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."