy term MIA

    it’s the rage cage yo

  9. BNCB Says:

    It would be one thing if they crushed the shows each winter at MSG. It would be worth braving all the BS the expense and the freezing cold weather.

  10. sumodie Says:

    MIA is all about nitrous anarchy in shakedown. Most amazing maelstrom to witness. No ballooms needed either

  11. roberto luongo Says:

    Miami is one of the first runs I kicked it with Butter and BNCB

    damn time flies. fuck.

  12. jdub Says:

    It’s sets like 12/30/12 set 2 that make me wanna believe MSG still has some Phish life left. Thinking we’ll be singing a different tune after next years run. Of course I thought that before this years run.

    Not that I didn’t have the time of my life once again. And I think the band played quite well for the most part. Being a yankee, I just want MSG to be the Mecca for Phish once again. Not some stadium in Commerce City named Dick’s. But it sure is a nice time out in the Rockies, with legalized bud, plenty of tickets, and cheap room and board.

  13. sumodie Says:

    Love all the best jam nominations. 2012 featured all sorts of awesomeness no matter what we think of troy, msg, set 1s, no new tunes, etc

  14. BNCB Says:

    Rl got tossed from his seat for puffing. That’s the shit I don’t like.

  15. SillyWilly Says:

    SillyWilly’s Opinion on the State of Phish:

    2012 was a great year.
    2013 can be better.

  16. Willowed Says:

    Is it me or do 3.0 Limb by Limb’s crush?

    No type 2 or anything, just straight heat.

    This MSG LxL smokes.

  17. roberto luongo Says:

    Forgot bout that

    Got the boot during makisupa for puffing a personal spliff on the 28TH


  18. SillyWilly Says:

    Toyota Park ’10 LxL was pretty good in an underrated show.

  19. roberto luongo Says:


    LxL ) page crushes audience with emotional Let it Loose

    One of my fav 3.0 moments

    Damn Richards / Jagger can write a fuckin song

  20. jdub Says:

    I haven’t listened back to 12/29 Limb but remember it being fiery. I liked that set 1 quite a bit.

  21. BingosBrother Says:

    That Ghost Limb was ill as fuck silly. 1 of my boys 1st shows and he had his ear an inch from the GA speaker during Ghost. Peeps were getting the fuck down. Love that Toyota floor.

  22. joe Says:


  23. thedayman Says:

    i’ve randomly caught some hot limbs. toyota 10, uic 11, msg 12, stl 12. good call @willowed – tune has done well for itself in 3.0

  24. SillyWilly Says:

    get down.

  25. joe Says:

    the recent hbo stones doc has a couple of good richards/jagger song writing things in it. one late night Keith with an acoustic guitar session stands out.

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