Precious Heart: Remembering Michael Hutchence, 20 years after his death

Truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

— F. Nietzsche

Love never dies a natural death. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.

— Anais Nin

I turn over a lot of money for a lot of people and I’m the smallest fish in it.

— Michael Hutchence

Twenty years ago today, Michael Hutchence was found dead in a hotel room in Sydney; the coroner report deemed his death to be suicide. The investigation by the popular media of the day into Hutchence’s demise quickly pulled the thread of the singer’s depression and anguish, unraveling a sordid tale of adultery, divorce and litigated custody disputes. It was ignominious, lurid, and ultimately deflating: Where once there was a man, a colossus, a towering testament to man’s ability to both broadcast and elicit trembling desire, there was now a smoldering crater, and then nothing. Sometimes celebrity feeds on death, and sometimes death consumes celebrity, snuffing out the flame with slick bony fingers.

Myth in our modern popular culture is a delicate dance of seduction and obfuscation: the avatars of the human ideal, held aloft to us mere mortals with their unattainable perfection, undulate through the aether with their psychic come-hither while simultaneously hiding the true self behind a curtain of ostrich feathers, leaving us gazing at the obscured silhouette, drooling and crazed. We want to see the mask crack, we want to get to what’s real, we want to gaze upon the man behind the curtain and ascertain the whole mad machinery that manipulates our desires and our hopes and our simple emotions — but then we remember that we’ve been all through this before, that we’ve shattered our illusions only to be left with useless shards of said illusion cutting through our mortal flesh.

We ache for something true, even if a lie will bring it to us.

* * *

Hutchence’s group, INXS, slogged through a half-decade of crammed-in-a-van penury, criss-crossing the Australian continent in search of a sound and a look that would set them apart in a competitive wilderness filled with budding new romantics and Outback psychos. Their sound congealed by the turn of the 1980s into an economical funk-rock, taught and teutonic, party music for a motorik age. The thing is, even the most cursory sampling of INXS’ music reveals how desperately necessary Hutchence’s presence was for the band and their music: Without his sinewy baritone, asymmetrical hair flips and nonchalant abandon, their riffs are trim, the hooks contained and contrite. The band’s debt to the sharp dissonant attack of Gang of Four is plainly evident, but INXS appear to have laid out that band’s plan of attack and reworked it for a new, more commercially open era, as the reins are pulled in on the Gang’s rhythmic dyspepsia by Hutchence’s crooning drawl.

Still, It took years for INXS to hit paydirt: The first real progress made was the sleek-yet-satiny funkwave of 1984’s “Original Sin”, from their fourth long-player, The Swing; they ratcheted things a few notches further the next year when producer Chris Thomas persuaded Hutchence and the band to focus their attention on a demo they had made labelled “Funk Song no. 13”. Two days of intense woodshedding resulted in “What You Need”, a fascinating hybrid of hard rock, uptight groove and loverman cajoling that finally broke them in the crucial American market.

1987’s Kick was the top of the pyramid, kicking the door down as hit after hit after hit established Hutchence as rock/pop’s most desirable yowler. At last, Yankee prepubescents could bathe in the licentious miasma that was Hutchence’s charm offensive: As the singer and the band entered their brief imperial phase, the late-’80s lexicon became inundated with the plaintive come-ons that were Hutchence’s hallmark, alternating forceful clarion calls with low-register semi-spoken exhortations.

It’s worth noting, though, that the band weren’t maniacs and Hutchence wasn’t, on record at least, a screaming soul: A jaunt through “Devil Inside”, for example, starts with a nasty riff that rides the rails of a pounding beat, but it quickly dissipates into a chilly verse before resolving in a rah-rah chorus that features take-me-out-to-the-ballgame organ chords. Fortunately, it’s all in service to the breathy seduction line Hutchence is working on the listener, diving deep into his lowest register to extol us with tales of a woman “raised on leather with flesh on the mind.”

Kick contained two numbers that not only foisted the band to the upper echelon of the world’s top acts, but would help manufacture the mythology of Michael Hutchence as an archetype of desire and seduction in the popular culture as the 1980s came to a close: The airtight “Need You Tonight” and the power ballad “Never Tear Us Apart”. “Need You Tonight” was ubiquitous and unending, with quick shocks of guitar leading to an insistent groove that seemed to just endlessly ooze out of every audio orifice on the planet in the fall of 1987; “Never Tear Us Apart” fused string section classicism with waltz-time romanticism, an instant slow song standard that posits the notion that a chance meeting of opposites can indeed lead to cosmic bliss and a love that is eternal.

