The triumph and tragedy of the Cabbagetown sound: Benjamin and Smoke
Part 2 of 2: Heaven on a Popsicle Stick
When Smoke’s debut album, Heaven on a Popsicle Stick was released on Long Play Records in 1994, it prompted a bold declaration from CL: “This won’t put Atlanta on the map, this is the fuckin’ map.” A second album, Another Reason to Fast, came out a year later. And if it seemed Benjamin was writing and recording as though he was racing against time, he was. Few people knew, but Benjamin had contracted a deadly combination of HIV and Hepatitis C.
The critical acclaim for the albums enabled Smoke to tour up and down the East Coast. They also toured the West Coast opening for Chan Marshall who, by that time, was gaining a national audience under her moniker of Cat Power with a sound that was very much influenced by Smoke. (Marshall’s publicist declined an interview request from CL for this story.)
In addition, Benjamin had attracted the attention of filmmakers Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen, who began to film a documentary about him that would be released in 2000 to rave reviews, including the New York Times and the Village Voice. And the filmmakers helped facilitate a meeting in New York City between Benjamin and the singer who had inspired him to make music, Patti Smith.
Bill Taft: They knew he loved Patti Smith, so they got Patti to come out to a Smoke show at the Cooler to meet Benjamin. Benjamin was really proud and humbled and feeling silly that Patti Smith was in the audience.
Roger Ruzow (Gold Sparkle Band, 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra): In 1996, Chan Marshall put together an Atlanta expatriate show in New York at the Cooler. A bunch of us were fleeing Atlanta because of the Olympics. It was Smoke, Cat Power, the Gold Sparkle Band, the Rock*A*Teens and Seely. It was a blowout, a great show and we stayed up all night.We were all sitting at a table at a coffee shop really early in the morning and someone asked, “Hey, what happened to Benjamin?” No one could remember the last time they saw him. Then, at like 6 in the morning, this guy appeared from out of nowhere, dancing down the street, twirling around in circles and singing to himself, and someone said, “Benjamin!” He stopped for a second and said, “Yes?” in his raspy voice, then went on his way, dancing down the street.
Coleman Lewis: Me and Ben were roommates in Cabbagetown on Gaskill Street. The way he was when he was out and about was the same way he was at the house. It was kind of like living inside a circus. It was just very humorous and fun to watch. He’d run off a bunch of roommates but for some reason, he and I just kind of hit it off. It was easy for us to live together. I could put up with his hijinks and he could put up with mine.
‘’On Saturday, Dec. 20, 1997, Patti Smith came to Atlanta and performed at the Variety Playhouse, and Smoke opened the show. Backstage, Benjamin looked wane and frail; but the group put on a remarkable performance that was punctuated when Smith invited them back on stage at the end of her show for the song, “Rock â ~n’ Roll Nigger.” Smoke’s Coleman Lewis and others ran around the stage like kids on a playground, almost knocking over Bill Taft as he tried to play the cornet.
That show marked Smoke’s apex; Benjamin just wasn’t strong enough physically to go any farther.
Bill Taft: Overall, the reception the band received was really good. The biggest problem was Benjamin’s health began to deteriorate. As the opportunities kept expanding, the limitations and constraints of his health began to pull us in the opposite direction. The enthusiasm for the music was there. But Benjamin didn’t have the strength to follow through.
Brian Halloran: I didn’t know he was sick. I actually found out because somebody asked me, “Does Benjamin have AIDS?” And I said, “I think he would’ve told me if he did.” And that just didn’t turn out to be the case. It was when Jem and Pete were filming, and I asked him about it and he explained to me that it was true. It was a real shocker.
It’s kind of like the way Benjamin explains it in that movie. He wasn’t trying to be the spokesperson for AIDS or anything. But he would talk about it to people one on one if they asked him about it.
Bill Taft: It was pretty hard. Your friend is dying. He didn’t want to be a poster boy for AIDS. He didn’t want his dying to be an issue, which is kind of naÃ¯ve if you’re losing a lot of weight and have open sores and you’re a performer. People are going to want to know why you’re dying. You’re going to have to deal with that issue.
The hard part for me was people would say, “Hey, what’s up with Benjamin?” The guy who booked bands at the Cooler would say, “Is Benjamin OK? He looks like shit.”
I’d say, “Benjamin’s fine. We’re playing our music.” It didn’t seem right to do anything but follow Benjamin’s lead. That was kind of tough. Between what the audience saw and what Benjamin wanted them to see, there was a conflict.
Coleman Lewis: You could kind of see it coming at some point in time. Of course, his health started getting worse and worse toward the end. I lost one of my best friends. We’d lived together two-and-a-half or three years. There ain’t nothing fun about that.
Brian Halloran: Benjamin, he really didn’t want to die, man. He knew he was dying, and would tell me about all the things he had plans to do and all the things he wanted to do. For someone who did so much damage to himself, I’ve never seen anyone who wanted to live so much.
Benjamin Smoke (born Robert Dickerson) died on Jan. 29, 1999, a day after he turned 39. His last show, an Opal Foxx Quartet reunion, was at the Clermont Lounge four weeks earlier on New Year’s Eve. A parade in his honor was held in Little Five Points, and Patti Smith would write a song as his epitaph: “Death Singing.”
