Elly McDonald

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Mystify: Michael Hutchence – a documentary by Richard Lowenstein

Today I attended a Melbourne media preview for Mystify, director Richard Lowenstein’s documentary about his friend Michael Hutchence, lead singer of the band INXS, who died by suicide in 1997.

Michael was my friend once, too. We were a year apart in age and we met not long after we both moved to Sydney in 1979. Back then, I was an Australian rock music writer.

As a rock writer, I wrote a number of articles about Michael and about INXS. More recently, I’ve written two memoir pieces about Michael as I knew him [links at bottom]. Today, I was fortunate to attend the preview as the guest of my friend Jen Jewel Brown, a prominent Australian rock music writer (writing as Jenny Hunter Brown or Jenny Brown), who also knew Michael back in the day, and who co-wrote the 2018 Michael Hutchence biography Michael: My brother, lost boy of INXS, with Michael’s sister Tina Hutchence.

At the end of Mystify, Jen and I sat transfixed. Afterwards, we talked for hours.

I sincerely hope Richard Lowenstein’s sensitive, intimate portrait of Michael as recalled by the people closest to him reaches its audience.

It would be a travesty if Mystify got lost in the wake of the many previous accounts of Michael’s life.

In addition to Tina and Jen’s book last year, published biographies include: Toby Creswell’s Shine Like It Does: the life of Michael Hutchence (2017); Michael In Pictures – A Celebration of the Life of Michael Hutchence by Richard Simpkin (2015); Total XS by Michael’s brother Rhett Hutchence (2004); Paula, Michael and Bob: Everything you know is wrong by Gerry Agar (2003); Michael Hutchence: Just A Man: the real Michael Hutchence by Tina Hutchence and Michael’s mother Patricia Glassop (2000); Michael Hutchence: The Devil Inside by Vincent Lovegrove (1999); and The Life and Death of Michael Hutchence by Mike Gee (1998), also released as The Final Days of Michael Hutchence.

There have been TV dramatisations and documentaries: The Day the Rock Star Died (2019); The Last Rock Star (2017); the mini-series Never Tear Us Apart: The untold story of INXS (2014); Autopsy – The last hours of Michael Hutchence (2014); The Life and Death of Michael Hutchence (2014); Behind The Music Remastered (2010); True Hollywood Story – Michael Hutchence (2004); True Hollywood Story – Rocked To Death: Michael Hutchence (1999).

Some of these accounts are outright exploitation. Others are attempts by people who knew Michael to tell his story as they understood it, or as they want the public to perceive it. Michael’s story is highly contested: it’s been told many different ways.

In Mystify, Richard Lowenstein presents Michael through footage filmed by friends and family, and outtakes from live performance and music video shoots. His friends, lovers and bandmates provide commentary superimposed on images from the time.

Some of the footage, photos and mementoes are breathtakingly personal. Kudos to the women with whom Michael had significant relationships who have chosen to speak honestly and insightfully, and who gave permission for private mementoes to be featured.

That they do this from love, not from any self-serving motive, is abundantly evident.

Kudos to the band members and fellow musicians who speak about Michael as they knew him, for better and for worse.

Kudos to Lowenstein (director of numerous INXS videos, Michael’s director in the feature film Dogs In Space), whose voice is not heard but whose commentary is expressed through his editing choices and the narrative structure.

A few things are brutally clear. Michael’s life was irrevocably altered by Acquired Brain Injury (ABI). He acquired brain injury in 1992 when a Danish taxi driver knocked him down on a cobblestone street in Copenhagen. His partner at the time, Danish supermodel Helena Christensen, recalls blood coming from his ears and his mouth. She recalls him insisting on leaving hospital, being nursed by her at home for the following month. He kept the extent of his injury from others. Perhaps he never fully recognized the extent to which head injury damaged him. But the brain scans exist: Michael had frontal lobe damage, which will have affected his emotional regulation and behaviours. He lost the sensory perceptions of taste and smell, which, for a sensualist like Michael, was tantamount to losing who he was.

In truth, the Michael I see in footage from the last years of his life is not the Michael I knew. His bandmates say it isn’t Michael as they knew him, either.

The Michael presented in those final years is panicking, desperate, lost, humiliated.

