Garden Party: An Evaluation
As the ’50s turned into the ’60s, rock and roll was without direction. Elvis was still in the Army. Jerry Lee Lewis was, for all intents and purposes, blacklisted. Buddy Holly was dead and Eddie Cochran would be gone within a year. Radio was filled with pop crooners being billed as “teenage idols”. History will, rightfully or wrongfully, remember Ricky Nelson as part of that group, although he had proven a few years before that he could rock as hard and as good as the best of them and his ballads far exceeded that of other “teen idols”.
Anybody questioning his ability to make great music needs to hear it from a higher power than I. So check out what John Fogerty, leader of the world’s greatest rock band, had to say about him: “If you really love rock & roll, Rick Nelson deserves to be taken very seriously. When he was putting out his big run of records, it was almost like there was a shootout between Rick and Elvis. And as far as I was concerned, when Rick put out “Travelin’ Man” it was Round Fifteen, and Rick won. That’s where he knocked out even the King.”
Of course, there still is and probably always will be that troublesome “teen idol” tag. Perhaps he will forever be known as the precursor to The Partridge Family, New Kids on the Block, and the Backstreet Boys. Maybe he even was. But if that is all he is remembered for, it is truly a shame. In a way his dilemma is similar to Neil Diamond, who after establishing himself as one of rock’s best singer-songwriters slowly descended into easy listening hell (until being saved by Rick Rubin in 2005). Still, even at his worst Diamond was far better than the Barry Manilows of the world. In the same way, any comparison between Nelson and, say, Fabian is laughable.
Fast forward a few years. America’s airwaves have been overtaken by the sounds of Great Britain and newer American acts. The Everly Brothers watch as Simon & Garfunkel borrow their harmony and expand it into something new and distinct. Chuck Berry watches Bob Dylan redefine the terms “singer-songwriter” and “rock poet”. Elvis Presley gets a visit from the Beatles while making yet another predictable movie, his comeback still years away.
In the midst of all of this, when it looks like they do not have a chance in hell on the charts, these artists begin to make some of the best music of their careers. Obviously they would sound silly trying to make The White Album or Pet Sounds and the public clearly didn’t have any interest in hearing their classic sounds, so they descended further into the roots of rock music.
Conway Twitty, who was basically a one-hit wonder at the time anyway, but had nevertheless made some of the great rock music of the ’50s and early ’60s. Yet as the years rolled by, he realized there was no place for him in rock and became one of the great country artists of all time. Jerry Lee Lewis still rocked harder than anybody else in concert, but but focused solely on country in the studio with results, if not equal to his earlier work, as good as any country of the decade. Johnny Cash’s Orange Blossom Special blurred the line between country and rock as did The Everly Brother’s Roots. And Ricky Nelson (then being billed as Rick) recorded two great country albums, Bright Lights and Country Music and Country Fever.
A few years later, 1972 to be exact, Elvis is back and the Beatles are gone. Top 40 radio is still listenable but has already begun a downward trend that continues to this day. It’s been several years and several mediocre albums since Rick Nelson made his two country albums. His albums now were about being up to date and on top of trends, but his heart wasn’t in it. If it was, he was young enough that he could have dominated the charts for another ten years, but instead he took the road less traveled. He formed a wonderful country-rock group called the Stone Canyon Band, performed with them at an all-star ’50s show at Madison Square Garden where he was booed off the stage, and then wrote about the concert in one of the most important alt. country records of all time.
The song was “Garden Party” and it peaked at #6 on the charts. The song’s content, however, put aside any thoughts of Nelson having a follow-up hit and he never did. The song was his defiant farewell to commercial success, superstardom, and the world of pop music. The song is catchy, probably intentionally so, in order for it to get airplay and for the public to get the message they needed to hear. However, it is worlds apart from similar themed songs, such as Tom Petty’s “The Last DJ” because of its lack of anger and bitterness. Instead he is positively joyous because he knows in his heart that he is far more satisfied than those who sold their soul for more hits or those who put artistry on the backburner in order to please nostalgia-hungry crowds.
The song begins with a gently-strummed acoustic guitars and harmony vocals: “oooo ooooo oooo oooo ooo”, then Nelson himself begins singing in a voice more reminiscent of Tom T. Hall than Bobby Darin.
“I went to a Garden Party to reminisce with my old friends
A chance to share old memories and play our songs again
When I got to the garden party, they all knew my name
But no one recognized me, I didn’t look the same”
Then the music picks up just a little and the harmony vocals join Nelson’s voice to sing the chorus:
“But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well
You see you can’t please everyone so you got to please yourself.”
In the next verse, he obliquely mentions Yoko Ono, John Lennon (as “her walrus”) , and Bob Dylan before recalling his own performance.
“Played them all the old songs, thought that’s why they came
But no one heard the music, we didn’t look the same
I said hello to Mary Lou, she belongs to me
Then I sang a song about a honky tonk and it was time to leave”
For those who don’t know, he is referring to the songs “Hello Mary Lou”, “She Belongs to Me”, a Bob Dylan cover Nelson had a hit with in the ’60s, and the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” which he performed during the concert.
The next verse, though, is the greatest part of the song. He sets his sights on one of rock’s biggest icons and his attack is unapologetically merciless.
“Someone opened up a closet door and out stepped Johnny B. Goode
Playin’ guitar like a-ringin’ a bell and lookin’ like he should
If you gotta play garden parties, I wish you a lot of luck
But if memories were all I sang I’d rather drive a truck”
The song’s musical impact on Americana is immense, but its cultural impact on the genre is even more so. Gram Parsons may have been more important, but he also clearly wanted chart success. At that time, everybody in the music industry did. Even the most anti-commercial artists like Phil Ochs wanted his work to be heard by huge audiences even while he knew it wouldn’t be. Today’s Americana music field is full of acts who do not have, do not want, and will never have commercial success and they are happy with that. Ironically, the man who started this ideal was one of the most successful artists of the ’50s.
Instead he released the classic Garden Party album and two years later, the even better Windfall, both with the Stone Canyon Band. He only released two more albums, both of them precursors to the roots rock boom of the ’80s. His last album, 1981’s Playing to Win featured a handful of Nelson originals and covers of artists like John Fogerty, Ry Cooder, and John Hiatt. But he didn’t have, nor did he want, another hit.
He died tragically in a 1985 plane crash at the age of 45, but had he lived he would be seen as one of the elder statesmen of Americana music. Instead, he is remembered as a “teen idol”.