The triumph and tragedy of the Cabbagetown sound
Part 1 of 2: Have you heard death singing? An oral history
Additional reporting by Chad Radford
During the ’90s, Atlanta’s underground music scene revolved around a group of musicians who lived in down-and-out Cabbagetown.
The village and its row houses, in the shadow of historic Oakland Cemetery, were built in the 1880s to accommodate workers from the Appalachian mountains who came to Atlanta to work at the adjacent Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill. By the late 1980s, the mill was shuttered and Cabbagetown had devolved into a rough-and-tumble pocket of poverty full of eccentrics and junkies who lived on the fringe.
It’s impossible to know whether the musicians who moved there for the cheap housing simply endured Cabbagetown’s sketchiness, or were so estranged from the mainstream that it helped attract them.
Whatever drew them there, they were like characters who’d stepped straight out of a Flannery O’Connor story. The Cabbagetown music scene’s guiding voices were a gay drag queen and a straight redneck poet who wore dresses and large plastic breasts on his bare chest. The music they made certainly reflected that quirkiness; it was often slightly out of tune and relied on such unconventional rock instruments as a cello, cornet or beer bottle.
Yet, it worked. Cabbagetown was home to many of the most significant Atlanta artists and bands of the ’90s: Deacon Lunchbox, Kelly Hogan, the Opal Foxx Quartet, the Jody Grind, Smoke and Chan Marshall (Cat Power). They collectively created a sound that was diverse but instantly recognizable.
The story of the Cabbagetown sound is also a Southern Gothic tale that ends with death and tragedy, almost before it had a chance to begin. The Jody Grind was decimated by a car accident that killed two band members just as the group was about to gain a national audience. Deacon Lunchbox, the redneck poet, also died in that 1992 accident. And just when Smoke appeared poised to break out, lead singer Benjamin Smoke died in 1999 from liver failure after fighting Hepatitis C and HIV. His death marked the end of that era.
For this oral history, CL conducted interviews with more than a dozen people involved in the scene. The first musician to move to Cabbagetown was John “J.T.” Thomas, who was an editor for CL at the time. Thomas formed the first Cabbagetown band, the Chowder Shouters, with guitarist Bill Taft and Eric Kaiser in 1986.
Bill Taft: Musicians tend to move ahead of the gentrification. It’s sort of a horrible endless cycle of poverty attracting musicians attracting gentrification. Each new wave kicks the old one out. Everyone’s always hurt in the end.
The whole Cabbagetown thing was a result of J.T.’s vision. He said, “This is where our band needs to be.” A few years later, everyone else seemed to move there.
J.T. Thomas: “Me and Eric Kaiser rented a one-bedroom place on Carroll Street right across from the mill. It was super cheap. I didn’t make enough money at the time to even have a phone. That area is still kind of raw now, but back then there were lots of guns and drugs and crazy people. And we were there way, way ahead of everyone else. I think Eric and I were the first people to move there. Then Bill Taft moved into a house.”
Another early Cabbagetown arrival was Brian Halloran, who played the cello and was friends with Thomas.
Brian Halloran: Here’s what I remember about the first time I went to Cabbagetown: J.T. and Eric Kaiser drove me through it from the Boulevard side. Once I went down that ramp — I was a Southern boy from Albany, Ga., and it just blew my mind. I said to myself, “Shit, where are these guys taking me?”
The Chowder Shouters — Taft on guitar and vocals, Thomas on a single drum and Kaiser on percussion (often beating on beer bottles until they broke) — are credited as the first Cabbagetown band. There were two main venues in the beginning, both hosting open mic nights.
One was a honky tonk called the White Dot, next door to the Krispy Kreme on Ponce de Leon Avenue. The second was a performance art event called the Mudd Shack, held at Tortilla’s on Ponce once a month from midnight until 4 a.m. Among those in the audience was budding musician James Kelly, who would soon move to Cabbagetown and help launch the Redneck Underground music scene with his band Slim Chance & the Convicts.
James Kelly: You can’t really talk about the Chowder Shouters with any technical language. It was an onslaught of noise. They were just beating shit and hollering. It was almost like: We dare you to sit here and listen.
J.T. Thomas: Our sound wasn’t what we wanted it to be. Our sound was what it could be. That’s all we could do.
One of the earliest arrivals on the scene was Tim Ruttenber, a spoken word poet who used the stage name Deacon Lunchbox. He was a bear of a man with a long beard who yelled out his poetry and punctuated it by banging on metal objects with a hammer.