For those of us who cared for him, it’s hard to watch.

Afterwards, I felt like I’d been hit by a cannonball. “I feel sick,” I said to Jen. She felt sick, too.

I told Jen the last time I saw Michael was during the recording of their mega-album Kick, in 1987. He was walking up William Street in Sydney, towards Kings Cross. I was walking downwards, towards him. He was wearing a long loose beige coat. I was wearing red. He invited me to join him at Rhinoceros Studios, to help him fill in time between takes, chatting.

Or maybe it was that time when he stopped by my table in a crowded restaurant, and everyone in that room craned to check out who he’d deigned to talk to, strained their ears to hear what we talked about.

But actually, that wasn’t the last time I saw Michael. The very last time was New Year’s Eve 1988, when we were both at the same party at a fancy harborside mansion. He arrived trailing his model of the moment, an Amazon with sky-high cheekbones. We nodded. But by then INXS were major international stars, and I turned away without speaking to him.

Michael Hutchence was a real person, very real. I’ve heard him dismissed as a poser, a wally, a twat. For me, he was a sensitive, talented, inquiring young man, entranced by glamour, dreaming big. For years I thought the life he lived after that New Year’s Eve epitomized success: Michael living happily ever after, in the sunshine of the south of France.

I was disabused of that belief when Michael died.

In Mystify, I now see those years presented as a drawn-out descent into exhaustion and eventual dehumanization, as the tabloids chewed him up.

In one of the Mystify reviews I’ve read, it’s suggested Michael made a Faustian pact: “success”, at the cost of a life worth living.

I’m not sure who it’s implied is the Devil in this pact. I don’t think it’s “the devil inside” (to quote the song).

I do know fame’s a bitch.

 

FOOTNOTES:

  1. Link to my blog tribute to Michael Hutchence, with personal reminiscences – Someone Famous, With Girl (2014) https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/2014/06/05/someone-famous-with-girl-for-michael-hutchence/
  2. Excerpt from my blog post W for War (2017). In its totality, this piece is not about Michael and there is some repetition with my Mystify blog post and my blog post Someone Famous, With Girl, above. W for War is, I suppose, about my own personal disillusion with previously held notions of “success” and “glamour”. It’s quite naked and wasn’t really written to be read (true confession!):Let’s begin with Michael Hutchence’s death. That’s a cynical place to begin, because of course it – any “it” – began much earlier. But this is a cynical tale, so let’s start where Michael ended.One morning late in 1997 I arrived at my Knightsbridge [London] workplace – the office with W emblazoned above the reception desk – and the tabloids on the foyer table screamed that Michael Hutchence was dead. Found hanged behind a hotel room door. I don’t remember much of that day but I do remember getting home at about 7.30pm and crying hysterically for two hours.

    Michael had been an acquaintance, possibly a friend, of mine. He was a year or so older than me and we’d arrived in Sydney at much the same time. In my first week in Sydney I saw Michael and his band, INXS, play at the bottom of a four-band bill at the Stagedoor Tavern. I say “saw”, but the Stagedoor was so crowded, so dark, I couldn’t see the stage.

    I became a rock music writer, Michael became a rock star. I interviewed him when the band were unknowns, then when they achieved national fame; I hung out with him while INXS recorded their international breakthrough album Kick, I met up with him occasionally and we nattered.

    I wrote him a poem, at his request:

    stops at the sound of
    his name called by
    a stranger – then
    recalls
    who she is and forgets
    himself: it’s you
    he smiles (he always means it)
    he laughs (and feels abashed)
    her eyes mirror his
    she is his (they always are)
    they are both young
    veterans
    they both can
    remember
    moments of belief, of the only kind
    he’ll know
    all strangers
    his kind. He is
    kind, or he could be, this singled out
    outsider
    he takes her
    camera and asks
    Am I in there?

    Someone Famous, With Girl (1985)

    In 2014 I wrote a blog about Michael that stops at that poem and bears its title.

    The last time I saw Michael was New Year’s Eve 1988. I was at a party at a Sydney harborside mansion. Michael was there, with model-actress Virginia Hey. I was femme’d up – stiletto heels, a satin bubble skirt, ‘80s long hair – and we exchanged formal nods. My heels sank into the lawn and mosquitoes bit my shins.

