Time for a ride in the Off-Coloured time machine, motherfuckers.
Have you ever thought to yourself, “What would happen if Tom Waits, Nick Cave, the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs had a proudly gay drag queen sex symbol of a love-child?” Well, Benjamin Smoke, born Robert Dickerson (with the fabulous alias of Miss Opal Foxx), is the closest thing you’re ever going to get.
Benjamin’s baritone sounds like he nightly rinses out his mouth with shards of glass, high octane whiskey, and rusted nails. Which, cool. But if that were all this shit had to offer, I wouldn’t be writing about it. This album is so much more than a voice. Sitting behind Benjamin is a band made up of: Brian Halloran (cello), Bill Taft (cornet, banjo), Tim Campion (drums), and Coleman Lewis (guitar). There are certain songs on this album where the band chugs out notes like some homemade micro-train trudging its way through the dirt, grim, and piss of an apparitional travelling circus cursing a hyper-conservative small town for being judgmental assholes. The guitar floats above this pre-adamite mess like a spectator high on the bud it scored off the forbidden tree. This shit is visceral and raw. You can almost hear an overstretched smile chewing its way through grains of sand as Benjamin says, “Find the edge and you’ll find me. I’ve always been home.”
There are beautiful and heartbreaking lyrics on this album. Most of the lines are a tight weave of the two. “When heartache rears her ugly head, well, I’ll look her in the eye and I’ll kiss her on the mouth. […] I’m proud she did not pass me by.” You might think I’m cherry picking to get lines this tragically beautiful and fresh, but I’m not. It’s chock-full: “The lessons I’ve learned. The right ways I had to be shown. Still, it don’t match, it clashes to ashes, dusk till dawn. Life’s not black or white, it’s black and white in grey tones.” There’s even a beautiful ballad all about Luke Perry’s feet. This strange sounding chamber country blues band came out back in ’94. Did you get that? 19-tothemotherfucking-94. The same year Biggie got “Juicy”, Nas got “Illmatic”, Buckley got “Grace”, NIN took a “Downward Spiral”, and Aphex Twin selected his second ambient works (a solid fucking year for music). I don’t know why this album didn’t top the charts. But remember, you young fucks reading this and judging the past, shit was different back then. Being underground in ’94 wasn’t a style, it was a way of life.
Unfortunately, Benjamin didn’t have the nicest life. He was an amphetamine addict, he had AIDS, and he died in ’99 due to hepatitis C. He was very open about his struggles with living, both in lyrics and interviews. Documentary filmmaker Jem Cohen released a movie about Benjamin called, “Benjamin Smoke” in 2000. Ever since, Benjamin has had a small cult following. Though I’m generally not a fan of the fetishism given to artists after they die, I’m okay with it when it comes to Benjamin. Of course, I would prefer to have his name top all these “Best of the 90s” lists. But there’s something special to discovering an album on your own. You don’t have to hear some ’70s music obsessed fuck ruin everything that made an album great before you heard it. And before I insert an ironic foot into the horse’s mouth, here’s Benjamin Smoke, he was a badass motherfucker that didn’t give a fuck. He stood up for freaks, geeks, queers, and the feared before it was cool. Enjoy.