J.T. Thomas: There was no contrivance in Tim. There was a little bit of contrivance in us because we were all kids who came from middle class backgrounds. But Tim was the genuine article. He’d introduce the Chowder Shouters and perform a poem at intermission, or if we were too drunk to play. People came to see us because they didn’t know what to expect — who we were going to insult, or if Eric and I were going to get into a fight on stage. People came to see Tim as an ‘artist.’ We benefited much more from him than he ever benefited from us.
Bill Taft: The Mudd Shack became a platform for Deacon Lunchbox to work on his poetry. He became a big reason people came to the event. WSB-TV did one of those human interest stories on the poetry night and they interviewed Deacon and asked him the secret of his poetry. And he looked right into the camera and said, “Failure. Failure is where it’s at.”
James Kelly: Deacon took from what the Chowder Shouters were doing; he was beating on empty bomb casing and garbage can lids and yelling through megaphones. He added an element of black comedy to that whole scene. He looked like one of the biggest, meanest rednecks you would ever meet in your life, yet he was one of the most socially conscious, progressive humanist thinkers I’ve ever met.
’’IT WAS ONLY NATURAL that the scene that was sprouting in Cabbagetown would attract the most avant garde person in Atlanta: a flamboyant drag queen named Benjamin Smoke. He had already been in several performance art bands such as Easturn Stars (which Smoke described as “four young dykes and a bitter old drag queen”). One critic wrote that the band “didn’t so much play music as conduct cathartic rituals, ... strumming and sawing guitars, screaming a lot and removing their clothing at every opportunity.”
Smoke worked as a busboy and waiter at the Little Five Points Pub, which was at the hub of the Atlanta music scene in the ’80s, and he was soon to become the driving force behind the Cabbagetown scene.
James Kelly: I’d go to the Little Five Points Pub [now the Corner Pub] to see the Indigo Girls and all kinds of people. And Benjamin, you couldn’t not know the guy. He was amazing, what a weirdo who lived on the edge.
Danny Beard (owner of Wax ‘N Facts and DB Records): Benjamin used to walk by the store after we were closed and tap on the glass until the cassette tapes that were stacked on the ledge by the window would fall over. I don’t know if he was mad at us or what, but that’s what he used to do.
Col. Bruce Hampton: We were playing Monday nights at the Pub, and Benji was working as a cook or busboy somewhere. We both got off at 11 p.m., and every Monday night, I’d see him standing outside Wax & Facts; he’d stand there for an hour and tap-tap-tap on the window. I watched him do that for an entire year, trying to knock [the cassette tapes] over, and he finally did. There must’ve been a hundred tapes crashed on the floor.
Bill Taft: I first met Benjamin at a show at the Mattress Factory sometime in the late ’80s, maybe Easturn Stars. They played fur-covered instruments and they all rolled around on the floor. I thought it was just great.
Doug DeLoach: Easturn Stars was the perfect example of the anarchic, “anything goes” M.O. that many noise and no wave bands emulated. If they were trained, they weren’t using any of their training. Often they were just making noise using pots, pans, sticks, out-of-tune guitars, boom boxes.
William DuVall (lead singer, Alice in Chains): My group, the Final Offering, played a show at the Exit on DeKalb Avenue with this band for whom Benjamin was the singer. I remember Benjamin rolling around on the floor trying to shove the mic up his ass. And I remember making a mental note not to use that mic.”
IN THE LATE ‘80S, Benjamin Smoke formed a duo called Freedom Puff with singer/songwriter Debbey Richardson and began to take music more seriously. He started performing at the Little Five Points Pub during the brunch hour on Sundays, and it led to his first band of note: The Opal Foxx Quartet. The core of the group was keyboardist Connie Hanes and bass player Matt Hanes (no relation). Benjamin was the front man, dressed in full drag as Opal Foxx.
Doug DeLoach: Freedom Puff is where Benjamin not only realized he could be in a band, but that he had something to contribute beyond being Mr. Outrageous. He told me that’s when he realized, “I didn’t have to show my dick to get attention.” He caught the muse that he could then pursue. That led to him taking himself more seriously, it led to the Opal Foxx Quartet.
