As it happens, when the musical fingers of an album reach into my mind and clutch so tightly that everything about the first listening experience—in this case, the steps I sat upon, the glad nip of fall pinching my nose, and the melancholia of that instant—is illuminated, it is an experience matched by none. There is hardly a civilized human that can say they're mute to this musical charm because we all have at least one album that gives us that elated feeling of perfect contention. Even if its skeletal remains are buried beneath decades of forgetfulness, it could easily be resurrected—be it the single strummed chord that begins a song, or a note that should be followed by a set of lyrics—it will send off a fire alarm in your conscious mind and your psyche will repeat it tirelessly. You will lie in bed while that chord rings through your skull. You can do but one thing: find the source of that chord and satisfy your mind's need for reminiscence. It's a wonderful feeling when you find it.
But I digress, only because as the years stack on and I continue to learn of new and old artists, I am sure to put down old favorites and rediscover them all over again; wrapping myself in a blanket of warm euphoric melancholy. One day far from now, I will have forgotten about Benjamin Smoke because, sadly, his musical career was cut far too short. But something will remind me of a chord, or a lyric that sits at the very tip of my tongue. I will stir restlessly until I recall the name of my itch, and I will rejoice.
Robert Dickerson, AKA Benjamin Smoke, was a spectacle; an eccentric, smutty, cross-dressing, homosexual spectacle—but such a beautiful spectacle to behold. America’s collective fight toward freedom of expression and constitutional equality without prejudice during the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties was the cardinal component in what became Smoke. The nineties belonged to him, at least in spirit. Just as America had recovered from its growing pains, Smoke journeyed to the next furthest social limits and plowed through its concrete barriers with full impact. He pranced the stage in a fury, provoking his audiences with banter and songs that sounded like that of a “wounded lion.”
The energy clashed so dangerously with the subject matter of his music that he could have been considered a walking oxymoron in the truest sense of the word. No passerby could possibly mistake a Smoke performance as despondent, modest or withdrawn, yet his songs were brimming with a profound sense of bittersweet dysphoria and unrelenting frankness. It’s all in the delivery. His music was as multi-faceted and perplexing as his personal life was. A radical homosexual and drag queen since the age of nine, he made a scene for himself during the eighties within the likes of CBGB’s. Smoke would find excellent company with the ill-fated Mark Sandman’s Morphine, Tom Waits, Mark Lanegan and especially the late Rowland S. Howard.
In Smoke there was a miserable soul, but within misery he thrived and his words alone convey a man at home with his pain and shortcomings. It kept his mortality in the front seat to be poked and prodded with crude humor and abhorrent candour. He tells us, proudly and full of gusto that "the only thing I can know for sure is that I'm not sure,” words of uncertainty spoken with absolute certainty. With the inspired touch of his band, Bill Taft on cornet and banjo, Brian Halloran on cello, and Todd Butler on guitar, there throbbed a sort of bravery in music that few could ever begin to encompass in skill, emotion, or sincerity.
The one essential aspect that made him a comforting presence is his uncompromising truth.
If you know me at all, you know I’m at home, and at ease with my pain, and these
exciting giddy moments, well, they’re hell to explain, and I know that any second
the situation might up and change. Are you telling me that love songs are only
good after love’s estranged?
In the morning you might leave for good without a goodbye and when heartache
rears her ugly head, well I’ll look her in the eye and I’ll kiss her on the mouth.
You know I’ll hold my head up high.
I discovered Smoke and his album Heaven on a Popsicle Stick at a very poignant period; therefore it resonated in my mind like a prophet seeking a sign of divinity in the wilderness. I had never heard such a gravelly let-it-all-hang-out character in music, ever. It’s a doomed man’s confessional orchestrated not for salvation, but for the sake of being up front with the world. His words made very plain-to-see his eccentricities and his fuck-all attitude toward his shipwrecked feelings, love disaffected, and life misunderstood, which was exactly what kept my mind afloat for many months. His words cut through every brick of the unconscious barrier like a diamond and there he will make himself comfortable like a friend you didn't know you had, but have long missed. A friend who reinvigorates your need to stand up and live, for he is no longer.
Smoke was sadly HIV positive but it never struck him down with self-pity. He succumbed, not to AIDS but liver failure caused by Hepatitis C in 1999. He lived by example, showing there is no reason for allowing life's sicknesses and sorrows to wreak havoc on the grandeur and infinite complexity of the world. As Smoke boldly put it, "HIV is not a death sentence" nor are the petty and inconsequential worries that are amassing in the back of our heads like stacked dynamite with a burning fuse. There's nothing like listening to this man's musings, both high and low, it isn't about bringing yourself down to his level at all. It's filling in the holes, questions and hopefully it leaves you feeling wanton, loose and free.
- Hunter Gatherer
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