- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
I went to a garden party
To reminisce with my old friends
A chance to share old memories
And play my songs again
That’s what Rick Nelson expected when he signed on as a “special added attraction” at a New York oldies concert at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 15, 1971. But a tactical error by Nelson led to his storming offstage, his set cut short by several tunes.
A year later, via “Garden Party,” his 19th — and final — Top 10 hit, he told the world his story behind that long-ago Friday night.
Chuck Berry was the show’s headliner, with supporting acts that included Bobby Rydell, Bo Diddley, the Shirelles, the Coasters, and Gary U.S. Bonds. Each of the performers — Nelson included — had been hitless since 1964, the year that a Liverpool, England, quartet swept Americans off the charts overnight.
When I got to the garden party
They all knew my name
No one recognized me
I didn’t look the same
That evening, Nelson strolled onstage with ultra-long hair, bell-bottom jeans, a velvet shirt, and cowboy boots. His longtime fans were aghast.
Nelson would later recount to Rolling Stone, “They kept looking at me and my long hair as if they couldn’t believe I was the same person. But I couldn’t have done it any differently, except by getting my hair cut and putting braces on my teeth.”
He opened with “Be-Bop Baby,” one of his early hits, and for a while Nelson’s classics brought screams of recognition and appreciation. But later in his set he offered a cover version of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me,” and the mood of the audience instantly dampened.
To make matters worse, Nelson set down his guitar, seated himself at an onstage piano, and launched into the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” What followed was a tsunami of boos.
Concert promoter Richard Nader later explained, “The people that were in Madison Square Garden were not there to hear contemporary music; they were there to escape it.”
When I sang a song about a honky tonk
It was time to leave
Nelson played one more number before exiting the stage to seek refuge in a dressing room that night.
He soon renewed performing as he had since his return to the concert stage in 1969, mixing his oldies with some newer material.
Outside of the New York debacle, he never encountered any problems; on a 1972 U.K. tour, for example, Nelson played London’s legendary Royal Albert Hall. His song set was essentially the same as the one at the Garden, only with more newer offerings. The exuberant crowd that night demanded four encores.
Nelson would eventually create his story song about that disastrous 1971 night. In doing so, Nelson’s “Garden Party” served notice to the world that he would never again be part of any strictly “oldies” gig.
If you gotta play at garden parties
I wish you a lotta luck
But if memories were all I sang
I’d rather drive a truck
Randal C. Hill is a rock ’n’ roll historian who lives at the Oregon coast. He may be reached at email@example.com.