Connie Hanes: I was living in Carrollton, I was 18 and Benjamin was 16, and I picked him up hitchhiking. That’s how we met. We eventually lived together on this 350-acre farm in Carroll County. He moved to Atlanta, then went up to New York and met Patti Smith and hung out with her for a while. I baby-sat his boyfriend while he was gone; he was tremendously upset that Benjamin had taken off to New York.
Brian Halloran: “If Benjamin and Connie hadn’t met, then probably none of us would have met. They started Opal Foxx and it really opened up a floodgate of exposure.”
Connie Hanes: It was Benjamin’s idea to start Opal Foxx. He was going to dress in drag and he wanted me to dress in man drag. I said no. But he’d dress me up in a blonde wig and a blue sequin dress, which was his dress.
He sang the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow and “Mother’s Little Helper” — all these housewife songs. And his drag was really cotton dress drag. He didn’t wear a lot of make-up and he’d wear cotton dresses for the most part. Sometimes he’d swipe my shoes.
Brian Halloran: My roommate told me about this quartet with a drag singer playing brunches at the Little Five Points Pub, and I went to see them. Bill Taft was the guitar player and I knew him from the Chowder Shouters because they used to practice in my basement. After the show, he introduced me to Benjamin, who was in a blue-sequined, tight-fitting dress. I’d just seen him do a song about masturbation and he’d told everyone at this Sunday afternoon brunch: ‘OK, everybody who masturbates, wave your hands in the air!’ And everybody was waving their hands.
I just fell in love with this person who was making everybody feel good about being themselves. That was his gift. He was able to make everybody feel OK about who they were, no matter what that was.
Bill told him I played the cello. And he said, “I’ve always wanted a cello player.” And a week later, I’m in Bill’s car going over to Connie’s house for practice.
AS THE OPAL FOXX QUARTET formed, more and more musicians began to move to Cabbagetown: Kelly Hogan, who would become the lead singer of the Jody Grind; Amy Pike, lead singer in the swing group the Lost Continentals; Andy Hopkins, who formed a band called Flap and later played in Hogan’s solo band; Chan Marshall, who would perform as Cat Power; and Chris Lopez, guitarist in the Opal Foxx Quartet and, later, the Rock*A*Teens.
J.T. Thomas: The real transition came when Eric and I moved into the house at 711 Wylie St. That to me is the house that sort of built the Cabbagetown music scene. It was a ramshackle old house that we could practice in. Everyone gravitated toward that house. A lot of creative things happened there. And after we left, Chris Lopez moved in and that’s where his bands [including Opal Foxx] rehearsed.
Doug DeLoach: Bill was doing an open mic thing at the White Dot called “An Evening with the Garbagemen.” That’s where he first started to perform with Kelly Hogan.
Bill Taft: Kelly would come to the open mic and we’d play some songs. Out of that, we kind of became a band. I thought I’d like to do a jazz thing with Kelly. I didn’t really know how to play jazz, but I thought that would be a perfect way to learn.
The Jody Grind was the first Cabbagetown band to break out. The group was signed to Danny Beard’s DB Records and released an album in 1990, One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure’‘.
The Jody Grind’s jazz/punk sound combined the sweetness of Kelly Hogan’s soaring, classically trained voice with the edgy sparseness of Taft’s guitar. They were joined by drummer Walter Brewer and bassist Rob Hayes, whose Cabbagetown roommate was Chan Marshall (Cat Power).
Doug DeLoach: The Jody Grind was fucking unbelievable. You immediately recognized this was an incredible collaboration, that the music was extraordinary in every way: the composition, the playing, the whole mix of jazz and rock and blues and Broadway and torchy Southern decadence, Gershwin and Hoagy Carmichael.
When you went to a Jody Grind show, a significant percentage of the audience had never heard these songs before. That was something great and magical they brought to the scene, the expansion of the universe in terms of the musical scene itself. A lot of rocker kids or punkers who came to see them were suddenly saying, “Wow, that Hoagy Carmichael was pretty good.
It was an exciting time in the Atlanta music scene. The Redneck Underground, also headquartered in Cabbagetown, was going strong. Ever so often, they co-mingled. But for those who weren’t yet familiar, it sometimes took a while to “get” Opal Foxx and Deacon Lunchbox.
Doug DeLoach: Benjamin was so chameleon-like. Even when he would be dressed and acting outrageously on stage, when that mic came to his mouth and he started singing, he did it straight no matter what he was wearing.
