Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox remembers Benjamin Smoke

When it comes to bitter queens, it takes one to know one

My introduction to Benjamin Smoke came by way of his funeral parade in Little Five Points, just weeks after I moved to Atlanta. It was a sunbaked afternoon in August of 1999 and a ragged horde of artists and eccentrics, dressed in tattered, thrift store attire, lined up marching band-style in front of Junkman’s Daughter. Before they started their procession toward Euclid Avenue to the sound of sagging horns and a lopsided drumroll, I asked one of them what was going on. He snapped, “It’s Benjamin’s funeral parade.” I didn’t have the nerve to ask, “Who’s Benjamin?”

A year passed before Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen’s documentary film Benjamin Smoke materialized, but that only illuminated part of the story.

I eventually came across Smoke’s two CDs, Heaven on a Popsicle Stick (1994) and Another Reason to Fast (1995). The music was beautiful, but driven by an elegant sense of self-destruction. Years later, in my rounds of musical archaeology; digging through record bins for obscure and forgotten Atlanta-related gems, I found an ally in Deerhunter singer and guitarist Bradford Cox, who was also bewitched by Smoke’s legacy.

When Benjamin (born Robert Dickerson) died, Cox was 16 years old. Although the two of them never crossed paths, I came to think of them as kindred spirits: two provocative Atlanta music fixtures whose contrasts even seem to collide. Cox’s slurred take on noise, pop and post-punk songwriting has launched him onto stages the world over. Meanwhile, Smoke’s legacy of grimy, junkyard moan and derelict songwriting remains fixed on the fringes of local music folklore. Both artists have carved out their own space in Atlanta’s musical landscape while constructing their own iconic character.

Those characters, and their aesthetics, overlap in unique ways. In his early career, the flamboyant Benjamin performed in full drag. Nearly two decades later, the admittedly asexual Cox turned heads in the beginning of his career by donning dresses on stage, too. But beyond any superficial resemblance, there are other parallels: endearing, demanding and highly unusual personalities that wowed fans and friends, on stage and off.

When I got together with Cox to talk about the similarities, he reacted with disdain at the attempt to draw such a comparison, even as he expressed the highest regard for Benjamin’s own contemptuous character. But in his own reflexive way, Cox channeled the spirit of what made Benjamin such a formidable figure in the Atlanta music scene.

Do you remember the first time you heard Smoke?

It was in high school, but I don’t remember the first time I heard the group. I was fixated on Athens’ culture more than Atlanta back then; Ricky Wilson the B-52’s, Laura Carter Bar-B-Q Killers and those kinds of characters. I thought Athens was where it was at. My earliest musical outlets were there, and I thought Atlanta was boring. Think about downtown Atlanta, it’s a hollow, cultureless shell; like a Kinko’s at night. What is there? The Equifax building? Hard Rock Cafe?

Growing up in Marietta and going to Harrison High School wasn’t like growing up in Connecticut or New Jersey in the late ’70s/early ’80s. You couldn’t take a train into New York City for the weekend and see Lydia Lunch hanging out. The perception of downtown Atlanta was that there wasn’t any culture there. There wasn’t any punk rock that I knew of. I only found out that there were clubs and bands in town by reading Stomp and Stammer, and that was the only rock paper that was around.

Think about how Smoke would have stood out like a sore thumb in that cultural landscape.

That’s what attracted me to him, the raggedness of his presentation. It reminded me of what I imagined Athens to be. Everything I grew up on was based on illusion and nostalgia; older people telling me, ‘In the ’80s, these parties would have noise and feedback and people in dresses.’

My actual upbringing was based around the Gap and Michaels craft stores, Wendy’s and Nintendo. Everything that I looked up to was someone else’s experience and Benjamin figured into that.

Do you think of Smoke as an influence on your music?

I don’t want to say no, but I was a musician before I heard Benjamin’s music. I found out about him pretty late in the game. I view it more like, ‘Wow, I totally get this.’ When Benjamin was around and putting out records, I was a kid. My interests were X-Men and Spawn, and there are people who were around Benjamin who will roll their eyes at my mention of his name.

It’s like, right now there is an 8-year-old kid somewhere watching “iCarly.” He’s going to grow up to be an indie rock musician and will have learned about B Jay Womack Bobbi Ubangi. Some over-knowledgeable, overzealous music journalist is going to come along and ask him about the influence of B Jay on his music, but what the fuck will that kid know about B Jay? He probably wouldn’t have even liked the kid; and I guarantee you that Benjamin would not have liked me. First of all, bitter queens don’t get along. Number two, he did speed and I don’t get along with people who do speed.

