29th of January 2012 is 13 years to the day when Robert Dickerson died, of liver failure caused by Hepatitis C. Having worked on a project for a new Hep C drug last year, and having talked to a lot of people with the disease, I now really understand what that means: brutal and miserable.
Anyway, Robert Dickerson’s artist name was Benjamin, and he performed in a couple of great Atlanta Bands, The Opal Foxx Quartet and Smoke.
Smoke and Benjamin got their epitaph in the move Benjamin Smoke by Peter Sillen and Jem Cohen.
Although I have a few bones to pick with this movie, it did instantly get me out of a particular kind of funk in 2000, when I wasn’t sure where my life was going and felt trapped and frustrated. I actually went to see it a couple of times, sneaking out of work to sit in a mostly empty cinema to watch and re-watch it.
It made me decide to apply for an MFA in photography (even though I didn’t have a ton of work to show), and work only part-time for those couple of years. This was the exact right decision to make at the time, and I’m glad this movie nudged me in that direction.
I’m not into the Patti Smith pilgrimage in the movie – neither Benjamin or the band needed that kind of endorsement, and a little of Smith’s faux-prophetic earnestness goes a very long way. And the artsiness of the black and white photograph is perhaps artificially somber, since Benjamin seemed like a very funny and sweet person. But I did love Benjamin’s theatrics, Smoke’s music (strange, langurous melodies and lovely instrumentation – cello, cornet, banjo); and am grateful that it helped me discover The Opal Foxx Quartet, and some of the other bands and people in that orbit.
Anyway, Benjamin would have been 52. So, happy birthday.