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Smoke “Heaven On A Popsicle Stick”

January 4, 2013

Smoke “Heaven On A Popsicle Stick”

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
© Copyright http://www.psychedelicbabymag.com/2016
2 Comments
  1. Anonymous

    Can you tell which song's lyrics is it?

  2. Anonymous

    I feel like this record was sent to me by me in the future at exactly the right moment. Tonight. And everything is going to be okay, now. Though it was really my friend Catherine who recommended it to me, earlier, and how fitting, that it came from a friend. It's good to give and to be given to. Thank you for your insightful post, it means so much.

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