San Antonio, Texas, in the late 1970s was a city of 650,000
residents on the verge of a real estate and population explosion. A Chicano soul and Tejano stronghold since the late ‘40s, the mid-sized city had been no stranger to macro and micro labels, from Manuel Rangel’s Corona Records, to Armando Marroquín’s Ideal Records distributed out of San Antonio to Abe Epstein’s Jox/Cobra/Dynamic on General McMullen Drive. By the beginning of the Carter administration, the city had fractured into three distinct genres:Tejano, country, and the hard rock / heavy metal sound popularized by KISS radio DJ Joe Anthony—who, ironically, had a major hand in bolstering the Chicano R&B movement on his seminal Harlem label in the late ‘50s. Caught in the middle of this commercial homogeneity was Gary Davenport’s Closet Records.
Closet issued just nine records in its original six-year run, primarily
on the 7” EP format, usually in editions of 100. The label was intended as a means of shaking up and emboldening a stifled music community, confined at the time to a few narrow paths. “Surely we would have preferred acceptance. Why not move to Austin?” Davenport said. “I suppose part of it might have been ego but more realistically, this is where we were, and we were determined to do this music in San Antonio.”
Born in the Alamo City in 1955, Gary Davenport was too late to fit into the garage and psychedelic generation, but older than the punk and new wavers that followed. The guitar under the tree for his twelfth Christmas was intended to steer Gary towards country music, but like many of his peers he gravitated towards The Beatles. He formed his first band in 1968 with classmates at Terrell Wells Junior High. They called themselves The Rubber Souls. The band developed a repertoire peppered with colorfully-titled original songs, and floundered for about two years before disbanding. A prog-influenced group followed, going under two different monikers, Blackwood and Chivalry. Proceeds from his gig flipping patties at Skee’s Burger Stand were plowed into buying records, as he scoured the city’s cut-out bins for obscure prog and folk.
It was at Skee’s that Davenport overheard a conversation that would alter his trajectory. Two customers were enthusing about the greatness of King Crimson’s In The Wake Of Poseidon. During a pause in the discussion, Gary surprised the two by blurting out that King Crimson was his favorite band. A conversation with patron Frank Garcia followed, and they were both surprised to discover that, in spite of their high school-mandated crew cuts, there were other freaks in San Antonio. They traded numbers, agreeing that the goal was to create original material, not covers.
A few pick-up bands followed, sizzling and fizzling with Davenport’s youthful combination of nervous energy and distraction. In late ‘74 he was listening to Genesis’ sprawling “Carpet Crawlers” and dialed into Peter Gabriel’s line, “The porcelain mannequin with shattered skin fears attack.” It was in this moment that his long-running Mannequin vehicle was born.
Starting in 1975, Gary worked for the Lien Chemical Company, servicing air purifier units and toilets in public bathrooms all over San Antonio. The job was harsh — Gary would not forget the Randolph Air Force Base Officers Club with its 30 toilets and ten air purifier units — but at least it provided a company car that got Gary around.
Gary took a second job playing disco at the Royal Street Crossing, a club on the Riverwalk downtown. It paid better than Lien Chemical, but Gary hated the music. He’d spin until 2 AM, get home by 2:30, and be up at 7:30 in the morning to do it all over again with Lien. He also took a job at a shop called the Record Hole, a favorite hangout spot.
In between a brief marriage, servicing toilets, spinning records he didn’t like, and his part-time job at the Record Hole, Davenport began sketching out the Mannequin project. “I didn’t get a lot of sleep during those months. But of course I was doing drugs such as speed which would keep me going,” he said. “I remember many nights writing lyrics and all kinds of detailed ideas of how I wanted Mannequin to be. I mean, I would be up all night without sleeping writing all this stuff down, and sometimes it wouldn’t make any sense the next day.
