The day I finally found the nerve to approach Stewart Lupton, he was leafing through music magazines, squinting at pictures of people who weren’t as cool as him.
This was 1999-ish, roughly a year after the breakup of Jonathan Fire*Eater, a New York rock band with D.C. roots that had famously signed a million-dollar record deal, released an exquisite album, then swiftly vanished into the night. Now Lupton was back home, studying poetry at George Washington University, blowing his late afternoons in the magazine aisle at Tower Records — a shoulda-been rock star catching up on the latest rock stars. On my umpteenth sighting, I introduced myself as a fan and asked what he was up to now. “Just reading,” he said.
Is that what you do when fame gives you the slip? Dunk your grieving brain in Tennyson and Spin? In that moment, I was too timid to ask, and now it’s too late — Lupton died on Sunday at 43.
To get a sense of what this guy had gained and lost, all by the age of 24, start on the very first page of “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” Lizzy Goodman’s expansive oral history of 21st-century New York rock-and-roll. There, you’ll find a portrait of Lupton looking incredibly young and impossibly handsome, ready for the world. In the testimony that follows, his band is described as the proto-Strokes, his stage persona is described as Iggy Pop channeling Ian Curtis, and his drug habit is described as self-destructive. All true things.
As if to match their internal chemistry, Jonathan Fire*Eater had a tempestuous sound, the kind of clang you can only get when everybody in the band loves one another enough to hate one another’s guts. These guys grew up together at Washington’s St. Albans School, and afterward, three members found success — without Lupton — in the Walkmen. But I don’t think any of them ever eclipsed “Wolf Songs for Lambs,” Jonathan Fire*Eater’s perilously overhyped 1997 album for DreamWorks. What a sound. With his bandmates lurching into a strut, Lupton’s howls ran hot and wild, while his lyrics felt sweet and wise, as if he saw it all coming. “Well, now, we tried to be strong and carry on, but somehow the party seemed doomed,” he moaned in a prophetic past tense on a song called “The Shape of Things That Never Came.”
The second time I spoke to Lupton, in early 2008, things looked brighter, at least on the surface. He had a new band, the Child Ballads, and I had a new job at one of those magazines that he used to read at Tower. When he invited me into his D.C. living room for an interview, the place had the charm of an exploded library. Lupton offered tea, flipped the Dead Moon record spinning on the turntable, then gave me a lovely tour through his mess, telling me about the times he’d met Patti Smith and John Ashbery, and how the poetry of Italian philosopher Giacomo Leopardi reminded him of Elliott Smith.
This was clearly the same guy who stole all of those New Yorkers’ hearts back in 1996, only this time around, he was bursting with optimism — as if all the good fortune originally aimed at Jonathan Fire*Eater was finally going to land on the Child Ballads. “I feel like I found the second Willy Wonka golden ticket,” Lupton told me. “Now the idea is to make it my life.”
That didn’t happen, but Lupton had good reason to think it might, because by this time, he’d read all of those poetry books strewn across the living room floor. Listen to the lyrics of “Cheekbone Hollows,” a Child Ballads song that creates a scene worthy of Leonard Cohen, but with a Rolling Stones riff shaking its tail in the background. “I bought a white chocolate tea in the park on my lunch break,” Lupton sings. “I bought a painting off the street of a haunted lake” — and here comes the greatest, truest rock lyric that you’ve never heard — “And I tried hard to make the world an exciting place.”
Considering Lupton’s familiarity with the shape of things that never came, it was a thrill to hear him try, a joy to hear him succeed.