Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Stewart Lupton, second from right, with Jonathan Fire*Eater on the cover of Wolf Songs For Lambs

The thrill and the tragedy of Jonathan Fire*Eater's Stewart Lupton

Stewart Lupton, second from right, with Jonathan Fire*Eater on the cover of Wolf Songs For Lambs

The very first photo in Lizzy Goodman’s recent oral history, Meet Me In The Bathroom, is of Stewart Lupton smoking a cigarette, framed by enormous angel wings. It’s a fitting image to begin Goodman’s story of New York’s rock rebirth in the early 2000s—a story that really began several years earlier, when the Lupton-fronted Jonathan Fire*Eater first emerged from a tepid sea of derivative pop-punk bands and Pavement clones. As testified in Goodman’s book by fans like Interpol’s Paul Banks and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, Jonathan Fire*Eater—and Stewart Lupton in particular—were a revelation, and a reminder of a recently lost idea of “cool.” The group became an enormous influence on that next generation of musicians, from their strung-out and swooning garage-rock, to the preppy-on-a-bohemian-bender way that they dressed, to Lupton’s possessed, mic-strangling manner of performing. In that photo of Lupton, he looks like he’s just been rolled out of heaven’s 4 a.m. bar, plummeting back to New York to remind everyone of the city’s sleepless, swaggering roots.

It’s a photo that already had a dark subtext when the book was published a year ago. If Lupton was some sort of fallen angel, he never really stopped falling. As the first chapter details, Jonathan Fire*Eater’s rise was meteoric and its implosion just as swift; its chapter ends with The Strokes’ Nick Valensi acknowledging that, yeah, people used to tell him that his band was finally delivering on the promise of Jonathan Fire*Eater, whom Valensi says he’d never even heard of. And the picture suggests Lupton as sort of a forgotten spiritual presence haunting that entire scene, a pioneer who quickly became a cautionary tale. It’s even more gut-wrenching to look at it now, with the news that Lupton died this weekend at the age of 43. Lupton’s death brings an end to one of rock’s most inspiring, frustrating, and ultimately tragic tales.

That tale really began long before that photo was taken, when Lupton first met organist Walter Martin as a fifth grader in Washington D.C. and began making music. In junior high, they were joined by drummer Matt Barrick and guitarist Paul Maroon and adopted the name The Ignobles. Playing mostly ska, but later mutating into a sort of three-chord punk hybrid, they became a local favorite, opening shows for the likes of Fugazi and Lenny Kravitz—largely, by the band’s own admission, because of the novelty of their being kids. But for kids, they were unusually dedicated. And after the band decamped to college in New York (minus original vocalist Ryan Cheney), The Ignobles were reborn as Jonathan Fire*Eater, with Lupton moving to vocals from bass and new recruit Tom Frank filling his slot.

Their new name spoke to the aesthetic Lupton was pursuing: a dazzling, slightly demented theatricality that was inspired, Lupton said, by an eye-opening experience at an Oaxacan Day of the Dead festival. Ambitious and artsy, it was backed up by the sounds the group was beginning to refine, a jagged take on Nuggets-style psych-rock that was driven by Martin’s shuddering, haunted-carnival organ, the shambolic slam of Barrick’s drums, and Maroon layering guitars that splintered and soared through echo-laden effects. The combination was something like Question Mark And The Mysterians, The Nation Of Ulysses, The Stooges, and The Birthday Party all hurtling through a subway tunnel together, and it was topped by Lupton’s raspy, sneering vocals, which probably owed a little bit to Jagger’s strut and a lot to the self-possessed strangeness of Cockney Rebel’s Steve Harley. But mostly, it was the sound of vintage New York cool, dredged up as though a forgotten memory from beneath the cracked LES sidewalks.

Jonathan Fire*Eater released its first, self-titled album in 1995 on the tiny label Third World Underground, a noisy, aggressive record that still sounds like a band in thrall to its D.C. roots. There are some definite highlights: the lurching, screeching, swaggering (and very Birthday Party-esque) “Romans & Barbarians;” the flickering, bluesy dirge “Christmas Time, Halloween.” But it wasn’t until its (also) self-titled EP that same year on PCP, with tracks like “The Public Hanging Of A Movie Star,” “The Cakewalk Of Crime,” and “When Prince Was A Kid”—and a cover that saw the band rocking skinny ties, pinstripe suit jackets, and on Lupton, a shiny gold lamé shirt—that the group started to stand out, even from an equally natty crop of contemporary blues/soul/garage rawk revivalists like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Makeup, and Railroad Jerk.

Tremble Under Boom Lights, released in 1996, remains a paragon of the EP form: Five perfectly realized tracks—from the propulsive “The Search For Cherry Red” to the wild garage circus of “Give Me Daughters” to the spooked soul of “The Beautician”—that were served by the band’s cleanest production to date, with an emphasis on space and newly lovely, reverbed textures floating in and around. Lupton, too, is in top form, emerging from the raw-throated yelps of those earlier records to find some unexpected moments of tenderness, and penning lyrics that felt dredged from some Black Dahlia nightmare vision of old Hollywood and the dark secrets of high society—dripping with diamonds and rubies, full of sad references to fading Polaroids and lost family members, consumed with death but finding beauty in it all the same.

