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The Exit Internationalist

October 13, 2022

Drummer Anton Fier Dies at 66

Drummer Anton Fier Dies at 66 reports the New York Times.

Even at his musical peak in the 1980s, Anton Fier, a drummer, producer and bandleader who brought power and precision to his work with acts as diverse as the Feelies, Herbie Hancock, Laurie Anderson and his own star-studded ensemble, the Golden Palominos, seemed to glimpse a dark end for himself.

The film and music critic Glenn Kenny, in an email, remembered running into Mr. Fier in the mid-1980s at the Hoboken, N.J., nightclub Maxwell’s, then a cauldron of indie rock, and querying him about alarming details on the sleeve of the Palominos’ album “Visions of Excess.”

The rear cover featured a photograph of Mr. Fier, visibly drunk, quaffing a cocktail at a rock club. With it was an acknowledgment that read, “For Jim Gordon and Bonzo,” a reference to the Derek and the Dominos drummer who murdered his own mother during a psychotic episode, and to John Bonham, the Led Zeppelin drummer who died at 32 after consuming some 40 shots of vodka.

Mr. Fier (pronounced feer) seemed to be hinting at his own grisly demise. “I don’t care,” Mr. Kenny recalled him saying. “I’m not going to live to be 35.”

Drummer Anton Fier Dies at 66

 With anyone else, the episode might fit a familiar narrative — the self-destructive rocker in a death spiral. But throughout his life, friends said, Mr. Fier always resisted easy categorization.

He was a punk-rock provocateur who could extemporize, seemingly for hours, about free-jazz pioneers and Ghanaian percussion luminaries; an artist with big ambitions and a web of platinum connections, but also a loner who shunned interviews and self-promotion; a prickly contrarian who seemed to revel in confrontation, but who was also known among friends for a kind, generous spirit.

“Anton was kind of like a Tootsie Pop, with a hard exterior and a soft core,” the singer-songwriter Lianne Smith, a close friend who worked with him, said in a phone interview.

Little wonder, then, that his death on Sept. 14 at 66 — confirmed by a cremation notice from a service in Basel, Switzerland — left as many questions as answers. The cause was rumored to be voluntary assisted dying, the location said to be in Switzerland, and suicide itself did not seem out of the question. Plagued by money troubles and waning career prospects, he had openly discussed the topic among friends in recent years. But where? When? How?
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He had certainly fallen on hard times. Dogged by money woes, lacking musical inspiration and, after injuring his wrists, hindered in playing drums to his own high standards, he had lost his only outlet. “He had a lot of pressures and a lot of anxieties,” Ms. Smith said. “But when he played music, he was a complete human being.” 

Anton John Fier III was born on June 20, 1956, in Cleveland, to Anton J. Fier Jr., an electrician and former Marine, and Ruthe Marie Fier. His parents split up when he was young, and Mr. Fier, who was known as Tony in his school days, endured a difficult relationship with his stepfather, a polka musician, he later told friends.

Turning to music, he worked in a record store as a teenager and eventually drummed his way into the Cleveland proto-punk scene, recording with a version of the Styrenes and playing on “Song of the Bailing Man,” an album by Pere Ubu, the conceptual band that calls its genre “avant garage.”

Mr. Fier followed his musical dreams to New York, where he brokered his encyclopedic knowledge of music into a job at the SoHo Music Gallery, a record store catering to the downtown music cognoscenti. There, he seemed more interested in chatting about records than selling them.

Mr. Kenny recalled, “I remember walking in one day and these two cats” — Mr. Fier and the experimental saxophonist John Zorn, a fellow clerk — “were sitting up front talking about Charlie Parker, treating browsers like they were minor inconveniences.”

Mr. Fier did more than talk about music. A gifted and ferocious drummer, he got his big break in 1978 when he answered an ad in The Village Voice placed by the Feelies, a cerebral indie group from New Jersey that The Voice had recently called the best underground band in New York. The group was looking for a drummer.

 “We asked the people who called what they thought of Moe Tucker,” Glenn Mercer, the band’s guitarist and vocalist, said, referring to the Velvet Underground’s drummer. “We were thinking in terms of very simple, primitive drumming. I think he was the only one that even knew who she was.”