Mannequin made their live debut in July 1976, opening for the local prog act Germany at Villa Fontana at San Antonio’s Hemisfair Park. Almost a full year later they’d have their first opportunity to record, when Paul Dobbins, a student in audio engineering at nearby Trinity University, offered them free studio time at the school’s studio, with the caveat that the location not be revealed in any album credits. Davenport would go on to refer to the facility as Illusion Studios, a name he would use again and again to describe
various clandestine recording situations.
The group completed two songs at this first session, “Romanticizing
Again,” described by Gary as a portrait of the “intimacy between lovers” with deep reverb-laden production and the exotic sound of tubular bells played by Frank Garcia, and “Madness Of Moonlit Nights,” which was lost over the years. A second Trinity session took place in 1978, featuring Steve Sanchez on bass and Mark Champion—a regular customer at Record Hole—on lead guitar. Davenport and Champion were fast friends, forming perhaps the defining musical partnership of Gary’s career. Three songs were set down in short order: “Scattered Thoughts,” “Same Old Story,” and “In America There’s Everything,” the latter of which was inspired by the Neutron bomb’s ability to destroy life and leave buildings standing. “The absurdity of the idea,” Gary explained, “was the reason for writing this song.”
Gary went full time at Record Hole. Will Sharp, a co-worker and band manager for Austin’s The Next insisted Gary buy a $3.50 ticket to see the Sex Pistols, on their upcoming and soon to be infamous January 8, 1978 show at San Antonio’s Randy’s Rodeo, a converted bowling alley turned country-western dance hall turned live music venue. The sold out crowd was made up of a volatile slurry of hippies, rednecks, and a few stray punks who had already gotten the memo. The Pistols kept the audience waiting more than an hour. When they finally took the stage in front of the now-irritated crowd, Sid Vicious made international headlines by clobbering an audience member in the head with his bass guitar.
Gary and the rest of the Mannequins left the show shaken up, yet very impressed and determined to change their sound. They got an offer in October 1978 to open for The Next at Raul’s in Austin. Only a few weeks
before the show, the guys scrambled to write an all new set of punk songs to play for their Austin debut. The show did not go well and the band was convinced they’d tanked, but The Next wanted to see the group break in Austin, and would give them more opening spots later.
By the time the Scattered Thoughts EP appeared in summer 1979, Mannequin was moving in another direction, and the group was not particularly proud of the release. The three song 7” was mostly given away to friends, with a handful sold at Record Hole. The playfully psychedelic cover was drawn by Gary’s girlfriend Linda Weatherford. She designed the Closet logo, and her artwork would appear on the next Mannequin EP and later Champion/Davenport single as well. “I was always drawing back in those days. I wanted to contribute and I thought maybe this was one way of doing it. I didn’t play an instrument and I wasn’t great at singing,” Linda recalled. “Back then, the big thing to do on an afternoon was explore the local resale or half price record stores. [We would] flip through the stacks of eleventy-billion albums looking for something interesting. The covers always made the difference between what got passed over and what got picked up. I wanted to catch the eye. It wasn’t going to be slick, ‘cause the opposite of slick was what was going on at the time.
Sessions commenced in the spring of 1980 for a second Mannequin EP, Return to Cinder, which found the group moving in a post punk/new wave direction. A peppy two chord instrumental called “Poodle In The Microwave” would become Mannequin’s only local hit. Around the same time, sometime-collaborators Robert Giffen and his brother Russell were working on a proposed Closet release of their own under the name Once. Their home-recorded album The Hush ended up being self-released on their own Workprint label. Davenport tracked the previously unissued “From The Island” at the brothers’ D.I.Y. home studio.
The first release on Gary’s label by another band would come from a trio of high schoolers, Denise Rubinstein, Mark Rubinstein, and Mark Semmes, who walked into Record Hole one day and approached Gary and Mark about releasing a record for them. They called themselves The Rejects. Gary and Mark agreed to an impromptu audition at their practice space a few days later and were immediately taken by the punk energy of the young band. Their only release, Back To School Report Child Abuse (CRD-003) showed up in mid 1980. The record credits Gary on synthesizer on one track, and the group thanks “our parents for all their help and MONEY.”
