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Break on Through

Michael Hutchence
Devil Inside: No one is quite sure what personal demons were responsible for the death of charismatic INXS frontman Michael Hutchence.

Photo by Peggy Sirota

On the road a decade ago, a rock writer discovered a different side of Michael Hutchence

By Gina Arnold

ALTHOUGH I HAVE never had much interest in the music of INXS, I was deeply saddened by the apparent suicide of singer Michael Hutchence on Nov. 22--saddened and also surprised. Ten years ago, I spent a week on the road with INXS during its Kick Inside tour, which made the band a big name in the U.S. Although I hadn't seen Hutchence in years, I'd still say he was the last person I'd pick as a prospective suicide.

Hutchence was found naked, had made drink dates with friends for later in the day and left no note. MTV News and the New Musical Express in England, among other media, are already speculating that his death was the result of accidental autoerotic asphyxiation, a kinky, dangerous form of masturbation. But even that embarrassing scenario is more pleasant to think about than suicide for someone I basically liked.

And I did like Hutchence. He cloaked his niceness in layers of rock-star pretentiousness, but he was also remarkably self-deprecating and able to take a joke, even when it was leveled (usually by his bandmates, who'd known him since high school) right at him. To my ears, his music sounded very mainstream, but it was positively arty compared to the dumb synth bands and glammy metal outfits responsible for most of the hits of the '80s.

Formed in 1977 in Perth, Australia, INXS was one of the very few bands to have maintained the same lineup for two decades. Although it began life during the height of punk, INXS was much more influenced by dance bands like Chic and arty rock bands like Roxy Music. INXS' songs were invariably about scary, sexy women ("Devil Inside," "Need You Tonight").

By 1987, when I went on the road with the group, INXS had been touring Australia pretty much nonstop for seven years, financing most of its tours itself in the hopes of eventually "breaking" in America. Thanks to this grueling background, INXS was a truly great live band, even if its music had little social or political content.

The band members were personally very unpretentious--Hutchence excepted. The first time I met them, in a gymnasium at Fairfield College, Conn., they were using the men's locker room as a dressing room, and five of the members were standing around the dingy urinals and benches drinking beer from paper cups.

Enter Hutchence in a floor-length leather coat, looking incredibly out of place. Attached to his arm was an impossibly skinny woman with a face like a snake. I immediately recognized her as one of the genus groupie--a thing that (amazingly) I had not met before, since all the bands I knew personally (R.E.M., the Meat Puppets and Camper Van Beethoven) were constitutionally allergic to "glamorous" females.

This woman seemed to me to be some kind of an insane joke, a parody of a groupie from This Is Spinal Tap or Saturday Night Live. She was wearing lace-frilled bloomers, a fake fur jacket and little else, and she seldom opened her mouth except to bitch about something, at which point the guys in the band would roll their eyes at each other behind her back. She was so possessive that I once saw her nearly slap an 11-year-old girl who was hanging admiringly on Michael's arm.

At the time, her presence on the tour puzzled me quite a bit, but later, after I'd met many such grasping women, I took it to be symptomatic of all the reasons men become rock stars. These women fulfill the men's vast need to be groped and worshipped and possessed. Women like that (and Hutchence's latest paramour, Paula Yates) are able to say all the obnoxious things that rock stars--who need to be loved--feel they can't say out loud.

ONE THING I found out about "Mike" (as his bandmates called him), however, was that he had a shy streak. He could be standoffish, but once he let down his guard, he was very nice indeed.

One night, for example, I had dinner with him alone in a restaurant in Rhode Island, and we both got green bits of lobster stuck between our teeth, which we picked out in a fairly gross way. I told him he had a Doors fixation, and he obligingly sang "Break on Through to the Other Side" in a satirical manner. I'm pretty sure all the other diners in the restaurant were staring at us--Hutchence had lovely long brown curly locks with fabulous gold highlights--and I could tell he liked that.

Another thing I found out that night about Hutchence was that the rest of the band--the three brothers Farriss (Tim, Andrew and Jon), saxophonist Kirk Pengilly and bassist Garry Gary Beers--were regular Australian blokes who felt lucky to be where they were. But Michael lived for the band, and nothing else. He couldn't have survived without it. It was his raison d'etre.

But that's just another reason to find his suicide unbelievable. Although I could picture him doing it if his band were about to play a comeback gig at a greasy local pub, it's hard for me to imagine him doing it just before a giant 20th-anniversary celebration and tour.

In recent years, it's true, INXS hadn't been doing quite as well as it had in, say, 1990, but the band was hardly down at the heels. INXS' latest record, Elegantly Wasted, didn't do well in America, but it was a huge hit in Australia, England and Canada. Hutchence also had a solo record in the can, which will be released in 1998.

Even if his music career hadn't been going well, Hutchence had other options. He had starred in several movies, playing Percy Shelley in Frankenstein Unbound and a character much like himself in a film called Dogs in Space. He was said to be talking to Michael Douglas about a part in an upcoming movie and had been offered a television hosting job in Australia.

Hutchence did have a propensity for dating superbitches, and superbitches can be tiring. The latest was Yates, a woman best known for her acrimonious breakup with Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats and Live Aid fame. According to the Sydney Herald, Yates told journalists that she blames Geldof for Hutchence's death. Hutchence, she said, was distraught because Geldof wouldn't allow her to bring her three kids (by Geldof) to Australia for Christmas, reasoning that would go far in explaining Hutchence's domestic unhappiness.

In the end, of course, it doesn't really matter whether Hutchence's death was suicide or accident: it's still death, and it's still premature. Musically, INXS was a good but not great band; its presence certainly won't be missed. As for Michael Hutchence, the phrase "die young, stay pretty" comes to mind, but small comfort that must be to those who loved him best.

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From the Dec. 4-10, 1997 issue of Metro.

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