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The hard part for me was people would say, "Hey, what's up with Benjamin?" The guy who booked bands at the Cooler would say, "Is Benjamin OK? He looks like shit."
I'd say, "Benjamin's fine. We're playing our music." It didn't seem right to do anything but follow Benjamin's lead. That was kind of tough. Between what the audience saw and what Benjamin wanted them to see, there was a conflict.
Coleman Lewis: You could kind of see it coming at some point in time. Of course, his health started getting worse and worse toward the end. I lost one of my best friends. We'd lived together two-and-a-half or three years. There ain't nothing fun about that.
Brian Halloran: Benjamin, he really didn't want to die, man. He knew he was dying, and would tell me about all the things he had plans to do and all the things he wanted to do. For someone who did so much damage to himself, I've never seen anyone who wanted to live so much.
Benjamin Smoke (born Robert Dickerson) died on Jan. 29, 1999, a day after he turned 39. His last show, an Opal Foxx Quartet reunion, was at the Clermont Lounge four weeks earlier on New Year's Eve. A parade in his honor was held in Little Five Points, and Patti Smith would write a song as his epitaph: "Death Singing."
Connie Haynes: We didn't play together for a long time. We played at the Clermont, the last time he played, I guess. And Benjamin was just really, really obviously ill. We were fixing to go out on stage and Bill Taft played before we did, and I heard him yelling at the audience, "Yeah, Opal Foxx is going to die, and you're going to die, too." I don't know if he thought people were reacting strange, if they'd come to see a spectacle or if somebody said something. But I love how he had the balls to do that.
Bill Taft: It was the same kind of thing as the other parade. How do you take the loss? What do you do with the grief, especially if your friends don't go to church? Essentially, we're all uncivilized so we have to create our own rituals. It was our own take on funeral processions, really not too different from the Kennedy casket rolling down the streets of Washington, D.C. Except we had a bunch of inflatable penises at Benjamin's parade, and a lot of men wearing plastic tits in memory of Deacon.
Brian Halloran (who stopped playing music for 10 years after Benjamin's death, is now performing with the surviving members of Smoke in a group called Smoke That City): We started playing together almost a year ago now. I'd talked to Bill about getting together to play on some of the unreleased Smoke tracks, because he wasn't playing with us toward the end. And it just turned into a band. We kind of put the horn dubs on the back burner, and just started making music together again.
There's unreleased music from Smoke. Some of it's really good. I consider it to all be part of the final project, "My Lover, the Matador." I think it's finally going to happen now. Benjamin had designed a cassette tape for a Smoke record that had "My Lover, the Matador" as the title. I don't remember what songs he put on it, but it seems real appropriate to call it that.
Lisa Fratesi, the wife of our drummer, is a painter and she did a cover for it that's real nice, and Benjamin would've liked that. There's plenty of unreleased material for at least one record. I'm working on it.
J.T. Thomas: Those are some of the fondest memories I have. A lot of people would dismiss the influence the Chowder Shouters had musicially, but if you look at a lot of the bands that came out of that scene that claim the Cabbagetown sound, we were the band that started it.
The credit for that mostly goes to Bill. The two most important people of the Cabbagetown sound are Bill Taft and Benjamin. They are the heart and soul of it. Benjamin, first of all, is just absolutely amazing. I can't even listen to those Smoke records because I find them so emotionally overpowering. They're that beautiful.
Bill Taft: The way I look at it, J.T. started it and Benjamin ended it. Before J.T., I didn't really know anyone who lived in Cabbagetown. After that a lot of people started moving in. They picked up on the zeitgeist.