By the summer of 1980 Davenport and Champion were toying with a concept separate from Mannequin. They convened at an unnamed friend’s studio in a rural zone outside San Antonio, for another clandestine session unbeknownst to the studio owners, again listed as Illusion Studios on the resulting record. They cut two songs including the sublime “True Freedom” and released it under their own names. Also issued in 1980 was Wind by Mike Escamilla, a 7” EP resembling the kind of bedroom indie rock that would come into vogue a decade later. “I believe we met at Record Hole and Mike learned about Closet Records that way,” Davenport surmised. “He just came to my apartment one day to talk to me about what he was doing musically and we agreed to release his first EP on Closet.” These kinds of informal handshake deals epitomized the label. Escamilla and his friend Gilbert Garcia would later release the excellent An Acoustical Disturbance LP on Closet with their band Tubular Face in 1984.
In the autumn of ‘80 Mannequin formed its most definitive lineup, with Mark Champion back on guitar, Brian Pogue on keys, and Steve Sanchez on bass. They added dual percussionists Henry Arispe and Art Sarkis. Propelled by local opening slots for Wall Of Voodoo and Modern English, the group started to draw real crowds at their live concerts. Saving their show income, the band set a date in 1981 to cut an LP’s worth of songs at Earth & Sky Studios in Austin. Although it was of the strongest material the group ever made, the group couldn’t find the money to press LPs, and the album would go unheard until 2013, when it finally saw a release as Wait No Longer.
The sixth record on Closet was a split between Charles Athanas and Gary Davenport released in July 1981. The pair played on each other’s songs and shared the cost of making the record. Athanas had a killer collection of synthesizers and used them on his own, entirely instrumental side, and to add a layer of dark atmosphere to the Davenport side. Gary’s work here was inspired by the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, a mystic and philosopher who taught that humans live in a state of unconsciousness from which to be awoken. “I was very much immersed in learning and reading about Gurdjieff, and every song on that recording is related to his teachings,” Davenport said. “‘Akhaldan’ is a city in the book Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson by Gurdjieff. ‘Halcyon Days’ relates to a certain peace and quiet that came while reading those books and also of the image of a certain bird from ancient Greece that was named Halcyon. ‘Crystals’ comes from the concept of things becoming crystallized within your being after working with these ideas from the teaching.” These songs straddled genres, mixing an earlier folk rock sound with post punk and prog influences. Some even reflected an early new age vibe.
Personally and professionally, 1982 was a turbulent year. On the musical front, Steve Sanchez and Frank Garcia had grown tired of the percussion element in Mannequin and wanted Gary to let go of Henry and Art. “They would come over and just jam with the band on certain songs, which eventually led to them playing on all the songs,” Davenport remembered. “This led to Frank’s big disinterest in the band and also Steve’s disinterest and even mine. I was left with the task of letting them know, which I was pretty poor in doing.”
In June of that year, Davenport and Linda Weatherford had a dramatic split. “The relationship had pretty well hit the rocks in 1981 or so,” Weatherford recalled. “Being young and foolish, these types of relationship never really lasted for either of us. I got a full blown heartbreak from that. My first and last. It almost killed me.” Gary was ejected from the apartment they shared (the bedroom of which is depicted on the cover of this album). He was quickly able to take over the lease of a house rented by friends, members of the local band Entropics. Steve Sanchez moved in and it became a live-in practice space. Once again Davenport poured his newfound energy into Mannequin. But Mark Champion was upset with details of Gary and Weatherford’s breakup, and was now fed up with the band. In a fiery phone call to Gary, Mark quit the band the day of a show at one of their frequent venues, Mulligan’s Pub, effectively resulting in the group’s banning, in part and in whole, from playing there.
By the end of 1982, Gary found himself in a fervent romance with a young English woman named Sarra. In early 1983, he booked a session again at Toby Torres’ studio to record a new single, his first under his own name. The A side was an ode to his new flame. The flip, “Journey to Oaxaca,” was an instrumental track inspired by Gary’s frequent explorations through interior Mexico, usually with Weatherford by his side. By the time the shipment had arrived, Gary had become increasingly concerned about how releasing the record might make Linda feel in the aftermath of their relationship. Most of the 100 count run of CRD-007 sat inside the original shipping box in Gary’s closet for decades.
