REST IN PEACE: Tom Smith (on the far left, with Frank “Rat Bastard” Falestra). Photo by Chad Radford. Jon Kincaid (center) photo courtesy Amy Potter. Robert Cheatham (right) photo by Tara-Lynne Pixley.

There’s an old African proverb that says: “When a person dies, a library burns to the ground.”

Point being, when someone dies a lifetime of knowledge, experience, and context is lost forever, and the world is left a poorer place in their absence.

In January, Atlanta music quietly suffered through three profound deaths: First, news spread that Jon Kincaid, longtime 91.1 FM / WREK DJ and host of Sunday nights’ “Personality Crisis” radio show had died on January 4. He was 57 years old.

A week later, On Jan. 11, word spread across social media that former Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery Executive Director and avant-garde music and art scenes fixture Robert Cheatham had died at the age of 73.

Another week later, post-punk journeyman and noise music provocateur Tom Smith died as well. He was 66 years old. All three men represented somewhat different but primary eras and enclaves of Atlanta music. And while it may not be immediately obvious, each of their respective influences played an indelible role in shaping the city’s musical identity.

For more than 30 years, Kincaid hosted “Personality Crisis,” giving a platform to countless fledgling alternative rock, post-punk, underground, and Southern rock luminaries. In the early days of their careers, Atlanta-based acts the Indigo Girls, Drivin’ N Cryin’, and countless others benefitted from his steadfast dedication to music, and his encyclopedic knowledge.

Check out the backside of Mission of Burma’s 1988 LP Forget, and you’ll see bass player Roger Miller sporting a WREK T-shirt. It’s a good bet that Jon had a hand in Roger owning that shirt.

Jon explored every type of music known to humankind through his work as a WREK music director, and by creating his own experimental music under the name Sequence 3.

Cheatham led Eyedrum through its defining eras; he was Executive Director when the venerable arts institution was awarded a $30,000 grant from the Warhol Foundation in 2006. Cheatham also hosted Eyedrum’s long-running open improv nights, which became an institution for outsider and experimental arts. His band Tinnitus was well known for cranking out squelching, heavily-amplified noise and feedback created with the expressed intention of driving everyone out of the room.

His Brahvar Large Ensemble would often corral as many musicians together as possible — once even crowding more than 20 performers onto the tiny stage in the basement of Eyedrum’s original Trinity Ave. location for a massive improv blowout. Connections were made, new ensembles were formed, and wholly new configurations of musicians perpetuated the community. Cheatham’s brilliance lied in his merger of skronking, careening free jazz, and untethered exploration of sound as art without restraint.

Tom Smith reveled in a more confrontational aesthetic. With his groups To Live and Shave in LA, Peach of Immortality, and Boat Of, he placed elements of noise, the avant-garde, and sleazy rock ‘n’ roll on a level playing field. He wove them together seamlessly, while hopping around the globe — from Atlanta to Washington D.C. and finally Hanover, Germany. Along the way, he amassed collaborations with everyone from Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Andrew WK, Harry Pussy, Bill Orcutt, and more.

Kincaid, Cheatham, and Smith were all driven to create by exploring, not just rest on the past. Their sense of creativity, their dynamism, and their willingness to open up to the new — and the old — left a lasting mark on the city. Atlanta was made richer by their presence and their contributions, and the world suffers a tremendous loss with each of their passing.

On Fri., Feb. 18 (3-9 p.m.) and Sat., Feb. 19 (1-9 p.m.) Gallery 378 (378 Clifton Rd. in Candler Park) will host a two-day celebration of Jon Kincaid’s life and history at WREK. Video installations featuring broadcasts from “Personality Crisis” and more from the WREK archives will be playing throughout the gallery. On Saturday night, several acts including the Nightporters, the Chant, Kevn Kinney and friends, Current Rage, Will Rogers, and more will take turns playing songs on the stage downstairs.

Read more in the February issue of Record Plug Magazine.

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