Amy Pike: I was living in a boarding house in Little Five Points. One day, I came out heading off to work. It was a Sunday and there stood Benjamin in his full Opal Foxx getup. I had never seen Opal Foxx, so I didn’t know what the heck was going on. Everything in the purse was laid out in little perfect rows there on the sidewalk. He was looking for matches; he asked if I had any and I said, “No.” That was my first experience with him.
Brian Halloran: Benjamin used to live right down the street from the Austin Street Buffet. I wouldn’t call it conservative but it had a redneck underground niche going on. And even before that started, he would go in there in drag. If anybody ever reacted in a strange way, they’d say, “Oh, that’s just Benjamin. Come on! That’s Benjamin.” His ability to put people at ease was like an X-Man superpower.
James Kelly One year Deacon Lunchbox booked a show at the Variety Playhouse: It was the Opal Foxx Quartet, Slim Chance and Deacon Lunchbox. When he did a radio interview on WRFG, he started his usual craziness and one of the things he said was, “Guns will be checked at the door!”
And Steve Harris, the guy who owns the Variety, heard it and got upset and hired extra security. He thought he was going to have a bunch of bikers there or something. Of course, Deacon was full of shit. There were no guns.
Connie Hanes: Deacon was so versatile, he could sit in with anybody and bang on his missile casing or blow on his bird whistle. And anybody could play along with him because it was basically construction worker rap.
Doug DeLoach: One thing Tim absolutely was conscious of was the dichotomy of being a construction worker and a poet, being an artist and being a redneck. He was very much focused on debunking stereotypes and calling people out on their hypocrisy and shining a light on bullshit. That’s what he was doing when he put on the pair of tits. He was saying: You don’t know what anyone is capable of, so get over it and accept it. Because Tim knew the drag queens and he knew the construction workers.
Brian Halloran: When Opal Foxx went to New York the first and only time, someone stole Edgar Parker’s violin. Right after we got back, Deacon got a settlement in a civil rights lawsuit. [He had marched with Hosea Williams in the infamous 1987 incident, where a small group of civil rights protesters were attacked by the Klan in Forsyth County.] He used most of the money to buy Edgar a new violin; he loved that because he was buying a black man a violin using Klan settlement money.
ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT venues for the Cabbagetown bands was a quaint old-school strip club, the Clermont Lounge, a quaint old-school strip club just on the borderline of seedy. When the club began to devote Thursday nights to live music, it quickly became the place to be for anyone who followed the Atlanta underground bands. It was a surreal scene, the nude dancers, surrounded by indy rock hipsters, trying to gyrate to music that often offered no danceable beat.
Amy Pike: The first time I played there, I was the only girl in the band. And the guys were just as scared as me to go in there. They were trying to make me go in first.
We shared the dressing room with the dancers. And they immediately sized up all these boys and decided they were just scared to death. Of course, the dancers started talking to them in the nastiest way possible, just scaring the crap out of them. Somebody was talking about sucking on things until it shot to the back of their throat. I don’t think any of us ever lightened up from complete scarlet from the moment we stepped into the place.
Bill Taft: As long as we tipped them, the dancers loved us. They might grumble a bit because we’d take over their dressing room. At the end of the night, we’d give them a nice cut of the door and they’d give us a big hug and say, “Come on back anytime!”
The Jody Grind often played out-of-town shows with Opal Foxx and Deacon Lunchbox opening for them. There were far too many people to travel in a van, so they improvised.
Bill Taft: Opal Foxx was a big band with ten people or more. So touring meant renting a Ryder truck and loading it with band equipment and sofas. We’d ride in the back on the sofas.
Brian Halloran: In the summer, Deacon would duct-tape an AC hose to the front two air conditioner vents and run it into the back. I was such a kid, I’d always hold it and making sure everybody got a little bit at a time. It was the pleasure hose. In the winter, we’d huddle up with blankets. Anytime we’d stop to get gas or something, it was like a freak show. We’d lift up the back door and it was like a clown car; all these freaks getting out of the back of a moving truck.
One time [[[[[[[when] we played at the Rockin’ Eagle in Statesboro, Ga. with the Jody Grind, we had a flat tire in front of these orchards. And a guy comes out with a shotgun and yells out, “You get off my property!” We’re all running to get back into the truck; but Bill Taft is out there and says, “What the fuck are you doing yelling at us? You should be helping us.”
The Opal Foxx Quartet had caught the attention of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, who brought them to John Keane’s studio in Athens and produced six songs for the band’s debut album.