Drummer Anton Fier Dies at 66

With a bookish air and a subversive sensibility, Mr. Fier fit the ethos of the band. His explosive drumming helped fuel the group’s first album, “Crazy Rhythms,” which the critic Robert Christgau later described as “exciting in a disturbingly abstract way, or maybe disturbing in an excitingly abstract way.”

But Mr. Fier’s personality proved explosive as well, making his tenure with the band a short one. As the Feelies pulled up to a gig at one club, where the line was around the block, he gushed about how thrilled he was to be in the band. After a raucous set that had the packed house cheering, his mood inexplicably turned.

“When the show was over, he was like, ‘You guys are so controlling, I can’t believe it,’” Mr. Mercer recalled Mr. Fier saying. “Just like that, a 180.”

Even so, Mr. Fier’s career continued to flourish. He joined the Lounge Lizards, John Lurie’s avant-jazz combo, for their first album, released in 1981, before Mr. Lurie rose to fame as an archetype of New York cool with his roles in Jim Jarmusch’s indie films “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Down by Law.”

His career rose to new heights in the mid-1980s: He toured with the jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock following Mr. Hancock’s 1984 pop-funk crossover hit “Rockit,” and played on Laurie Anderson’s acclaimed 1984 album, “Mister Heartbreak.”

By that point his musical ambitions could not be contained behind the drum kit, so Mr. Fier formed the Golden Palominos, an ever-evolving indie-rock supergroup that attracted a parade of guest stars, including Michael Stipe, John Lydon and Richard Thompson, through the rest of the 1980s and into the ’90s.

“The band revolved around anyone Anton liked at the time,” Syd Straw, the iconoclastic singer-songwriter who got her start with the group, said by phone. “He had pretty bizarre social skills, but he was a magnet for brainy musicians. I think that he was, at heart, an amazing casting director.”

In whatever musical role, Mr. Fier was exacting. “He never ‘settled,’’’ Chris Stamey, a founder of the indie band the dB’s who performed with the Palominos, recalled in an email. “And this could be unsettling at times. But we all wanted to see that blissful smile when something finally met his high standards.”

Through the 2000s and early 2010s, Mr. Fier began to focus more on producing, working on albums by Ms. Smith, Julia Brown and the guitarist Jim Campilongo, although he did continue to perform with a highly regarded combo headed by the singer, guitarist and bassist Tony Scherr, a former Lounge Lizard.

Drummer Anton Fier Dies at 66

He also quit alcohol, a habit that had grown prodigious, particularly since the hard-partying Hancock tour, Mr. Stamey said.

 Hounded by creditors, however, Mr. Fier drifted further and further off the grid, avoiding even banks. He seemed to conclude, in eerily analytical fashion, that life was no longer worth living. Ms. Smith said he told her that he wanted to “fly to Thailand, have a wonderful vacation, take a lot of drugs and walk into the ocean.”

The pandemic seemed only to deepen his despair. Without work or family (his only marriage, in 1976, lasted less than a year), he began researching his options. Last fall, Mr. Stamey recalled, Mr. Fier told him that he had been burned when he paid $900 over the internet for a veterinary tranquilizer, which he had decided “was the most peaceful way to go.”

A few months ago, Mr. Fier texted his friend J.P. Olsen, a filmmaker and musician who had recently moved to Indiana, asking him for his new address. Mr. Fier had some boxes he wanted to send him. On Sept. 21, word began circulating that he was dead, apparently from an assisted suicide in Switzerland. Four days later, Mr. Olsen received the boxes, which were filled with piles of Mr. Fier’s clothes.

And on Oct. 1, Nicky Skopelitis, a Palominos guitarist and the executor of Mr. Fier’s estate, received the cremation notice, dated Sept. 14, along with Mr. Fier’s remains.

Questions about his last days linger. But in a way, friends said, that seems fitting for a man who was only too comfortable with loose ends.

Two years ago, Mr. Stamey urged Mr. Fier to write a memoir, to pull him out of his funk. Mr. Fier’s response, Mr. Stamey recalled, was curt: “He said that he wanted to be the only one who didn’t write a book.”

Drummer Anton Fier Dies at 66

Correction: Oct. 13, 2022
An earlier version of this obituary misidentified the recording by the group Pere Ubu on which Mr. Fier played. It was “Song of the Bailing Man,” not “Datapanik in the Year Zero.”