In 1983, Scott Potter was invited to become Mannequin’s drummer. “I would say that by mid-1983 we were still pretty optimistic... In a sense there was a kind of smugness which I would say is dangerous for any band,” Davenport recalled. “We had intervals before between band members coming and going, and just lulls, but they were always temporary, and I think we felt like we were in some kind of phase like that. Around September of that year it was pretty apparent that Steve was very disgruntled and somewhat burnt out. And I was in my relationship with Sarra and figured now is as good a time as any to stop the band, thinking that chances were we would come together again if we did stop. By the fall of 1983 we were not playing anywhere or even practicing. There was no anger or animosity, it was just a simple choice to stop. It was quite obvious that Steve was ready to move on and at this point I had lost interest myself and thought that I probably could move in another direction doing something else.”
Gary would form another group, Red Square, alongside Steve Sanchez, Will Willard and Karl Yelderman, the following year. The quartet recorded Lemmings & Saviours at Joe Trevino’s Blue Cat Studios, which showed up on wax in 1987 on the Sonic Frequency label.
The last proper release on Closet Records was a 1985 compilation LP entitled As Raindrops Become Ocean. Organized by Davenport and musician Cathy Ragland, it was a showcase of various friends’ solo recording projects, featuring Mark Champion, Brian Pogue, Will Willard, and The Rejects’ Mark Semmes, amongst others. The album was cooperatively funded by all parties who appeared on the compilation and was meant to be a snapshot of the local underground scene at the time.
As Raindrops Become Ocean perfectly encapsulated the concept behind the original era of Closet Records. Like individual drops of water merging into a body much greater, Davenport had found a means of validating and showcasing the talents of a local community of uniquely creative musicians existing largely outside the view of the greater music industry. In another way, the title’s symbolism reflected Davenport’s need and ability to merge disparate musical styles and musicians into coherence.
As the Closet era drew to a close, Gary Davenport started working at another record store, Apple Records, where he kept the imports and independent releases stocked until 1996. He recorded his first solo album Vita Nova in 1989 and self-released it on tape three years later. “After that I did nothing musically,” he said. “I sold all my musical equipment, guitars, etcetera. I was going through my second divorce. I needed to dig deeply into myself and learn more about who I really was.” He finally returned to the studio in 1996, but let various gear breakdowns sideline him again until 2000, when more recording took place until the money ran out. That cycle of songs were finally completed in 2008, and released in 2010. After being contacted by a young collector, Davenport was motivated to complete the Mannequin album Wait No Longer, issued on a rebooted Closet in 2013.
Mark Champion passed away in 2012. “Mark was a very serious and
brooding sort of fellow, Davenport reflected. “I first met him when he
walked into Record Hole and into the import section I was responsible for.” As he had with Frank Garcia at Skee’s burger stand, Gary let his love of music be the thing that made this new connection. “At first he seemed put off and sent a vibe as though he wanted to be left alone,” he continued. “Eventually he responded to my remarks and we had our first conversation. During the time he was with Mannequin from 1978 to 1982, we became very best friends.”
Asked about the relationship refracted in the artwork for this collection, Linda Weatherford recalled an anecdote. “I was driving to pick up Gary who had somehow put his car keys down on a shelf in the store and couldn’t find them. This was probably 1984 or 1985 and even though we were technically broken up, he calls ME to come help him. Haha! And I go! Of course. And on the drive there, I started wondering why on Earth I was so brokenhearted over a guy who loses his keys in a grocery store.” But, she continues, “Gary and I love each other more now than we ever did.”
Gary continues to write and play out. “You don’t ever really arrive with this work,” he said recently. “Music and songs are living things that will continue long after I’ve exited, as long as there is an ear to hear them.”
- Jason Chronis Lockhart, Texas 2019