Connie Hanes: “Michael came into the Downstairs in Athens to hear us. We had gigs there, where it was more like a tent revival. Everybody would be sweating and Benjamin would be standing up on a chair. I think that’s where Michael came along, because he felt more comfortable talking to me because he liked Benjamin.
Benjamin called Michael “Bubba.” He was very irreverent about the whole thing. I don’t know if Michael knows that or not.
’’IN 1992, THE JODY GRIND released its second album, Lefty’s Deceiver, and word was the band was destined for a major label deal. Shortly after the album was recorded, Walter Brewer left the band and was replaced by Robert Clayton.
On April 18, 1992, the band traveled to Pensacola, Fla., with Deacon Lunchbox for a performance at a nightclub called Sluggo’s. After the show, Deacon Lunchbox, Rob Hayes and Robert Clayton got in the band’s van to drive back to Atlanta; Kelly Hogan and Bill Taft decided to stay behind and drive a car back the next day. The van was on I-65 outside Greenville, Ala., when a car traveling south came across the median and hit the van head-on. All three were killed instantly. Clayton was 22, Hayes was 24 and Deacon Lunchbox (Tim Ruttenber) was 41.
Bill Taft: Kelly and I stayed over that night because we wanted to have a party. We went out, had a good time, then got up the next morning and drove home. We came back to the rehearsal space and noticed that Robert Clayton’s car was still there, and that didn’t seem right.
I got to my house and my wife came out and I knew the minute I saw her something bad had happened. She told me, and I just stood there and started crying.
Doug DeLoach: I didn’t even think about you asking me about that. [[[long silence] It was unspeakably devastating. When it happened, my editor asked me if I could write something. I said no, I just couldn’t. It took me until the year anniversary to even be able write about it, and even then it was only to say I was happy to know those guys. That was the first time I’d ever had friends die in that way. It still hurts.
J.T. Thomas: Tim and I were very close friends. To be quite honest, I don’t think I’ve ever emotionally processed the information. If you go there, it’s so dark and awful. I mean, how can Tim be gone?
Connie Hanes: When he died, I asked for one thing: I wanted his jacket. I just wanted that jacket that had hugged me so many times.
Col. Bruce Hampton: I’d become very close to Deacon in the last six months before he died. It happened on Easter Sunday. We were on our way to Pensacola the next day and didn’t even hear about it for a week. But we passed right by where it happened. You could see where the car went across the median for a hundred yards or so and hit them head-on. Four in the morning, one second either way. ...
ON APRIL 26, 1992, several hundred people gathered in Little Five Points in honor of Deacon Lunchbox, Rob Hayes and Robert Clayton. They marched up Moreland Avenue to Euclid Avenue, then paused in front of the Variety Playhouse before going down to the Austin Avenue Buffet, one of Deacon’s favorite hangouts.
Bill Taft: Nobody thought much of God, so a church wouldn’t work. The grief really wouldn’t fit structure, so we had to go outside. Having a parade seemed to be a good way to remember, and also to celebrate because a parade is kind of a celebration. Death is terrible; are we going to give in to it or are we going to celebrate their lives? So a parade was good because you could say, “Well, we’re going to have a parade.” That was comforting, because someone on the other end of the phone could go, “Oh, yes, a parade. When’s it going to be?” I’d say, “Sunday.” “What can I do?” “Bring a float. Make something.” People had a purpose and a task. You can do something physical with your grief.
James Kelly: “We stopped in front of the Variety Playhouse and instead of a minute of silence, we had five minutes of noise. People had pots and pans and hammers and drums. There was literally a marching band. There were hundreds and hundreds of people.
Brian Halloran: When Deacon Lunchbox died and he was cremated, they were going to scatter his ashes on a North Carolina mountaintop. And Bill had the idea: “Let’s put his ashes in a leaf blower for one last blow job.” They didn’t go for that.
’’THE MUSICIANS IN CABBAGETOWN carried on, but in one terrible moment they had lost one of their guiding beacons and the scene’s most vibrant band.
Bill Taft and Kelly Hogan formed a duo called Kick Me and released a cassette of new songs. Taft also joined back up with the Opal Foxx Quartet, which was going through changes of its own in the wake of the death of Deacon Lunchbox.
Doug DeLoach: Losing the Jody Grind ripped out the heart of the music scene, and obviously put an end to whatever broader influence the Cabbagetown scene might have had in the larger music industry. The accident, of course, devastated Kelly and Bill. As a by-product of their grief, it affected so many musicians in terms of what they were thinking and what they were doing and the directions they were moving in. It hurt in ways we’ll never know.
