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.