STE­WART LUP­TON

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The ex-Jonathan Fire*Eater singer was a hugely in­flu­en­tial front­man, but his sui­cide this May left a sense of a tal­ent un­ful­filled. Laura Bar­ton ex­am­ines his legacy.

Ask Wal­ter Martin to speak about Ste­wart Lup­ton and the first thing he will say is, “He was my best friend” – as if it gov­erns all ques­tions, anec­dotes, mis­de­meanours, quar­rels and omis­sions in the telling of his story. As if it is a bul­wark against the loss of Lup­ton, best known as the front­man of Jonathan Fire*Eater, who in late May took his own life aged 43. Jonathan Fire*Eater were a brief, elec­tric, fe­ro­ciously in­spir­ing New York band of the late ’ 90s who re­leased two al­bums, played

As the front­man with Jonathan Fire * Eater in the ’90s, Ste­wart Lup­ton was im­pec­ca­ble: witty, pre­car­i­ous, mag­netic, ex­traor­di­nar­ily beau­ti­ful and faintly dan­ger­ous. He in­flu­enced a gen­er­a­tion of New York groups in the ’00s, but his star burned too brightly and then out. This May, he took his own life, aged 43. Laura Bar­ton re­calls a spe­cial tal­ent in the com­pany of his best friends and big­gest fans.

some leg­endary shows, and earned the la­bel “pos­si­bly the most hyped young group no­body has heard of ” by the LA Times be­fore stum­bling to a halt in the sum­mer of 1998. Yet in their short ex­is­tence they ig­nited some­thing in the city’s mu­sic scene, and with­out them there might never have been the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or In­ter­pol, or The Kills. In the wake of their split, the band’s mem­bers all went on to other projects – Wal­ter Martin, Paul Ma­roon and Matt Bar­rick form­ing

The Walk­men, Tom Frank be­com­ing a jour­nal­ist, and Lup­ton con­tin­u­ing mu­sic first as Child­bal­lads, then as The Beatin’s, along­side study­ing, teach­ing and writ­ing po­etry. But none ever quite re­cap­tured the en­ergy or alchemy of their first band.