As Lupton tells it in Meet Me In The Bathroom, he was the one out there pushing Jonathan Fire*Eater to the members of that society, even as he and the rest of the band spent their days living in a trash-strewn, single-room apartment. Lupton stayed out later than anyone, befriending people like Elliott Smith and Rufus Wainwright, and rallying excitement for the group among the NY scenesters through old-fashioned word of mouth, drunkenly shouted into their ears. It worked: Jonathan Fire*Eater became the hippest, buzziest band in town, and Lupton’s charisma had a lot to do with it. It helped that he was good-looking—thin and dapper in turtlenecks and fitted dress shirts, with razor-sharp cheekbones that made him look like a silent movie star. Calvin Klein sought him out for a modeling contract; more importantly, all the major record labels started wining and dining them. It was a bidding war that finally ended with Jonathan Fire*Eater signing to DreamWorks’ burgeoning music arm in 1997. The band was on the verge of becoming huge.

But a big part of that late-night “making the scene,” obviously, involved drugs. Lupton got hooked on heroin early, and he began living a life of rock-star decadence long before the contracts were even signed. His addictions alienated him from the rest of the band: “They resented the fuck out of me for it. They still do,” Lupton tells Goodman. And while the rest of them were still diligently rehearsing every night, committed to making a genuine career out of this impending, tenuous bridge to stardom, Lupton was out there every day getting high, blowing off band practice and even gigs. Jonathan Fire*Eater’s rise was incredibly fast, and Lupton’s self-destruction was every bit as swift. It was like he was living the entire, decade-long story of the New York scene in the span of just a couple years.

Jonathan Fire*Eater still managed to produce an album for DreamWorks, 1997’s Wolf Songs For Lambs, a record that was greeted with crossed arms after so much intense hype. It didn’t do much to win those skeptics over, but its reputation is (mostly) undeserved. While there’s nothing on there with the ferocity of “Give Me Daughters” or “The Search For Cherry Red,” Wolf Songs still contains some absolute gems. The prophetically titled “The Shape Of Things That Never Came” contains some of Lupton’s most evocative lyrics, sketching out a bleak, sardonic, quintessentially Brooklyn tale of “a magazine party in an old train yard” that’s interrupted by a girl who dies of a seizure, really dampening the vibe. And “Station Coffee” is a garage-y Stones stormer, the most rollicking two minutes in the band’s entire catalog.

Closer “Inpatient Talent Show” is a thing of cracked beauty, a ghostly, shimmering echo that builds to a triumphant rooftop shout into the alleyways, Lupton confidently declaring, “They’re gonna hear from me.” And then there is the closest thing Wolf Songs had to a single, the sinister, glam-circus bark of “When The Curtain Calls For You” (as featured on the soundtrack of the Mark Paul Gosselaar comedy Dead Man On Campus!), which contains some of Lupton’s most poignant lyrics, a rumination on artificiality and alienation amid the never-ending pageantry of his scene.

Critics were lukewarm and eager to refute the hype machine, sales were low, and by 1998, Jonathan Fire*Eater was done, playing one final show on July 28 in Central Park and disbanding that very day. Maroon, Martin, and Barrick hooked up with Martin’s cousin, Hamilton Leithauser, and along with Leithauser’s bandmate in The Recoys, Peter Bauer, they formed The Walkmen, a group that retained Jonathan Fire*Eater’s love of vintage instruments but found new layers of expression beneath Leithauser’s more elastic voice. The Walkmen—while it never garnered the kind of buzz of its contemporaries, or even of Jonathan Fire*Eater—went on to become one of the most revered acts of the decade before going on indefinite, yet amicable hiatus in 2014.

Chances are, most people who know the name Jonathan Fire*Eater today only know it in the context of The Walkmen, or because of Goodman’s book. For the band members themselves—including Maroon, who these days writes an advice column for us—Jonathan Fire*Eater is also sort of a distant memory, one that’s prelude to another, more recent, yet increasingly distant memory. Talk to them about it today, and they’ll suggest that whatever pride they might feel about the group now is complicated by the pain Lupton caused them and himself.

Lupton eventually emerged from the band’s breakup feeling cocky about his future—happy to be rid of “the screeching fucking doorbell organ,” as he put it in 2007, and bragging that he’d “already passed [The Walkmen] artistically” with his solo work and telling his former bandmates to just quit. Perhaps, for a single moment that year, there was something to back up his boasts: His 2006 Cheekbone Hollows EP as The Childballads, which featured Blues Explosion guitarist Judah Bauer, felt like maybe, possibly the start of a comeback. Lupton had been off studying Middle Ages poetry at George Washington University since JF*E’s breakup, and his new songs had a romantic, if scholarly lyricism to them that suggested he’d found a new muse there.