Hutchence was, as far as loverman archetypes go, a cool operator; he didn’t get down on his knees and he didn’t beg or plead. He wasn’t a Dionysis for his time, or even an Eros, so much as perhaps a Pothos or Himeros — not a lesser love god, just one less focused on manic outward displays; as humanity rose out from the primordial soup of chaos and flourished, later gods could sidestep the madness of man’s origins in salt and flame and focus their energies on defining and fulfilling the ever-growing desires within the beating hearts of humankind. Such it was with Hutchence: He didn’t need the mania of a James Brown or even a Mick Jagger to bring a stadium to climax; he merely needed to be a nonchalant lightning rod for the sexual longing of the great unwashed, projecting and deflecting pure desire and just letting it flow downstream along a path of least resistance.

* * *

In the late-’90s, Loverboy vocalist and Canadian red leather enthusiast Mike Reno remarked in a VH1 interview that “Nirvana basically killed our career.” This was, of course, untrue; but the case could be made that the change in tenor in terms of what audiences expected, emotionally, from their popular music in the 1990s, post-grunge, made the cool delivery of a band like INXS seem out of step. Emotional pain became the benchmark, self-flagellation and sonic overload the calling cards of an era of conspicuous torment. INXS faltered during this period, releasing two essentially hitless albums that saw them flailing around during the Year Zero pop-music realignment that was the “alternative” era of the early- and mid-’90s.

If Hutchence was unable to match the primal scream shrieks of his younger competition, his life became infiltrated with the ill fortune that would eventually lead to the circumstances of his demise: First, a bizarre altercation in Copenhagen in late 1992 with a taxi driver left him with a fractured skull and took from him his sense of smell and taste; then in 1994, he entered into a relationship with television personality Paula Yates, a married mother of three whose subsequent divorce and custody battle with her soon-to-be-ex, Boomtown Rats and Live Aid founder “Saint” Bob Geldof, would set Hutchence down a spiral of depression and self-loathing.

The legend of Michael Hutchence, the rock god who could make anyone alive, man or woman, a slave to his spell of erotic enchantment, never truly recovered from the shock of his death.

At the time of its release, 1997’s “Elegantly Wasted” was seen as a minor comeback, a welcome return to form from a band that seemed more comfortable extolling debauchery via slinky guitar plinks and slithery black-gloved seduction than with the sonic discovery expeditions of the prior few records; but after the news of Hutchence’s suicide hit and the shock turned to revulsion as the rumor spread (in part by Yates herself) that his death may have been accidental, and even perhaps as the result of autoerotic asphyxiation, the band’s final single left audiences with a strange aftertaste. Could this have been a final missive to his audience, setting himself up as a cautionary tale of tacky rock star excess?

The legend of Hutchence, the rock god who could hold a sold out Wembley Stadium in the palm of his hand, who could make anyone alive, man or woman, a slave to his spell of erotic enchantment, never truly recovered from the shock of his death. The despair, the pathos, the sheer tragedy of his untimely passing just simply does not jibe with the overall feel of his musical legacy; unlike Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who in death achieved an eternal legendary status (a status that in no way felt inevitable just months prior to his death, when his third album was a disappointment and he began to see his band passed up by scores of far more conventionally successful contemporaries), Hutchence has, in the space of the past 20 years, been seen more as an afterthought, a careless soul forever trapped in 1988 with his long hair and effortless pout.

* * *

INXS haven’t been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (although they’ve been eligible for the past 15 years); there are no best-selling biographies of the band or Hutchence; no commemorative statues or multi-story murals festooned with roses annually; no annual day of mourning for Hutchence’s passing. Barring some grand redistribution of the bestowal of rock legend statuses, Hutchence will never attain the godhead status anointed by our popular culture to, say, recently deceased rock legends like Prince, Bowie, Petty, etc. This is, in part, because the band’s music didn’t “mean” anything — it was fun, playful, apolitical, set adrift from many of the cultural currents of its time, and the eras since. Aside from the sonorous tones of “Never Tear Us Apart”, INXS’s music doesn’t lend itself to somber reflection, nor are Hutchence’s lyrics riddle with clues and hints at a tormented inner life.

Instead, it was far more simple: He was the singer, his romantic prey was his muse, and he offered himself up completely in the service of this romantic gesture. It was sincere, it wasn’t sinister, and it allowed the band’s best songs to do what popular song has strived to do since time immemorial: Bring the audience’s imagination right to the friction point where desires either will or won’t be fulfilled, and allow that glorious aching moment to sustain one’s thoughts for a few minutes, perhaps in the company of another person, or two, or a hundred thousand.

Hutchence did this for us, it was his one mission in life, and he was a dedicated employee until the very last, when he was rehearsing with his band for an upcoming Australian tour that was not to be. He never attempted to inhabit a mythological ideal because that wasn’t his purpose or style; he was a shy, clever and sly soul who knew that his gift of inducement was a musical and cultural behemoth, and his band knew that he was the only person they knew who had enough power of persuasion to turn their music into a lifelong mission of global import.

In the end, the product of their labor was something that we needed; in life and in art, we want to be fooled but we also want to be touched by something true; it is the true artist that, for even a moment, can do both, and make wine from our tears.

Follow Daniel Brockman @thebizhaslanded.