Martin met Lup­ton when they were nine years old and liv­ing in Wash­ing­ton, DC – Lup­ton, then a re­cent trans­plant from South Carolina, was a pleas­ingly dis­rup­tive force. “He came to my school in fourth grade, and he was a fun, ad­ven­tur­ous fella who loved to do things that were bad and wild,” Martin says. “We went to a very straight, con­ser­va­tive, tra­di­tional school, and a lot of the fun of be­ing with him was he was dif­fer­ent. He liked break­ing the rules. It was about fol­low­ing what you wanted to do, not what the school wanted you to do. We would throw wa­ter bal­loons at cars, sling-shots from our bed­room win­dows, skate­board­ing… we caused a lot of mis­chief.” When they were 11, Lup­ton and Martin started a band they called The Res­ur­rec­tion. They played Clash and Bea­tles songs and wrote one or two of their own – the first of which was called Bad At­ti­tude and was about their ha­tred of the po­lice and their gen­er­ally in­tractable dis­po­si­tion. When they played, they kept candy cig­a­rettes be­hind their ears. By ninth grade Matt and Paul had joined them and they had what Martin de­scribes as “a real band”. Lup­ton was play­ing bass then, with their friend Ryan Cheney on vo­cals, and they were called The Ig­no­bles. Af­ter a stint play­ing school dances, the band scored a semi-reg­u­lar sup­port slot at the leg­endary 9:30 Club in Wash­ing­ton, DC. “We opened for a lot of bands,” re­mem­bers Martin. “Our first one was Lenny Kravitz. We were play­ing a lot of ska then and we opened for The Selecter. And Fugazi. A lot of bands. At the time we thought it was be­cause we were su­per cool, but maybe it was be­cause we were re­ally young so we were a bit of a nov­elty act.” In their fi­nal year of high school Cheney left the band and Lup­ton was his ob­vi­ous re­place­ment. “It felt like Ste­wart was the guy, the per­former, though he was the bassist,” Martin says. “We did some stuff with Ste­wart singing and it felt like, ‘Holy crap, this is re­ally good. This could be some­thing.’” Re­lo­cated to New York for col­lege, the band con­tin­ued play­ing mu­sic. “We made some demo record­ings in the laun­dry room at Columbia and they sounded great,” Martin re­calls. “They had this qual­ity that I think all of us have strived to re­peat to this day.” They signed a deal with an in­die la­bel in Ari­zona and, much to the hor­ror of their par­ents, quit col­lege and moved in to­gether in Man­hat­tan’s Lower East Side. “At first we lived in a stu­dio, all five of us, with a dou­ble bed in the back and then there was a couch and a fu­ton,” Martin re­mem­bers. “We just ro­tated around, no one claimed a turf. Then we moved across the street into a two-bed, with bunk beds in each room. It was a shitty New York apart­ment, it was gross, and it was shady – there were drug deal­ers walk­ing by, and when our par­ents or sib­lings or friends would visit they would say, ‘What IS this?’ But we didn’t care – we were 19. New York just felt law­less then. We all worked crappy day jobs and at night we’d sit on the stoop and drink beer. It was par­adise.” They played of­ten – at Con­ti­nen­tal in Lower Man­hat­tan and The Cooler on the West Side, as well as CBGB’s and the Mer­cury Lounge. They were stag­ger­ing per­form­ers. A furl of or­gan and re­verb and lyri­cal prow­ess all piv­ot­ing around Lup­ton, who was the most im­pec­ca­ble front­man: witty, pre­car­i­ous, mag­netic, ex­traor­di­nar­ily beau­ti­ful and faintly dan­ger­ous. “He was the quintessen­tially cool guy,” says Paul Banks, lead singer of In­ter­pol, who re­calls first see­ing Jonathan Fire*Eater play Tramps shortly af­ter he left high school in the late ’ 90s. “The style was im­mac­u­late, and he had great pres­ence. Off­stage and on­stage he was a rock star. I’d put him in a sim­i­lar cat­e­gory as Mick Jag­ger and Iggy Pop – he had the same real, inim­itable charisma.” On­stage, from Martin’s po­si­tion be­hind the or­gan, that pres­ence was also un­ques­tion­able. “We had a re­ally good sound and we were re­ally loud, and Ste­wart was un­pre­dictable and re­ally funny,” he says. “He was funny as hell. We knew it was Stew’s show and we were the back­ing band, kick­ing butt but keep­ing our heads down and not want­ing to be a dis­trac­tion.” The band soon earned a rep­u­ta­tion for their live shows, and Martin re­calls the sud­den jolt of re­al­is­ing the crowds were there to see them. They had watched The Rolling Stones doc­u­men­tary 25x5 by his es­ti­ma­tion “a mil­lion times”, al­ways en­joy­ing the scene where the band are sur­prised to find they have au­di­ences at their gigs. “And when peo­ple started com­ing to our shows I re­mem­ber talk­ing with Ste­wart, say­ing, ‘This is what is hap­pen­ing!’”

