When Smoke's debut album, Heaven on a Popsicle Stick was released on Long Play Records in 1994, it prompted a bold declaration from CL: "This won't put Atlanta on the map, this is the fuckin' map." A second album, Another Reason to Fast, came out a year later. And if it seemed Benjamin was writing and recording as though he was racing against time, he was. Few people knew, but Benjamin had contracted a deadly combination of HIV and Hepatitis C.
The critical acclaim for the albums enabled Smoke to tour up and down the East Coast. They also toured the West Coast opening for Chan Marshall who, by that time, was gaining a national audience under her moniker of Cat Power with a sound that was very much influenced by Smoke. (Marshall's publicist declined an interview request from CL for this story.)
In addition, Benjamin had attracted the attention of filmmakers Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen, who began to film a documentary about him that would be released in 2000 to rave reviews, including the New York Times and the Village Voice. And the filmmakers helped facilitate a meeting in New York City between Benjamin and the singer who had inspired him to make music, Patti Smith.
Bill Taft: They knew he loved Patti Smith, so they got Patti to come out to a Smoke show at the Cooler to meet Benjamin. Benjamin was really proud and humbled and feeling silly that Patti Smith was in the audience.
Roger Ruzow (Gold Sparkle Band, 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra): In 1996, Chan Marshall put together an Atlanta expatriate show in New York at the Cooler. A bunch of us were fleeing Atlanta because of the Olympics. It was Smoke, Cat Power, the Gold Sparkle Band, the Rock*A*Teens and Seely. It was a blowout, a great show and we stayed up all night. We were all sitting at a table at a coffee shop really early in the morning and someone asked, "Hey, what happened to Benjamin?" No one could remember the last time they saw him. Then, at like 6 in the morning, this guy appeared from out of nowhere, dancing down the street, twirling around in circles and singing to himself, and someone said, "Benjamin!" He stopped for a second and said, "Yes?" in his raspy voice, then went on his way, dancing down the street.
Coleman Lewis: Me and Ben were roommates in Cabbagetown on Gaskill Street. The way he was when he was out and about was the same way he was at the house. It was kind of like living inside a circus. It was just very humorous and fun to watch. He'd run off a bunch of roommates but for some reason, he and I just kind of hit it off. It was easy for us to live together. I could put up with his hijinks and he could put up with mine.
On Saturday, Dec. 20, 1997, Patti Smith came to Atlanta and performed at the Variety Playhouse, and Smoke opened the show. Backstage, Benjamin looked wane and frail; but the group put on a remarkable performance that was punctuated when Smith invited them back on stage at the end of her show for the song, "Rock â ~n' Roll Nigger." Smoke's Coleman Lewis and others ran around the stage like kids on a playground, almost knocking over Bill Taft as he tried to play the cornet.
That show marked Smoke's apex; Benjamin just wasn't strong enough physically to go any farther.
Bill Taft: Overall, the reception the band received was really good. The biggest problem was Benjamin's health began to deteriorate. As the opportunities kept expanding, the limitations and constraints of his health began to pull us in the opposite direction. The enthusiasm for the music was there. But Benjamin didn't have the strength to follow through.
Brian Halloran: I didn't know he was sick. I actually found out because somebody asked me, "Does Benjamin have AIDS?" And I said, "I think he would've told me if he did." And that just didn't turn out to be the case. It was when Jem and Pete were filming, and I asked him about it and he explained to me that it was true. It was a real shocker.
It's kind of like the way Benjamin explains it in that movie. He wasn't trying to be the spokesperson for AIDS or anything. But he would talk about it to people one on one if they asked him about it.
Bill Taft: It was pretty hard. Your friend is dying. He didn't want to be a poster boy for AIDS. He didn't want his dying to be an issue, which is kind of naÃ¯ve if you're losing a lot of weight and have open sores and you're a performer. People are going to want to know why you're dying. You're going to have to deal with that issue.