Unfortunately, the actual music was a fine, but rather wan stab at more Stones-y blues rock that might have benefitted from some screeching fucking doorbell organ. Meanwhile, his live performances included pretentious stops between songs for Lupton to read passages from Byron—as well as mid-song pauses for Lupton to simply sit on the edge of the stage smoking a cigarette, visibly fading, like the showcase gig I saw at CMJ that year.

That was far from the worst show I saw Lupton put on, actually. The low point came in 2010, when Lupton played SXSW ostensibly as part his new band, The Beatin’s, a duo with Carole Wagner Greenwood. Unfortunately for everyone, Greenwood didn’t make it to the fest. Kinja has, unfortunately, swallowed my full review, though parts of it are excerpted here. Suffice to say, it involved playing about two and a half songs (including a cover of Dean Martin’s “My Rifle, My Pony, And Me”) in the span of 30 minutes, and mostly consisted of Lupton telling endless rambling stories, finally prompting members of the sparse crowd to shout, “Shut up!” It was one of the saddest concert experiences I’ve ever had. I’d worshipped Jonathan Fire*Eater from the moment I’d first heard them in ’97 (even fronting a couple of bands that shamelessly ripped them off). It brought me no pleasure to witness Lupton’s downward spiral, or to report on it for everyone beyond the 15 or so people who were there.

Incredibly, Lupton himself saw it and responded to me in the comments, in a reply that spoke to how candid he was about his own failings—and confident that he was on the verge of overcoming them.

That review was pretty dead on. Actually, it was incredibly accurate. You were right, point for point . it was not fun. it was not “in the zone.” i talked too much and felt zero inner reverence or sense of presence. i shoulda stayed home and finished my own damn record. but i conceded to take part in something that my heart was just not in. I went South because i didn’t follow my True North. My gut. Thanks for reminding me of that. Sorry i let you down. Somethin in me wanted to break somethin...if I would’a listened to that voice , you might’ve caught a hot 15 minutes. Instead, i caved. to expectations. not yours. and not mine. but they there ….

The stress and confusion clouded the airwaves to a point of inscrutability. and i was not under any influence whatsoever but the extreme pressure to represent this side project i produced over the summer (The Beatin’s- A Little Give And Take, i think you would actually really like it. ) that had not even managed to rehearse once. So there i was, under/overwhelmed, furious at myself for not listening to my gut and for suffering fools. Sometimes i want to tear it all down. I just wanna thank you for airing it all out. Time to get back to work. I can hear my gut now. I wouldn’t throw in the towel yet, and i’m a betting man. Stick around, things are just startin to get interesting again right about now.

It didn’t stop there. A few weeks later, he sent me a vinyl copy of The Beatin’s record. He included a long, handwritten letter on hotel stationery in which he said a lot of the same things in a lot of the same words, again telling me how much he wanted me to like it.

I felt awful about it. I still do. The music was... fine. Mostly, it was just sort of flat and repetitive, its vintage country-and-Western trappings feeling like a corny affectation. Needless to say, it was nowhere near as good as Jonathan Fire*Eater. I didn’t want Lupton to throw in the towel either, but the idea that this was his true beginning filled me with heavy skepticism.

In the years since, my skepticism turned to full-on, near-daily dread. Lupton’s Facebook page became full of increasingly erratic posts. Late last year, he accused “the FBI, CIA, the Clintons, and the Gores” of orchestrating a prolonged campaign of abusive government experiments on him beginning in high school, one that had left him hearing voices. Many of his friends and family—and random fans—urged him to get help. There was a suicide attempt around 2015, where Lupton jumped off a bridge and miraculously survived. While no official cause has been made public, Lupton’s cousin Sarah Lupton, tells Rolling Stone that Lupton’s death was “his desperate attempt to escape the voices that so tormented him.”

For a while there, Lupton channeled that torment into some truly otherworldly songs—full of magic realism and black comedy, and fleeting, surrealist impressions that connected on an ineffable level. They were beautiful gutter poems paired alchemically with music that, like Lupton himself, always teetered on the verge of completely falling apart, were it not for his white-knuckled, mic-gripping conviction. If you missed out, you can watch some of it for yourself in this video of a 1996 concert uploaded by yours truly and given to me by my friend Josh Modell, whose shared love of Jonathan Fire*Eater was one of the things that first brought us together.

Jonathan Fire*Eater may have only lived for a short while, but there was always something timelessly, immortally strange about it and the world it created. And while that spirit lived on and flourished in other bands, it’s one of the great shames of rock history that Lupton lost touch with it so quickly and so dramatically. It would be a mistake to romanticize his spiral—to make Lupton out to be some sort of angel with a dirty face, like that photo in Goodman’s book will now forever suggest—when his choice was, by his own admission, so deliberate. But now that Lupton is gone and he is finally at peace, we can at least take pleasure in the theater he created, before it turned cruel.