Saturday, June 19, 2010

Someone Opened Up the Closet Door and Out Jumped the Real Thing

I always had mixed feelings about the Ricky Nelson song “Garden Party.” It came out in 1972, pretty much at the height of my early obsession with Chuck Berry. It told the story of the first big Rock and Roll Revival show at Madison Square Garden in 1971. According to Wikipedia:

“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 "Hello Mary Lou" and "She Belongs to Me", 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.”

It’s a great song, with an interesting sentiment—and one that hit pretty close to home. I became a Chuck Berry fan at the time of “Back Home” and “San Francisco Dues.” I knew Chuck Berry wasn’t only singing memories—but on stage it was usually just the hits and some classic blues.

Still—I felt the punch Nelson took at Berry was unfair.

The song opens hopefully:

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
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

The concert itself was an event. There’s some big time name dropping.

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
lott-in-dah-dah-dah, lot-in-dah-dah-dah

Then comes the self pity.

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
lot-dah-dah-dah (lot-dah-dah-dah)

I have a little trouble seeing the change in Rick Nelson in the two shots here. Looks pretty much the same, except that the earlier shot is a bit more timeless. But then the dig at Chuck Berry…

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

I understand the sentiment-- but it's wrong.

It's wrong in part because it's just wrong.  I haven’t found any photos of that particular show, but I doubt Chuck Berry was “lookin’ like he should.” If he wanted to “look the same” as he did in the 1950s he’d have a white suit and a big fat blond guitar—but I’d be willing to bet that in 1971 Chuck Berry was wearing his psychedelic paisley shirt and playing a cherry red semi-hollow body. See example below!

Who was more of a "hippie" in 1971 than our hero? He wore his hair longer. He wore Sly Stone sideburns. He usually wore purple or red bell bottom pants. He had a green flowered jacket.

So I doubt he looked any more “like he should” than Mr. Nelson.

The real difference was the repertoire. Ricky had “Mary Lou,” and ultimately “Garden Party.”

Chuck Berry, on the other hand, jumped “out of the closet” with Johnny, and Maybellene, Nadine, and Marie.

He had Sweet Little Sixteen and that dirty look giving teacher.

He had the “po’ boy” on a bus from Norfolk to the Promised Land. He had Beethoven on the run. He had “Wee Wee Hours” and “Deep Feeling”.

He had Rock and Roll Music.

And though he didn’t play it much on stage, he had Tulane, and the merciless judge, and Louisiana.

And he had a guitar style that, in the words of Eric Clapton, "Pretty much laid down the law" for rock and roll. 

He wasn’t singing memories. He was making history.

But I suspect that if he could have made a better living driving a truck, he probably would have been happy doing that too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said Peter!
Your critics are clever and also sharp as a razor blade.