It was around this time that James Old­ham first saw them play. Now a man­ager, Old­ham was pre­vi­ously an ed­i­tor at the NME. “The first time I ever went to New York was to in­ter­view Jonathan Fire*Eater,” he says. “It was be­tween Christ­mas and New Year’s Eve 1995, it was snow­ing and we were in the Meat­pack­ing Dis­trict and it was ro­man­tic.” The en­ergy that made them cap­ti­vat­ing on­stage was, he found, very much what made them com­pelling off­stage, too. “The thing that made them ex­cit­ing was their un­pre­dictabil­ity,” he says. “But that was also part of their down­fall.” Old­ham vis­ited the band in their shared apart­ment and found them look­ing much as they did on the cover of their sec­ond al­bum, Wolf Songs For Lambs – five im­pos­si­bly-hip young men wear­ing im­pec­ca­ble out­fits and di­shev­elled faces. “The very first episode of South Park had just come out and they had watched it three or four times over,” he re­mem­bers. “It set the tone for the un­usual 48 hours that fol­lowed. Ste­wart and I went to a party and we were the only two peo­ple there who weren’t dressed as Spock. Ste­wart thought this was hi­lar­i­ous.” The ex­pe­ri­ence was, as Old­ham tells it, a quite thrilling in­tro­duc­tion to the life of a New York band. “The open­ing part of Meet Me In The Bath­room cap­tures that time ex­actly,” he says, ref­er­enc­ing Lizzy Good­man’s book doc­u­ment­ing that pe­riod in New York, which opens with a chap­ter on Jonathan Fire*Eater. “It was – and I para­phrase – ‘We’ve es­caped our par­ents, we’ve moved to New York, we’ve found hard drugs!’ Ste­wart thought it was an ad­ven­ture, and he was go­ing to pur­sue it to the ex­treme.” By this stage Lup­ton had in­deed found hard drugs and had a se­ri­ous prob­lem, mean­ing he was, as Old­ham puts it, “slightly es­tranged” from his band­mates. Martin sounds sad and weary as he re­calls that time: “The bad drug stuff started in the be­gin­ning of Jonathan Fire*Eater,” he says. “It was bad. It re­ally messed us up. It messed up our friend­ships. It took the wind out of our sails when it felt every­thing was set up. It af­fected per­form­ing. It af­fected every­thing.” Still, Lup­ton re­mained a com­pelling fig­ure. “He was charm­ing, as many peo­ple ad­dicted to drugs have to be. He was ir­re­press­ible,” says Old­ham. “They be­came a band I was quite ob­sessed with. Or rather I be­came ob­sessed with Ste­wart. You don’t of­ten meet peo­ple like that. There be­came a very small club of ded­i­cated Jonathan Fire*Eater fans. [ Yeah Yeah Yeahs’] Karen O. [ The Kills’] Jamie Hince. I’d speak to Daniel Kessler about them all the time – there’s a rea­son why In­ter­pol look the way they do.” “I was very im­pressed by the look of that band,” agrees Banks. “Ev­ery­one grav­i­tates to their own cool, so maybe they gave me a lit­tle nudge. And I think there prob­a­bly was an in­flu­ence mu­si­cally – though it’s dif­fer­ent when you’re a group and tech­ni­cally you don’t have the chops to say, ‘Let’s do what they’re do­ing!’” But Jonathan Fire*Eater were not do­ing a great deal. They toured widely, but their sec­ond al­bum, re­leased on the ma­jor la­bel DreamWorks, failed to make much im­pact. They took song­writ­ing trips for a new al­bum to up­state New York, “but it had the feel­ing we weren’t go­ing to make any­thing great,” re­mem­bers Martin. “Re­la­tion­ships were fall­ing apart. We came back and did a show in Cen­tral Park – and then af­ter that we had a meet­ing and de­cided to end the band.”

