Published Oct 16, 2019In the opening chapter of Lizzy Goodman's captivating NYC rock oral history, Meet Me in the Bathroom, she details the tragic tale of a band called Jonathan Fire*Eater. Originally formed in Washington, DC, Jonathan Fire*Eater consisted of five handsome young men who were always dressed to the nines, almost exclusively in black.
To paraphrase Nick Valensi, his band the Strokes were what Jonathan Fire*Eater should have been five years earlier. But Jonathan Fire*Eater never incited a rock'n'roll revolution. Instead, they broke up, and three-fifths of the band went on to experience it in the Walkmen.
But Third Man Records plans to jog some memories and introduce the unfamiliar to Jonathan Fire*Eater with reissues of the band's two key releases, beginning with their 1996 compilation LP, Tremble Under Boom Lights.
As history tells it, Jonathan Fire*Eater laid down the blueprint for all of the subsequent NYC rock bands that came out of the woodwork a half-decade later. Led by the now dearly departed frontman, a macabre poet named Stewart Lupton, the band's noisy, Farfisa-swirling garage rock channelled the raucous energy of the Cramps and the Stooges, with equal parts swagger of the Rolling Stones.
Self-described as a "theatric rock band," Jonathan Fire*Eater caused a frenzy amongst the music press with their shambolic rock and unhinged frontman. As word caught on, a bidding war erupted, which led to a deal with the still-new Dreamworks imprint.
In October 1997, they released their second LP, Wolf Songs For Lambs; however, the band couldn't even survive the next year. They broke up in July 1998; Lupton formed Childballads, while three of the remaining members — Matt Barrick, Paul Maroon and Walter Martin — took their organ and formed the Walkmen with Hamilton Leithauser and Peter Bauer.
Now rescued from obscurity by Third Man, Tremble Under Boom Lights is a fascinating look at a band that was just too early, irreverent and chaotic to survive the times. In many respects, Tremble is the band's masterpiece, thanks to such rousing tracks as the drunkenly swaggering "The Public Hanging of a Movie Star," the barrelling rocker "When Prince Was a Kid," and the creeping "Give Me Daughters."
Included as a bonus are two tracks, the bouncy, blithe "The City Never Sleeps," which originally only appeared on the European version, and the previously unreleased, "In the Head."
For the longest time, Jonathan Fire*Eater felt like a band that only people who were there at the time would ever remember. But this carefully assembled reissue (released alongside The Plural Atmosphere, a book of Lupton's poetry) perfectly honours a band that, like its frontman, was gone way too soon. (Third Man Records)