Mick, Rick and the Garden Party

Imagine being booed off stage for presenting an audience with a cover of the Stones’ ‘Honky Tonk Woman’. Maybe it was the addition of a country twang that he gave the song, but the audience felt, with his long hair and refusal to stick to the formula of the evening, that the performer was out of line and they told him so in no uncertain terms. He fled the stage. The reaction was not as iconic as that given to Dylan when he swapped his acoustic guitar for an electric one, but with this performer it did give the world a song that has lasted down the decades, remaining a staple on classic rock radio world-wide. The song tells of a rocker who remained frustrated at the reaction to him that evening at Madison Square Garden.

I once saw Weddings Parties Anything perform live. It was at a venue, a pub I think, somewhere round my home town of Burnie. Due to come on at ten, if my memory serves me correctly, they eventually did so so much later. By this time many of the patrons were tanked and therefore seemingly intent on spoiling it for those of us who were there for the music. Mick and the lads – maybe there was a lass involved too – still did their their best to give us value for money from their rollicking fare, including their only major hit, ‘Father’s Day’. I guess you’d call them our own version of the Pogues, although I think Mick Thomas’ teeth, unlike Sean’s, were in much better nick. The Weddo’s were a pretty tight unit too and I doubt there would be any of the shambolic evenings in their history that the Irish collective are notorious for. Over the years, despite a lack of chart action, WPA’s famous Christmas shows at Richmond (Vic) venue, the Corner, have become legendary on the pub rock circuit. Despite the yobs that night and the lateness of the hour, I enjoyed their performance.

Something I also enjoyed, when I was much tenderer in years, back in the days when rock was young, was a certain television show, one in which the aforementioned entertainer on that MSG stage first had his name up in lights. When he first started out in it his music wasn’t to the fore – that developed as the show, stretching across fourteen seasons, wore on. He was on screen in all but the early days of the popular series – 435 episodes were produced in all. It was a contemporary of such wonderful fare as ‘I Love Lucy’, ‘Father Knows Best’, ‘Our Miss Brooks’ and the most legendary of them all, the hilariously poignant ‘The Honeymooners’. In contrast his show was supposedly a true take on what it took to be the US’s ideal family, headed by Ozzie, with wife Harriet. That was its eponymous title – ‘Ozzie and Harriet: the Adventures of America’s Favorite Family’. Most knew it simply as ‘The Nelsons’.

It began as a soap on radio in 1944, running until its move to television in 1952, starting a marathon that only finished in 1966. Ozzie and Harriet played themselves and until 1949, voice-actors their two sons. The real David and Ricky joined in then and the US settled in to watch, from their living rooms, the two lads grow up.

Today it would make for tame television, but back in the day the punters couldn’t get enough as the family involved itself with minor disasters and arguments that we all knew would be resolved by the end of the half hour. Ozzie was the slightly distracted, vague and amiable patriarch, Harriet his no nonsense and wise spouse. David was the sensible son, Ricky subject to flights of fancy – at least that’s my recollection of it. Critics reckoned later it truly was a show about nothing resembling any important issue of the day, was thoroughly WASP and insipid. Others likened it to an olden day ‘Truman Show’ – real people playing out their lives on national TV. The difference was that the Nelsons knew they were doing so – and in private, it wasn’t always to their benefit. As a result the two boys had nothing like a normal childhood.

The father, who died in 1975, was in fact a control freak who subjected his family to the demands of churning out the hit series; this taking priority over every other aspect of their lives. Ozzie had been a successful band leader in the thirties and was an out and out workaholic. Once he started in television he wrote the next day’s script through the night, cracked the whip on the long hours of recording and later, when his sons requested a desire to quit the series, they were bluntly forbidden to do so. They gave up any hope of attending college with their peers. They were famous – what else could they possibly want?

Harriet, pre-wedlock, was a nightclub and radio star whose future seemed very bright in her own right. She found fame, of course, but not as those who knew her, including Ginger Rogers, would have hoped. A trouper since the age of 13, Harriet Hilliard married one O Nelson in 1935 and gave up all her independent aspirations

Son Ricky’s profile grew on the show once he started strumming his guitar and showing the vocal aptitude to go with it. By the end of its years he was its real star with a huge teenage following. Eventually he found enough wriggle room to start building a life away from ‘The Nelsons’ as dad came to realise that, without his second boy’s input, his life’s work would go down the gurgler. It was his popularity as a musician that was his ticket to the independence that had been denied other family members. It was because he was television’s first teen idol. He had a string of hits in those pre-Beatle days when rock had blanded out. These included such ditties as ‘Hello, Mary Lou’ and ‘Travellin’ Man’. Eventually each episode of the family saga revolved around setting up a scenario whereby he could sing, usually at some frustration or other over a girl. Once the British invasion hit, though, his star waned; as did ‘The Nelsons’.