    As INXS conquered the U.S. charts, and as stories about Michael’s jet-setting lifestyle cluttered the tabloids, I came to see Michael as symbolic of “success”: Michael was the one who’d made it. I envied him his home in the south of France, his London pad, his famous friends. I envied him the Good Life with the Beautiful People. Even when paparazzi ambushed him and Paula Yates that notorious Sunday morning on their weekend ‘getaway’ (as if), even as I grew anxious for his well-being, I still saw Michael as representing success, and I still saw success as luxury and celebrity.

    That night, after Michael’s death, I had a nightmare that another of my rock star acquaintance-friends, a peer of Michael’s, Marc Hunter, had hanged himself too. (Marc died a few months later, of throat cancer; I didn’t know he was ill). I wore black to work the next day, and a small cross, and Liza Minnelli sad eyes, and I told my boss and another workmate about my nightmare. Michael’s death was all over the papers, or should I say, the papers were all over Michael’s death. I worked at a media planning agency, with 50 young men, two young female media planners, and four admin support staff (all female). Almost all staff were aged under 30. There were jokes about rock star deaths.

    Rock star deaths proved such a hit that our Xmas Party Social Committee decided to make that the Xmas party theme: Dead Pop Stars. The 33 year old who headed up the committee announced his intention to go as Michael Hutchence, in blue face, with a rope around his neck. I said that if Dead Pop Stars was the theme, I – the marketing director – would not attend the Xmas party. The theme was amended simply to Pop Stars.

    My boss told me other staff complained I was making something out of nothing. They didn’t believe I’d known Michael Hutchence. My boss told me to buck up. I decided to use the shock of Michael’s death to make changes in my life. I took to jogging around the Serpentine in Hyde Park during my lunch break, a short-lived practice.

    On about my second run I emerged from the lift and stepped into the office foyer as my boss was waiting to take the lift down. I glared at him; I was embarrassed at being seen in lycra shorts.

    My boss asked, “You look at me as if you hate me. But I’m the only friend you have around here.”

    That, I think, is a truer beginning.


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Someone Famous, With Girl (1985)

stops at the sound of

his name called by

a stranger – then

recalls

who she is and forgets

himself: it’s you

he smiles (he always means it)

he laughs (and feels abashed)

her eyes mirror his

she is his (they always are)

they are both young

veterans

they both can

remember

moments of belief, of the only kind

he’ll know

all strangers

his kind. He is

kind, or he could be, this singled out

outsider

he takes her

camera and asks

Am I in there?


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Someone Famous, With Girl – for Michael Hutchence (5 June 2014)

Michael Hutchence asked unexpected questions. Like, “How do you say, ‘I love you!’ in Mandarin?”

“My” Michael – Michael as I knew him – was not the mythic Michael of the tabloids. “My” Michael was a sweet, rather whimsical boy with cosmos-encompassing curiosity. When I think of Michael, I think of Snufkin, the character in Finnish author Tove Janssen’s Moomintroll books. Snufkin has a round head, shaggy brown hair and big brown eyes, and that’s how “my” Michael looks in memory: a round face on a stalk neck. Snufkin was a wanderer, seeking spring and summer meadows: that was Michael. Snufkin was a provocateur, baiting authority and despising convention. As did Michael.

I first heard INXS at a live gig at Sydney’s Stagedoor Tavern, just after INXS moved from Perth to Sydney and just before the Stagedoor Tavern was closed down. INXS were bottom of a four-band bill. I couldn’t see the stage so I couldn’t see the band (the crowd was packed for the headliners, The Angels), but they sure sounded good. I was writing for a rock magazine called Roadrunner and I marked INXS as a band for me to interview.

The interview took place in February or March 1980, about the time I started writing for RAM (Rock Australia Magazine). I didn’t write the first INXS piece in RAM, but my article ran in Roadrunner, and a few years later I wrote RAM’s first cover story on INXS. Some of the more sensational Michael quotes from that RAM cover story were lifted by Sydney’s tabloid newspaper, The Sun.

