“Garden Party” is a 1972 hit song written by Rick Nelson and recorded by him and the Stone Canyon Band on the album Garden Party. The song tells the story of Nelson being booed off the stage at a concert at Madison Square Garden.
On October 15, 1971, Richard Nader’s Rock ‘n Roll Revival concert was given at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The playbill included many greats of the early rock era, including Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Bobby Rydell.
Nelson came on stage dressed in the then-current fashion, wearing bell-bottoms and a purple velvet shirt, with his hair hanging down to his shoulders. He started playing his older songs like “Hello Mary Lou”, but then he played The Rolling Stones’ “Country Honk” (a country version of their hit song “Honky Tonk Women”) and the crowd began to boo. While some reports say that the booing was caused by police action in the back of the audience, Nelson took it personally and left the stage. He watched the rest of the concert backstage and did not reappear on stage for the finale.
“Garden Party” tells of various people who were present, frequently in an oblique manner (“Yoko brought her Walrus”, referring to Yoko Ono and John Lennon), with a chorus:
But it’s all right now, I’ve learned my lesson well
You see, you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself
One more reference in the lyrics pertains to a particularly mysterious and legendary audience member: “Mr. Hughes hid in Dylan’s shoes, wearing his disguise”. The Mr. Hughes in question was not Howard Hughes, as is widely believed, but ex-Beatle George Harrison, who was a next-door neighbor and good friend of Nelson’s. Harrison used “Hughes” as his traveling alias, and “hid in Dylan’s shoes” most likely refers to an album of Bob Dylan covers that Harrison was planning but never recorded. “Wearing his disguise” also suggests that Harrison traveled incognito.
The phrases “Out stepped Johnny B. Goode / Playing guitar, like a-ringing a bell” refer to Chuck Berry and his song, “Johnny B. Goode”.
A garden party – October 15, 1971’s Rock ‘n Roll Revival concert at Madison Square Garden, New York City
My old friends – fellow performers at the concert Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Bobby Rydell
Yoko – Yoko Ono
Yoko’s walrus – John Lennon
Mr. Hughes – George Harrison
(Mr. Hughes) hid in Dylan’s shoes – Harrison’s planned (but later abandoned) album of Bob Dylan covers
I said hello to Mary Lou, she belongs to me – Nelson’s song “Hello Mary Lou”, which he played at the concert; also a reference to “She Belongs to Me”, a Bob Dylan song covered by Nelson
I sang a song about a Honky-Tonk – The Rolling Stones song “Country Honk”, the song that allegedly caused the booing
And it was time to leave – Nelson’s subsequent departure
Out stepped Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry’s song “Johnny B. Goode”
Playing guitar like a-ringing a bell – the line in “Johnny B. Goode”, “he could play guitar just like a-ringing a bell”