“The bad drug stuff started in the be­gin­ning of Jonathan Fire*Eater. It re­ally messed us up. It took the wind out of our sails when it felt every­thing was set up. It af­fected per­form­ing. It af­fected every­thing.” Wal­ter Martin, Jonathan Fire*Eater

For a while, Martin and Lup­ton moved out of one an­other’s or­bit, though their friend­ship was never truly rup­tured. “We had such his­tory and we loved each other,” he ex­plains. “Even though tech­ni­cally I was mad at him, and he was mad at me, we were al­ways thrilled to see each other.” Lup­ton was back in Wash­ing­ton, DC by the time Old­ham, then run­ning Loog Records, won­dered, “What­ever hap­pened to Ste­wart?” He found him on­line and dis­cov­ered he was now study­ing po­etry and writ­ing mu­sic as the Child­bal­lads with Betsy Wright (Ex Hex), whose sound owed much to Royal Trux and whose per­for­mances in­ter­spersed songs with po­etry read­ings. “I tricked Uni­ver­sal out of money for Child­bal­lads to record some demos in New York,” Old­ham re­calls. “I told the la­bel it was for some­thing else.” But the record did not re­vive Lup­ton’s mu­sic ca­reer. “I was mor­ti­fied when it didn’t at­tract more at­ten­tion and when peo­ple thought the mu­sic should be more rad­i­cal,” says Old­ham. “And I sup­pose I have a resid­ual guilt that by say­ing, ‘I will re­lease your mu­sic’ I brought him back to drugs.” The Beatin’s, Lup­ton’s next mu­si­cal project, in 2009, also fal­tered. “Ste­wart was like a light­ning flash,” Old­ham ex­plains. “When he ap­peared it was brief, il­lu­mi­nat­ing and al­most cer­tainly dan­ger­ous. The Beatin’s didn’t have that.” The ap­peal of Lup­ton was not just that he was such a bril­liant per­former but that he was a re­mark­able lyri­cist, too. “It’s funny, when you’re young you don’t pay at­ten­tion to lyrics,” says Martin. “But go­ing back to them now, it was re­ally spe­cial. He was al­ways a great writer – po­etry more than his lyrics. Ex­plain­ing it is like try­ing to ex­plain your favourite paint­ing. But they had an ab­stract sec­tion and an earthy, beau­ti­ful sec­tion.” When peo­ple talk of Lup­ton, it is rare that they term him a “song­writer” or a “lyri­cist”, rather, like Martin, they choose the word “poet’”. “There was real po­etry in him. He was the bona fide item, a true artist,” says Banks. And in­deed, po­etry was Lup­ton’s great pas­sion. “His lyri­cal acu­men was im­mense and his po­etry was in­cred­i­ble,” says Old­ham. “He was a stu­dent of Au­den. He was sort of the in­die Del­more Schwartz. His knowl­edge of po­etry re­ally was not su­per­fi­cial. I re­mem­ber he put me onto a book, Leop­ardi’s Canti, and his thing about it was it re­minded him of El­liott Smith.” It was to po­etry that Lup­ton re­treated af­ter the end of his mu­sic ca­reer – in re­cent years writ­ing and teach­ing in Cal­i­for­nia. “He wrote these beau­ti­ful po­ems in the last four years of his life,” says Martin. “I think po­etry helped a lot with his men­tal health – and it helped to get en­cour­age­ment from great writ­ers and from strangers. That was his lifeboat. The true thing that only he could do.” Dur­ing those years Martin and Lup­ton had reignited their friend­ship. “Ste­wart got sober and he and I got close again,” he says. “And I’m very thank­ful that in the last three or four years he was lu­cid. We had great talks. We talked about the same stuff we talked about when we were kids. We were telling each other what records to buy, what books to read. He would help me with my mu­sic and read his po­etry to me.” If Martin, now a solo artist, feels his mu­sic car­ries Lup­ton’s in­flu­ence it is “prob­a­bly just from spend­ing your life with some­one. We had dif­fer­ent styles, but his pres­ence is in so much of what I do.” I ask Martin if he was sur­prised to hear of Lup­ton’s death, and for a long while the line falls silent. “I don’t know,” he says even­tu­ally. “I guess I wasn’t to­tally sur­prised. I knew he was suf­fer­ing. He had cleaned up, but he had re­ally se­ri­ous men­tal health stuff, and I don’t know when that started. It’s hard to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween what was go­ing on from ad­dic­tion and the men­tal health stuff. But he was suf­fer­ing. It wasn’t out of the blue.” Old­ham, by con­trast, was stunned. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more shocked by any­thing – de­spite the fact that out of ev­ery­one I’ve ever known it was the most likely. Peo­ple die all the time. David Bowie. Leonard Co­hen. But Ste­wart’s death hit me. I al­ways thought he was so bril­liant that he would pull it back. I thought he would be an amaz­ing poet.” He pauses. “Re­demp­tion is im­pos­si­ble now.” Banks is more san­guine. “I don’t feel bad about his wasted po­ten­tial be­cause part of be­ing an artist is be­ing at the helm of your own ship,” he says. “I don’t know if we’ll find note­books of Ste­wart’s po­etry or if he had other ex­pe­ri­ences no­body knows about that sat­is­fied him, but just be­cause some­one moves away from the spot­light doesn’t mean they’re not do­ing what they need to do. It could be ex­actly what their soul craves.” There is a move to pub­lish Lup­ton’s po­ems, Martin tells me, a hope that a wider world might see the great­est part of his tal­ent. And for those close to him there are other mo­ments of com­fort, too – anec­dotes, Old­ham tells me off-record, that make him burst out laugh­ing, that carry the charm and sweet­ness of Lup­ton. “When I pic­ture him now, it’s in his room in high school lis­ten­ing to Bob Mar­ley,” Martin says warmly. “Him talk­ing about how Bob Mar­ley was singing, how spon­ta­neous it was, how he said, ‘That mo­ment right there – doesn’t that make you want to be a mu­si­cian?’”

Imet Lup­ton in New York in the Jan­uary of 2007, on one of those bright, brit­tle days the city does so well. We ate brunch in a place he re­mem­bered on the Lower East Side, and then cof­fee turned to booze and half the day had passed. We talked about mu­sic and po­etry, about Au­den and Eng­land and New York. When we said good­bye we hugged on the street and I re­mem­ber how tiny and fledg­ling he felt, and it seemed wrong – ir­re­spon­si­ble some­how, to leave him alone in that clam­orous city. A day or two later he texted me: “I be­lieve in your tal­ent.” It was strange and sweet, and I re­mem­ber be­ing glad to hear from him – re­lieved to hear that he was safe. He was, af­ter all, a tal­ent I be­lieved in too.

“He was the quintessen­tially cool guy. The style was im­mac­u­late, and he had great pres­ence. I’d put him in a sim­i­lar cat­e­gory as Mick Jag­ger and Iggy Pop — he had the same real, inim­itable charisma.” Paul Banks, In­ter­pol

“Ex­cit­ing and un­pre­dictable...” (from inset, be­low left) Jonathan Fire*Eater’s sec­ond and fi­nal al­bum, 1997’ s Wolf Songs For Lambs; Lup­ton in New York’s East Vil­lage, 2005; a 1997 promo shot of the band; Lup­ton’s band­mate and school friend, Wal­ter Martin.

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