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. voopa Says:

    Joe Walsh does not equal Eagles. I’ll take Walk Away, Funk #49, Rocky Mountain Way, Life’s Been Good and Life of Illusion over Hotel California and Desperado any day.

  2. Luther T. Justice Says:

    @telas – I do still love that Cincy Melt. I still love that Cincy run as a whole package.

  3. tela'smuff Says:

    @stapes – listen again on that Tweezer. it’s a Wolfmans jam pretty much through and through, until they find themselves in a Gin ending for a second or two.

  4. Guyute711 Says:

    Like eating a shit burger with cheese over a plain old piece of shit.
    I was looking at those rumored dates and all the things I would like to see fall in the middle of the week, not good. I’d love to see them on my birthday in Indy.

  5. marcoesq Says:

    Dick’s Tweezer still tops in my book, and Miami is great. MSG is def long and groovy but doesn’t get to the same places IMO.

    Wolfman’s, I’m still a huge fan of the UIC one. Hits some nice peaks that no other can touch. MSG is great and funky though, just different.

  6. ren Says:

    Bader Wolfmans was no slouch either

  7. InAMinute Says:

    There is no lamer band than Steve Miller Band, but the song worked int he moment. That said @Guyute…Walk Away is classic. Love that song. I’m fine with putting some of the others to bed aka Frankenstein. Was happy to give Loving Cup a rest for once.

    That said, I really hope this band puts out some new material. Perhaps I was just tired at the end of the run, but I was hoping for some new infusion of non-covered songs. Here’s to 2013.

  8. kayatosh Says:

    quality article, miner.

    repamp: MMW w/ logic circa 98. great recording.


  9. marcoesq Says:

    AC had a fun version for sure. AC put a little extra something on almost everything. STFTFP and Tooob

  10. Mr.Miner Says:

    Love the MSG tweezer to death. My fav jam of the run.

  11. kayatosh Says:

    palmer; aud. 12.31.12


  12. marcoesq Says:

    Damn MIner, for sure would’ve thought you’d prefer the Carini

  13. HeadyBrosevelt Says:

    interesting write up miner. detailed and focused. you are a true phish nerd, and i applaud you for it. have fun and keep the site fresh in 2013.

    my biggest phish wish for 2013 is some sort of rocky mountain tour (Utah, Colorado, Wyoming; or multi venue Colorado). i doubt it will happen, but one can daydream.

    i’m going to listen to the 30th and go skiing. peace.

  14. kayatosh Says:

    pro steve miller. loved the cover. do do dodo

  15. xpun Says:

    what rumored dates is g$ looking at?

  16. marcoesq Says:

    I would love a Fall ’99 type tour starting up in BC or at the Gorge and swinging down south and then East. Would love to check out some personal new venues out west

  17. Guyute711 Says:

    When I think of Classic rock I imagine it would be classic if I never heard it again. Terrestrial radio ruined a lot of songs for me.

  18. stapes Says:

    @tela’s – will do.

    @heady – totally with you on a Rocky Mtn run. Would be a nice lead up to Dicks.

  19. Guyute711 Says:

    June 10-11-Mass Mutual Center -Springfield Mass
    June 13-14–JONES BEACH
    JUNE 16-17—SPAC
    JUNE 22——-CAMDEN

    AUG 01-02———THE GORGE

    AUG 10-11—–LAS VEGAS
    AUG 13-14-15-16—RED ROCKS

    OCT 15-16—ALBANY
    OCT 20-21—BOSTON


    DEC 28-29-30-31—-MSG NYE RUN

  20. Mr. Palmer Says:

    Thanks you Kaya.

    I love Slave when it’s played well and it closes a great show. Not being a musician I don’t care if it’s easy to play or not. I just know it sounds good. Not my favorite Phish tune, but when properly placed at the end of a big show, it can be perfect.

  21. Mrs Palmer Says:

    Awesome write-up, Mr Miner. Thank you once again. I have come to value your views as they usually are dead-on with mine. I had so much fun this run, and am at a loss for what to do until they tour again. I guess I’ll have time to fully read your book. 🙂

  22. marcoesq Says:

    Well that’s fun. I could see myself hitting a bunch of them.

  23. TheSloth Says:

    Great story Dr. P. I miss those Lost days on the BB.

  24. tela'smuff Says:

    @Heady – i’m with you man. that would be perfect. i also dream about another tour that runs up NoCal into OR and WA through MT into CO. some call me a space cowboy, but apparently i’m not the only one.

  25. tela'smuff Says:

    this shows are as beat as Miles Davis opening for Steve Miller. Dicks is a lock this year. 3 year contract.

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