Before the Walkmen sold Saturn autos—see that commercial?—to young professionals, they were kid musicians from D.C. who set up shop in New York City under the name Jonathan Fire*Eater. Walter Martin was the organ grinder for drummer Matt Barrick's monkeyshines way back in 1995, along with Paul Maroon and his astounding six-string finger walking. Singer Stewart Lupton played ringleader/carnival barker, and Thomas Frank was their low-end friend. Fire*Eater's music was the Birthday Party under Fellini's direction, Americanized with a Memphis twang and mechanized with a tight kling-klang rhythm; Johnny Cash, Lou Reed, Question Mark and the Mysterians, Tom Waits, the Stooges, Leonard Cohen, and John Lee Hooker bounced off the walls of Jonathan's padded cell. They started off small with a self-titled EP, the "Public Hanging of a Movie Star" single, and the Tremble Under Boom Lights album, all on various independents; taken together, it was Booker T and the MGs on LSD backing a howling lycanthrope on the mic. Yet there was something regal there, too, like sweet Lady Jane fanning herself as Mick 'n' Keith give chase through a life-sized garden maze—well, regal, foppish, same difference. Anyway, the point came when the J-5 met the record-company man: Dreamworks released Wolf Songs for Lambs, and Fire*Eater found a stardom never quite bright enough to rouse the cash registers. Things fell apart soon after with the chaos of major-label advances, drug-abuse rumors, and general apathy—like the ringmaster says, "Show's over, folks." They could have been the Strokes before the Strokes if things had gone differently. Kids, here's the moral: no matter how many bells and whistles you've got on your train, don't set out west before somebody lays down some track. Bury Jonathan Fire*Eater under too much, too soon.
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