In this continuing saga of gay-related acts, there are those that I'm so familiar with, that I know every one of their songs by heart; there are those that I'm well acquainted with, but had to further research them in order to present a fuller picture; there are those that I was vaguely familiar with before getting to know them well through presenting them; and there were those that I've just recently became aware of. Today's act is one of those.
In fact it was only after reading the booklet that comes with their only available CD, which practically contains everything that they recorded, that I realized the gay connections. There were two: the only original song on a CD consisting mainly of covers, was gay-themed. Also, the group's lead singer was gay.
The storied San Francisco Bay Area music scene of the late ‘60s produced mountains of enduring albums by the likes of the Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead, and on and on. But of course, in any scene, there are fine bands that for whatever reason slip through the cracks and never find an audience, leaving their name on posters as their only legacy.
Marvin Gardens was just such a band in hippie-era San Francisco. The parallels between them and Big Brother and the Holding company are hard to ignore, but the big one was that both bands sported a distinctive and compelling female vocalist. Carol Duke was no Janis Joplin, but she was in that zone. The band assumed its final form in 1967 when they added Duke on vocals and guitar, and cribbed their name from a Monopoly board. Duke also gave the band direction, transitioning them from a repertoire of top-40 covers to a more traditionalist milieu – Duke hailed from Bakersfield, CA, where a honky-tonk insurgency against slick Nashville country and western had sprung up in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Except for Duke, all the other members of the band came from San Francisco. They were Michael Lindner (bass), Fred Waxler (guitar), Tim Hazen (Farfisa organ) and Dave Ray Costuros (drums) - and they had all attended Lowell High School in the city's Merced Manor neighborhood. After graduating high school they each went their separate ways to different colleges, but by the spring of 1967 Waxler and Lindner had dropped out and were back in the city. Soon afterwards they reconnected with Hazen and Costuros and began playing music together.
However, the band did not fully coalesce until the winter of 1967 when they met Carol Duke. The powerful blues and folk singer brought with her a broad repertoire that included songs by Buffy Saint-Marie, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Eric Andersen, Lead Belly, Hoagy Carmichael, and an eclectic range of pre-war blues, country and folk numbers, which the band eagerly began to learn and put their own mark on.
The band built a following with a residency gig in a Sausalito club called the Lion’s Share, which in turn led to a demo recorded for Reprise Records in 1968. No deal came of those demos, nor did anything come of the expressed interest of Epic Records, and the band quietly fractured in 1969, victim to the frisson between Duke’s more traditionalist electric-folk tendencies and rest of the band’s desire to rock out.
They released only a four-song 7” of which so few copies were pressed that to call it “rare” is a gross understatement. On this EP appeared the group's only original song, a vigorous tongue-in-cheek rocker called Whips And Leathers, celebrating their friends on the gay motorcycle scene. Marvin Gardens played gigs at numerous gay and lesbian bars in SF, and Whips And Leathers was a song that was enthusiastically requested by gay fans... I couldn't find the song on youtube, but here's the whole album with every one of their tracks. They're all worth a listen, but if you want to listen to Whips And Leathers especially, it begins at the 15:32 mark.
Carol Duke, who died in 2014, was a lesbian. As Michael Lindner recently said: "She hid here sexual preferences from us... I wonder how difficult that might have been for her. In the 60s gays were being prosecuted. I'm surprised that some of the gigs we played didn't get busted... We did see the birth of gay culture that has taken the better part of our lifetimes to enter mainstream consciousness."
Carol's sister, Vicki, has more to add: "Her time in San Francisco, living on Day Street with her friends, was probably the happiest of her life. She came out and she started to deal with life as a lesbian. She used to get a real kick out of telling home town folk she was lesbian and watching their reactions."
In case you don't have time to listen to the whole album, here are the songs that I did find on youtube. First, here's Dylan's composition Down The Line:
This is Titanic, written by Lead Belly:
This is their version of Eric Andersen's Close The Door Lightly:
This is another Lead Belly number, called Duncan And Brady:
And this is Buffy Saint-Marie's 97 Men. The Marvin Gardens' version opens with a mischievous organ quote from 96 Tears:
I will leave you with a quote from Carol's stepsister Donnis Topel: "In high school I asked Carol if she was coming (in reference to meeting at a destination). Carol replied, 'Coming? I'm not even breathing hard.' ... It was several years before I got it..."