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The triumph and tragedy of the Cabbagetown sound

Part 1 of 2: Have you heard death singing? An oral history

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Brian Halloran: We stopped Opal Foxx after Deacon's death. Deacon was always there for the Opal Foxx Quartet. That was a big, big blow. That started a spiral of death and other things that went wrong and bad. The bands overlapped for a while. There was a time when Opal Foxx would do Smoke songs.

BY THE TIME THE ALBUM Opal Foxx had recorded in Athens -- The Love That Won't Shut Up -- was released in 1993, the band had broken up and morphed into a new group called Smoke. It included Brian Halloran and guitarist Todd Butler from the OFQ, although Butler would soon leave and be replaced by Coleman Lewis. They would also be joined by Bill Taft, who played cornet and banjo, and Tim Campion on drums (later be replaced by Will Fratesi). Opal Foxx reunited long enough to do a few shows in support of the album, but the future was Smoke.

Smoke was a vastly different band. Benjamin stopped dressing in drag on stage. When the band performed, everyone sat in chairs in a half circle. Opal Foxx had an almost pop sound at times; Smoke's sound was moody, melancholy and sparse. The clear focus was Benjamin's raspy, smoke-ravaged voice and his beat-poet lyrics, softly cradled by Halloran's cello and Taft's cornet.

The release of the Opal Foxx record began an incredible run of three albums in three years that elevated Benjamin Smoke into an artist. He had evolved from the outrageous drag queen to a man whose music was strong enough to stand on its on.

J.T. Thomas: If you were to ask me what is the classic Cabbagetown sound, that band is Smoke. To me, that sounds like Cabbagetown. There's something about Smoke -- you hear Halloran's cello and Bill's horn and Benjamin all together. It's that hazy, druggy, sloppy, emotional, humid, sticky sound that just really sums up the scene. It was completely different from Opal Foxx. Opal Foxx was schtick -- great schtick, a great band -- but you listen to Smoke, the absolute emotional power of what Benjamin was writing, and it was, like, wow.

Bill Taft: Benjamin was always evolving. He went from being the guy rolling on the floor playing a fur-covered guitar at the Mattress Factory to the hilarious drag queen parody to the more focused lyricist. He reached a point where he could let go of the schtick. He became confident enough in his writing ideas, he didn't have to spend all his time putting on a show.

I always tell people he was the only honest man I've ever met. He would tell you straight up, "Look, I want to fuck, I want to get high and I'll steal your shit. We're going to play shows together and that's all we're going to do." That gave all of us in the band the option of saying, "Hey man, don't steal my shit, don't get high until after the show and don't try to have sex with me, even though we all love you." And with that understanding, we made beautiful music together.

Smoke's debut album, Heaven on a Popsicle Stick, was released on Long Play Records in 1994, and 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.

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