You have an appreciation of the music, right?

Yes, but my opinion on Benjamin doesn’t matter because I didn’t know him, and I don’t have much to do with the Atlanta music scene.

I would argue that you’re an important part of Atlanta music. When I see the names Deerhunter, Bradford Cox and Atlas Sound mentioned, it’s always in the context of Atlanta.

That’s true, and Cole Alexander of the Black Lips and I will dig through dusty record bins for hours trying to find old Atlanta garage rock records ... . My point is if Benjamin saw this, he would roll his eyes and ask, “Why in the fuck are you asking this faggot about me?”

I often think of Smoke as a contemptuous character, a genuine freak when it was hard to be a freak. Many of the stories I’ve heard about him involve things like him walking down Moreland Avenue with a towel around his head.

People forget so much of that and wonder why music is suffering today. It’s because everything is allowed. It’s great to see strange music become part of the norm. You see weird people making normal music and normal people making weird music, but music has suffered as a result.

Sometimes it’s good to have a regional or folk hero. Maybe Benjamin Smoke could function as that, but I doubt it. I don’t think that he could because youth culture is growing increasingly homophobic. Not to say that a truly homosexual youth culture is progressive, that’s definitely not the case. I don’t practice any sexuality. But in our liberal-conscious minds, and in our artsy-ass way of thinking, you would think that our younger people would have some interest in these sorts of things. But middle schoolers today have no interest in gay folk heroes.

If you look at what’s popular in today’s mainstream culture, there have always been Justin Biebers and Backstreet Boys. But when you and I were younger, there were also Kurt Cobains. Now they’ve been replaced by what? Tokyo Police Club? Energy drink music? Compression? If you showed a middle schooler a clip of Benjamin Smoke and said, “Here is this guy who’s wallowing around in dust and clutter;” he’s a conservative person’s horror story, a homosexual living with AIDS in squalor, living on government money. He’s someone that a conservative would use to scare the congregation. You’re more likely to have an enemy notice him. Like disco/soul singer Sylvester; he was a great gay glam icon, but he never reached a wide audience. Maybe he did through his influence, and maybe Benjamin does through his influence.

Is the gay aspect of his character really a defining part of who he was?

I think so, and he emphasized it. It’s kind of Southern that he would be gay, too; in the sense of the B-52s and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. queer way. It’s a Victorian squalor thing, which I aspired to be a part of in my younger days. But now it’s not really honest of me because I don’t lead an actively gay lifestyle.

Is there a Smoke song that resonates with you in a particularly strong way?

The first Smoke song that stood out for me was “Chad.” It’s depressing, but it’s a very human song. I posted it on the Deerhunter blog as part of a mixtape, and I got an overwhelming response from teenagers all over the world. The guy that started the Benjamin Smoke Wikipedia page was a Deerhunter fan from Australia. I put that song up and it resonated with him so strongly that he had to look into it more. Smoke resonates with people like that, like a short story by a good author that makes you rabidly seek out the rest of his work.

What kind of things did people say when you posted it?

“What the fuck is this?” “Who is this Benjamin Smoke guy?” “If I send you money will you buy me the records?” I got more e-mails from that song than anything else I’ve posted, and I’ve made 30 or so mixes.

What pisses me off is the lack of archival information that’s available. All that’s available is what’s in the documentary, and that just gives you shards that make you want to know more. But if you ask somebody who was there, they don’t want to talk about their past because it is their past, and I can relate to that. I’m sure I will have to deal with that in a few years, when people start coming up to me saying, “Tell me about the early Black Lips shows?” I’ll say: “Fuck off, I’m an old man.”

“Curtains” is the song that roped me in. It’s dark, but it’s not an easy darkness. ...

It’s atmospheric, like a soundtrack piece. When I watched the movie, I was only familiar with a few of their songs, but not that one. So during the first few seconds, it feels like it was made for the movie, like a collage of film sounds or something.

Smoke was as much a part of Cabbagetown as he was the Destroy All Music at the same time, which was rooted in noise, shock and industrial aesthetics.

Destroy All Music was an offshoot of something larger, the Throbbing Gristle, Research, industrial thing. If you want me to describe all of that in one big cultural abstraction, there are two kinds of people that produce that kind of material: the mentally ill or the leisure class Marquise De Sade types who aren’t mentally ill, but fetishize mental illness. Not to say that Benjamin was mentally ill, but he didn’t make a choice to be who he was. He didn’t go to art school to learn how to walk down Moreland Avenue with a towel wrapped around his head.

Editors note: The story has been changed to reflect moniker by which Benjamin was commonly known.