Stewart Lupton, the former Jonathan Fire*Eater singer who died this week at 43, managed a terribly depressing feat in his influential, impressive, short-lived musical career: He burned out and he faded away.
For a brief moment in the mid-late 90s, Lupton was poised and ready for stardom. His band, which would later morph without him into The Walkmen, had been playing together since they were kids. They migrated together from DC, where they had been in a ska-influenced band called The Ignobles, to New York’s Lower East Side, at a time when fancy high rises hadn’t yet reclaimed the streets from drug dealers. Though his bandmates—guitarist Paul Maroon, keyboardist Walter Martin, bassist Tom Frank, and drummer Matt Barrick—abstained, Lupton embraced the drug scene, and it would prove to be a life-long problem. “It was just a different time where everyone did everything,” said Lupton. “Ten dollars bought you a whole day of nirvana.”
But first there were the golden years, which were recently highlighted in the early chapters of Lizzy Goodman’s oral history of New York rock of that era, Meet Me in the Bathroom. JFE found their sound—hyper-literate garage rock colored by tiny goth flecks, all propelled by Martin’s Farfisa organ and Lupton’s voice—quickly, and became the talk of the town circa 1995, influencing everyone from the Strokes to Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Interpol, all documented in Goodman’s book.
They were an almost indescribably incredible live band: blisteringly loud and tight, tinny as hell, dressed to the nines, and in possession of the sort of cool that early twentysomethings don’t come by often. They were as exciting to me in a Milwaukee club in 1996 as the Stooges must have seemed to some Ann Arbor kid in 1967. I had more fingers than there were people in the crowd that night, but Jonathan Fire*Eater played like it was the only place in the world that mattered. Lupton had his eyes closed most of the time, maybe picturing the huge crowd in his head. Most songs were accompanied by weird stories about Hollywood starlets or monster movies or New York. At one point, during “The Public Hanging of a Movie Star,” he shoved the whole microphone into his mouth and danced like a gorilla. It remains one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. Hooked, I followed the band to Madison a few nights later. So did the major-label A&R guy that would end up signing them—the beginning of the end in a lot of ways.
The pinnacle of Jonathan Fire*Eater’s recorded output was a pair of EPs, both now out of print and not on streaming services. To hear the closest approximation to those trance-inducing live shows, you’ll need to track down The Public Hanging of a Movie Star and Tremble Under Boom Lights.
Thirsty labels courted Jonathan Fire*Eater like crazy, in spite of the fact that the band had serious reservations about actually getting big. They famously asked whether whatever label signed them would consider halting sales of their albums at 500,000 copies, should they sell that many. They didn’t want to talk to mainstream press. They didn’t want to make videos. They had exactly one weird, text-heavy T-shirt design, which was quickly abandoned. It was about the spirit of the music and looking fabulous, a heady combination.
But they signed with DreamWorks Records anyway, when that was a fresh, cash-rich record label subsidiary of the film and TV company. They recorded their second album—the first, self-titled disc might as well not have existed, given its distribution—with an actual budget, and the hype machine kicked into high gear. But when Wolf Songs for Lambs came out in late 1997, it landed with a whimper, not particularly well received by critics or fans, and selling in the neighborhood of 10,000 copies. It’s actually a masterful, measured record, but there’s little on it that resembles a single—nothing that the wider world might want to sink its teeth into. Jonathan Fire*Eater made a record on their own terms, and the public didn’t want to meet them halfway. Less than a year later, they were done, a footnote or perhaps cautionary tale to some, an important, formative band for a much smaller subsection of the rock world.
Three-fifths of Jonathan Fire*Eater went on to form the Walkmen, enlisting Walter Martin’s cousin, Hamilton Leithauser, to sing. That band’s trajectory felt much more like what Jonathan Fire*Eater was initially aiming for: a slower build, a series of solid albums… a career, in other words. They lasted 14 years and, more importantly, weren’t disinclined to play the game a little more: “The Rat” was a huge single, and they appeared on movie soundtracks and the occasional commercial. They parted amicably and left the door open for future work—the opposite of their previous band, really.
Lupton didn’t fare as well. He moved back in with his parents after JFE’s breakup, and he went back to school. He studied and wrote poetry, poking his head out with musical projects every now and again. With a band called The Child Ballads, he released one really good EP in 2006, but nothing further materialized. Another project, the Beatin’s, produced one EP that also included some of Lupton’s written poetry, and then disappeared. He played the occasional show, including one I saw at South By Southwest that was just short of complete shambles.
Other signs pointed to trouble as well. On Facebook, Lupton spent most of his time posting links to songs and art that he loved and poetry that he had written, but every so often something darker would emerge: references to his mind being controlled, and paranoid posts about being stalked and poisoned that seemed to peak in 2012. In interviews, he claimed to have given up drugs on various occasions, including during the writing and recording of Wolf Songs. (“I wrote a lot of Wolf Songs For Lambs getting clean. I stayed clean for awhile. It was difficult living in New York so we went to North Carolina where there was no drugs and a safe environment,” he told Please Kill Me.) He took potshots—half-joking, but clearly half-serious—at the Walkmen in interviews, bitter about that band’s success. (“I’m jealous of the money and nothing else,” he said in 2007. “I could do what they’re doing in my sleep.”)
In that same 2015 interview with Please Kill Me, Lupton detailed a horrific suicide attempt that led to his most recent bout of sobriety. He claims to have punctured a lung and broken 24 ribs—that’d be all of them—by jumping from a bridge in DC. His Facebook posts were less erratic after that, and frequently full of words of support from friends and family—though one from last year asked whether anyone in his network had “involvement with hearing voices.” He died on Sunday, May 27. No cause of death has been released.
His former bandmate, Walter Martin, posted a tribute on Facebook today that read, in part: “Whatever the hell that thing is that happens when you see the best art or hear the best music or read the best lines — that other-worldly beauty and that feeling that you are in the presence of something that is magical and real — Stew’s poems had that. And he spent his life looking for other things that had that.”
It’s an awful end to a tough story, one whose moments of beauty and triumph hopefully mitigated some of the pain. Maybe Stewart Lupton and his band are destined to be a footnote, but why should we zoom out and look at that bigger picture when there’s something so precious—something so magical and real—in the margins. Lupton populated his songs with details about wonderful weirdos who existed in the periphery. There’s poetry in the notion that that’s where people will need to look to find him.