Bill Taft: We didn’t have anything else to do except songwriting. I wanted to write songs. I didn’t know how to write songs. That’s sort of what that project was. It was really just Kelly and me.”
Doug DeLoach: It took a lot for them to get back up. And they only could have done it by getting together. They both knew they could only do it for a short period of time. It was that “get back on the horse” kind of thing, but then you have to leave that horse alone and move on.
Bill Taft: With the Jody Grind, we reached the level of opening for bands with tour buses. I quickly learned those people with tour buses weren’t nearly as much fun as the Opal Foxx Quartet. So after my friends died, I thought, “I’m alive for some reason. I’m going to spend what time I have doing what I believe in.” So that was really the Opal Foxx Quartet.
Steve Pilon (Long Play Records): When Jill Kalish and I started Long Play, Opal Foxx Quartet was already one of our favorite bands, and a band that we knew we wanted to have on the label. But by the time we had built up the company enough to be able to put out their record, the band had broken up. We decided to do it anyway, because we felt that the band was something unique and special that needed to be documented and preserved, and it was clear that nobody else was going to step up.
Todd Butler, who played in both Opal Foxx and Smoke, helped us gather a lot of live recordings, WREK broadcasts, and the studio tracks that they had recorded with Michael Stipe. Out of all of that material we assembled the album that we had always wished existed. Benjamin gave us the photos for the cover art and the title “The Love That Won’t Shut Up.” We had no expectation that the band would reunite to play again, so we were as excited as everybody else was when that happened.
Brian Halloran: We stopped Opal Foxx after Deacon’s death. Deacon was always there for the Opal Foxx Quartet. That was a big, big blow. That started a spiral of death and other things that went wrong and bad. The bands overlapped for a while. There was a time when Opal Foxx would do Smoke songs.
BY THE TIME THE ALBUM Opal Foxx had recorded in Athens — The Love That Won’t Shut Up’’ — was released in 1993, the band had broken up and morphed into a new group called Smoke. It included Brian Halloran and guitarist Todd Butler from the OFQ, although Butler would soon leave and be replaced by Coleman Lewis. They would also be joined by Bill Taft, who played cornet and banjo, and Tim Campion on drums (later be replaced by Will Fratesi). Opal Foxx reunited long enough to do a few shows in support of the album, but the future was Smoke.
Smoke was a vastly different band. Benjamin stopped dressing in drag on stage. When the band performed, everyone sat in chairs in a half circle. Opal Foxx had an almost pop sound at times; Smoke’s sound was moody, melancholy and sparse. The clear focus was Benjamin’s raspy, smoke-ravaged voice and his beat-poet lyrics, softly cradled by Halloran’s cello and Taft’s cornet.
The release of the Opal Foxx record began an incredible run of three albums in three years that elevated Benjamin Smoke into an artist. He had evolved from the outrageous drag queen to a man whose music was strong enough to stand on its on.
J.T. Thomas: If you were to ask me what is the classic Cabbagetown sound, that band is Smoke. To me, that sounds like Cabbagetown. There’s something about Smoke — you hear Halloran’s cello and Bill’s horn and Benjamin all together. It’s that hazy, druggy, sloppy, emotional, humid, sticky sound that just really sums up the scene.It was completely different from Opal Foxx. Opal Foxx was schtick — great schtick, a great band — but you listen to Smoke, the absolute emotional power of what Benjamin was writing, and it was, like, wow.
Bill Taft: Benjamin was always evolving. He went from being the guy rolling on the floor playing a fur-covered guitar at the Mattress Factory to the hilarious drag queen parody to the more focused lyricist. He reached a point where he could let go of the schtick. He became confident enough in his writing ideas, he didn’t have to spend all his time putting on a show.
I always tell people he was the only honest man I’ve ever met. He would tell you straight up, “Look, I want to fuck, I want to get high and I’ll steal your shit. We’re going to play shows together and that’s all we’re going to do.” That gave all of us in the band the option of saying, “Hey man, don’t steal my shit, don’t get high until after the show and don’t try to have sex with me, even though we all love you.” And with that understanding, we made beautiful music together.
Smoke’s debut album, Heaven on a Popsicle Stick, was released on Long Play Records in 1994, and 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.’‘