Connie Haynes: We didn’t play together for a long time. We played at the Clermont, the last time he played, I guess. And Benjamin was just really, really obviously ill.We were fixing to go out on stage and Bill Taft played before we did, and I heard him yelling at the audience, “Yeah, Opal Foxx is going to die, and you’re going to die, too.” I don’t know if he thought people were reacting strange, if they’d come to see a spectacle or if somebody said something. But I love how he had the balls to do that.
Bill Taft: It was the same kind of thing as the other parade. How do you take the loss? What do you do with the grief, especially if your friends don’t go to church? Essentially, we’re all uncivilized so we have to create our own rituals. It was our own take on funeral processions, really not too different from the Kennedy casket rolling down the streets of Washington, D.C. Except we had a bunch of inflatable penises at Benjamin’s parade, and a lot of men wearing plastic tits in memory of Deacon.
Brian Halloran (who stopped playing music for 10 years after Benjamin’s death, is now performing with the surviving members of Smoke in a group called Smoke That City): We started playing together almost a year ago now. I’d talked to Bill about getting together to play on some of the unreleased Smoke tracks, because he wasn’t playing with us toward the end. And it just turned into a band. We kind of put the horn dubs on the back burner, and just started making music together again.
There’s unreleased music from Smoke. Some of it’s really good. I consider it to all be part of the final project, “My Lover, the Matador.” I think it’s finally going to happen now. Benjamin had designed a cassette tape for a Smoke record that had “My Lover, the Matador” as the title. I don’t remember what songs he put on it, but it seems real appropriate to call it that.
Lisa Fratesi, the wife of our drummer, is a painter and she did a cover for it that’s real nice, and Benjamin would’ve liked that. There’s plenty of unreleased material for at least one record. I’m working on it.
J.T. Thomas: Those are some of the fondest memories I have. A lot of people would dismiss the influence the Chowder Shouters had musicially, but if you look at a lot of the bands that came out of that scene that claim the Cabbagetown sound, we were the band that started it.
The credit for that mostly goes to Bill. The two most important people of the Cabbagetown sound are Bill Taft and Benjamin. They are the heart and soul of it. Benjamin, first of all, is just absolutely amazing. I can’t even listen to those Smoke records because I find them so emotionally overpowering. They’re that beautiful.
Bill Taft: The way I look at it, J.T. started it and Benjamin ended it. Before J.T., I didn’t really know anyone who lived in Cabbagetown. After that a lot of people started moving in. They picked up on the zeitgeist.
When Benjamin died, he was kind of the center of gravity that held the orbiting lunatic planets in alignment. Once he was gone, we all sort of spun off into space.
Glen Thrasher (host of WREK-FM (91.1)’s “Destroy All Music” show and, for a time, Benjamin’s roommate): I knew Benjamin for more than 20 years. He spent the first half of that time absolutely pushing the edge. He had these ideas that he could do anything he wanted to do with art and if people were offended by it, that was their problem, not his. He spent the other half just trying to make his music. At the time, I thought it was really tame and paled in comparison to what he had been doing in his previous group. But in hindsight, I can see that it was some of the best stuff he ever did and it’s that music he’ll be remembered for.
Coleman Lewis: I have so many memories. You spend that much time with somebody, you’re living with him and playing in a band with him. I just keep them to myself. It’s nice to have that memory no one else has. Everybody has their own memories of him. Some like to tell people about them. I just like to hold on to some for myself.
Connie Haynes: Every time he had to go to the emergency room, we thought we were going to lose him. One night when he went, I said, “If you’d been straight, I would’ve given you a hard time because I would’ve wanted to be your wife.” And he looked me and said, “What’s straight got to do with it?”Not very often, but sometimes, I just know he’s here. I’ll dream about him and I feel him when I wake up.
Doug DeLoach: As a writer, it was incredible to have been around all that. Everybody talks about the sadness and pain they saw in Benjamin and in the music. I can tell you it brought great joy to him to do it, and to Bill and to Coleman and to Brian and to Tim, anyone who played with those guys. It was joyous.
When you listen to that music, you feel that profound sadness. You can’t escape it. But in performance, it was nothing short of enthralling. You had a much greater connection to the beauty of that expression. And that’s a very difficult thing to pull off.
James Kelly: Any music scene is transient. They don’t last forever. We all change. Life changes. People move on. They leave and their priorities change.
A bunch of folks are still in Cabbagetown; I still live there. People come in, do their thing, leave and new ones come in and do their thing. Some have stayed. Others have gone on to do bigger and better things. Kelly Hogan lives in Wisconsin and is touring with Jakob Dylan right now; she’s also Neko Case’s right-hand woman. Hell, I think Kelly is a better singer than Neko. And that’s just not because I’ve known her for 25 years, I just think she’s a better singer.
It’s funny, somebody mentioned the other day that a lot of younger people in the music scene in Atlanta have no idea about the roots of a lot of the music. They go see Hubcap City and think it’s all cool and great; they have no idea who the Opal Foxx Quartet was or Benjamin.
Bill Taft: How would I explain Benjamin to someone who never saw him? He was a lot like Huckleberry Finn. He was kind of a timeless outsider. He refused to be civilized. He just headed out and wherever he was, that’s where the frontier was.
Additional reporting by Chad Radford.’’