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.
ooooohhhh, I'm so excited!! I can't wait to see them together!
come on man you know you got a bromance. you probably still rock that OutKast…
Yes, 14 is the correct answer. I'll pass your info along to the group's manager,…