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Monday, October 14, 2013

Who is Benjamin Smoke?

by Ryan Mauldin



Donning a frayed, cotton dress and a shabby beehive wig, she drags on her cigarette and teases the audience with intermittent flashes of skin, if only they will pay for a glimpse. Ms. Opal Foxx, né Robert Dickerson, queen of a thriving, close-knit music scene in Cabbagetown, a former mill town in Atlanta, Georgia, is the inspiration for David Dorfman's production Come, and Back Again, which explores "the mess we create and the mess we leave behind."

In the late 1980s Benjamin, Dickerson's elected moniker, fronted the Opal Foxx Quartet, then the premier group of Cabbagetown’s underground music scene, which included the Jody Grind with Kelly Hogan and Chan Marshall (Cat Power). Opal Foxx, between 10 and 14 members, was a junkyard jamboree of rock, blues, and honkytonk filtered through a punk ethos and the gravelly baritone of its cross-dressing frontman, a confluence of Flannery O’Connor and the Cockettes. The band’s debut album, The Love That Won’t Shut Up (an allusion to Lord Alfred Douglass’ line, “the love that dare not speak its name”), included songs produced by Michael Stipe, who saw them perform in Athens.



Following the dissolution of Opal Foxx, Benjamin, along with Brian Halloran and Todd Butler, formed the band Smoke, whose career Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen documented in the film Benjamin Smoke. The group added Bill Taft on cornet and banjo, and Tim Campion (later replaced by Will Frates) on drums. Finally, Coleman Lewis would step in for Butler on guitar. Divested of the raucous and kitschy theatricality staged by Opal Foxx, Smoke evolved a spare, melancholy sound which foregrounded Benjamin’s lyrics. Explorations of estrangement, desire, and the ravages of memory, the songs also conjure strange and bold intimacies.



Smoke released two albums to critical acclaim, Heaven on a Popsicle Stick (1994) and Another Reason to Fast (1995). Eventually, Benjamin’s health prevented the band from continuing to perform. Diagnosed with HIV (which he maintained was “not a death sentence”), Benjamin long struggled with drug addiction, and in 1999 he died of liver failure caused by hepatitis C.

Patti Smith wrote the song “Death Singing” as Benjamin’s epitaph.



There exists scant archival records of Benjamin (mostly confined to the documentary). What remains is the pure joy of song, music which speaks to life’s cruelty and enduring beauty with that quality—delivered in Benjamin’s poetic, emotionally charged lyrics—referred to as "human."




David Dorfman Dance's new work Come, and Back Again (at the BAM Harvey Theater Oct 16—19), was inspired by and features music by Smoke. Listen to more of Smoke's music—including previously unreleased trackson bandcamp.

5 comments:

  1. A dear, funny friend and coworker. Real and generous with his love and time. Knew Benji before he was Opal and adored him forever. He told many funny stories when we would just sit for hours. Then we would remember crazy funny stuff that happened to us and our friends.

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  2. I knew Benjamin through friend Chris Verene, Grace Braun, Zak Sitter. He was part of Nature Protein Biscuit - a noise band formed in the early-mid 80's in Atlanta. There's a good amount of info among those of us still alive. A one-off recording called Beatrice with members of DQE, NPB, and Cabbage, an early member of Butthole Surfers.

    I recall a particular festival "Destroy All Music" where Benjamin showed up dressed in just a Jesus tapestry as a skirt and a "crown of thorns" made up of used condoms filled with semen tied in his hair.

    In 90 or 91 I dated a guy Joseph who lived with Benjamin and one or two members of the drag troup The Singing Peek Sisters. I remember when I'd call for Joseph and tell Benjamin to tell him I'm coming over, he'd reply in his signature cigarette-rasped voice "You better start stretchin' your mouth!"

    Later on Benjamin would feature in photographer (and drummer from DQE) Chris Verene's award winning photo project "Camera Club." The exhibit was published in a limited book http://www.chrisverene.com/books.html

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    1. Correction. That early band was Medicine Suite. Nature Protein Biscuit was another project made up of affiliated Atlanta musicians, related to, but not including Benjamin.

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  3. Benjamin was not ever in Nature Protein Biscuit. But he was in Freedom Puff. His name was never Benjamin Smoke. That is the name of the movie. Lots and lots of 40+ musicians ex-musicians and artists here in Atlanta knew him well and, like me, are very surprised by people saying how hard it is to get information. https://www.facebook.com/groups/51991646477/?fref=ts

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  4. laura green parkerOctober 21, 2013 at 2:42 PM

    I met benjamin when he was 16 or 17 yrs old in carrollton, ga.... he rolled into town with Crook, who was a childhood friend of my brother-in-law... Crook was a drama queen asshole.... we loved to party and dance to Patti Smith... He loved Horses..we had such good times and I still love and miss him to this day..... we would drink tequila and dance on counter tops or wherever.... i'll never forget the night he put a maraca in his pants and we were dancing to "take a walk on the wild side" and some of those backwoods folks from Bowdon, GA didn't know what to think... we would throw these parties each weekend.... folks would be waiting on coming back or we never saw them again..... LOL.... those were the best days of my life.... I was so proud of him when he opened for Patti Smith... I cried tears of joy for him.... was so blessed to be there to see him.... she was our idol, and she is still mine!!!!! wished I could have one more dance with my dear friend......................

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