With his childhood effectively stolen by his over-bearing father, in his adult years the cracks started to show for Ricky, or Rick as now he preferred to be called. He experimented with drugs, busted up a marriage and generally entered a downward spiral – becoming a far cry from his public persona, as perceived by the public, from his television show. The legacy of it seemed like a millstone around his neck. As many did, as the sixties morphed into the seventies, he attempted to reinvent himself as a country-rock performer, putting together the Stone Canyon Band.

Rock revival by this stage was where some money could be had as well. It was something Rick Nelson usually eschewed, but in 1971 he accepted an invitation to appear at MSG, NYC, along with fellow stars from the 50s – Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Bobby Rydell. But Rick failed to do his homework. He didn’t realise this was a hits only show, so when he started to play songs off his latest album, including the Jagger/Richards cover, the crowd reacted negatively. Rick, piqued, pulled the plug and stormed off, vowing never to give any audience the satisfaction of him ever performing his old hits. It’s an interesting side story that his two sons, twins Gunnar and Matthew, who had a few hits of their own last century, now tour singing their dad’s songs as well as their own. And in any case, Nelson senior forgot about his vow in later years.

Such was RN’s funk after his disastrous meltdown that he decided to write about his feelings on the matter in lyric form. The result – ‘Garden Party’. For those in the know – now including your good selves dear reader – it is obvious what the ‘Garden’ bit refers to. The song became his first top ten maker since his golden years – and his last. Rick Nelson kept on playing for the rest of his short time on the planet, his life cut short by a plane crash in 1985. He was only 45. As someone who followed his countrified career after the demise of his parent’s television vehicle, this event greatly saddened me. But the legacy of these leaner years remains with a very fine song.

In its lyrics are many very interesting references, including a line name-checking one of his hits – ‘Mary Lou…She belongs to me’. Then there’s ‘Mr Hughes hid in Dylan’s Shoes’. This was a hark back to the times when George Harrison, who Rick believed was his friend, tried to go incognito around the world’s cities, calling himself Mr Hughes. At the time the ex-Beatle was working on a project that didn’t eventuate – an album of covers of tunes by his Bobness.

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
No one recognized me, I didn’t look the same
But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well.
You see, ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself
People came from miles around, everyone was there
Yoko brought her walrus, there was magic in the air
And over in the corner, much to my surprise
Mr. Hughes hid in Dylan’s shoes wearing his disguise
But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well.
You see, ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself
Played them all the old songs, thought that’s why they came
No one heard the music, we didn’t look the same
I said hello to “Mary Lou”, she belongs to me
When I sang a song about a honky-tonk, it was time to leave
But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well.
You see, ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself
Someone opened up a closet door and out stepped Johnny B. Goode
Playing guitar like a-ringin’ a bell and lookin’ like he should
If you gotta play at garden parties, I wish you a lotta luck
But if memories were all I sang, I rather drive a truck
And it’s all right now, learned my lesson well
You see, ya can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself

These days ‘Garden Party’ is now the crowning glory of Rick’s career – the one that’s lasted. It has had innumerable people covering it including, in recent times, John Fogerty on his own excellent collection of covers, ‘The Blue Ridge Rangers Ride Again’

And the connection between Rick N and Mick T – it’s probably obvious by now. The Weddos man has knocked out his own engaging take on the classic.

On the local scene Mick Thomas has had a long and illustrious career, not only with his singing, but in writing for the stage as well. He performs as a solo artist and as part of bands such as The Sure Thing and The Roving Commission. He is a survivor. He’ll perhaps never regain the type of exposure ‘Father’s Day’ gave his band, but he has a solid following and his product still sells, standing up to critical scrutiny. But, of course, you’ll never hear him played on mainstream radio. Mr Thomas’ latest release is ‘These Were the Songs’, largely a retrospective of his work post Weddings Parties Anything. There are several covers, apart from GP, including a lovely, lovely version of Dylan’s ‘Most of the Time’; Thomas dueting with up-and-comer Ruby Boots. And as with Nelson, his inclusion of the former child-television star’s song is an up-yours too. It’s a thinly veiled criticism of the big players on the scene and their refusal to take Mick’s newer music seriously. And it is perhaps his fear that, along with ‘Garden Party’s’ songsmith, he will be regarded as essentially a one hit wonder. But with both that song and ‘Father’s Day’ on non-stop rotation somewhere and instantly recognisable, is that too bad a legacy?

Rick Nelson performing ‘Garden Party’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAHR7_VZdRw

Mick Thomas performing ‘Garden Party’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6GhsEFluOUo

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