In early 1980, INXS were still playing small venues. I interviewed them in a joint off Oxford Street where capacity must have been less than 100. The entire band sat around a table, eager to talk about their music. At that time an interview must have been a novelty. Michael’s curiosity showed up as alertness. He sat with spine long, long neck; not the languid, mannered stance familiar in later years. But whatever the body language, Michael’s physicality always spoke to me of dance. He stood, he sat, he moved like a dancer. On stage, he danced. Michael had vitality and grace.

He also had bad skin. When people started talking about Michael as a sex symbol, I was initially nonplussed. He was a skinny kid with pockmarks. Recently I watched again a music video from 1981, “starring” Michael: Speed Kills, written by Cold Chisel’s Don Walker for the soundtrack to the film Freedom, with Michael on lead vocals. In that clip I see the emergence of the “mythical” Michael – the cool dude with white hot sexuality. I didn’t see it at the time.

At the time, when we sat in that small dark room and talked, Michael was barely through his teens and was dressed like a fan of French new wave cinema, in a Breton fisherman’s long-sleeved t-shirt with horizontal stripes. He told me he was fascinated by post-War bohemianism, especially the literary and artistic bohemianism of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. I thought of Julie Christie, before she became a film star, a boho chick living with actor (and art school grad) Terence Stamp. Michael would have loved Julie Christie.

He talked textiles. Michael’s father Kell had been a textiles trader in Hong Kong. Michael loved colour and texture and trends, so he loved textiles. And he loved Hong Kong. He loved noise and close-pressed flesh and variety and change. Bewilder me, he beseeched. Fascinate me.

Michael could be mischievous, if I may use that word to cover a multitude of, literally, sins. In that first interview, he brought up one of my Roadrunner reviews that he said had made him laugh. It kicked off with some cruel comments about a band who at that time shared the same booking agency as INXS, a brother-sister combo called the Numbers. I liked the Numbers. I just couldn’t resist the impulse to be bitchy about their platinum blonde good looks. Michael had a bit of bitch in him too. Andrew Farriss, the INXS keyboard player and main writer, did not approve. Andrew never took to me, at all.

What sealed it for Andrew was that cover story I wrote in 1984. INXS were touring in support of their album The Swing. I had reviewed their previous album, Shabooh Shoobah, for RAM, and I’d loved it, so RAM’s then-editor Greg Taylor sent me off to Canberra with a specific brief: get an interview with Michael Hutchence.

That may have been the beginning – or an early instance – of that issue that plagues so many successful bands: the focus on the frontman, eclipsing other band members.

As the band and I travelled together to Canberra, I mused on the outfit saxophonist and guitarist Kirk Pengilly’s girlfriend Karen was wearing. It was white and flouncy with pastel trim. To me it looked like a cake decoration, perhaps a wedding cake. In the published article, I reported that reflection. I didn’t know Karen was an aspiring fashion designer, who succeeded in a career as an accessories designer. After publication, I heard Andrew felt my comment was disrespectful.

Michael didn’t have those inhibitions. Michael truly did not have a lot of inhibitions. The Canberra gig was wild; it took months for me to figure out how to remove the Bundaberg rum and coke stain from the drink spilled on my favourite top. It took hours for Michael to come down from his post-performance high, sufficient to consider an interview. By the time I turned the tape recorder on, we were both stripped naked, in our separate beds, in the hotel room we shared that night. For me as a rock writer, it was unprecedented, and frankly unexpected.

That’s when the question was asked: “How do you say ‘I love you!’, in Mandarin?”

Michael was in love. He was dating Michele Bennett, who had studied Mandarin at Melbourne University. Michele was exquisite and Michael was besotted. That did not preclude other flings. But I found it touching, and Michael and I did not fling.

I went round one time to the home Michael and Michele shared with New Zealand singer Jenny Morris, who became an INXS backing singer. The boys were ready to party. The girls were upstairs: Jenny singing, her voice melodic, honeyed and seductive; Michele was tweaking perfection, putting on her makeup.

“This can take hours,” Michael grimaced. He looked and sounded proud.

When INXS were recording their international breakthrough album Kick, I bumped into Michael on Williams Street, the arterial road leading up to Kings Cross. He invited me to hang out with him at the recording studio, Rhinoceros Studios in inner East Sydney, the hippest studios in town. Slack hours in a studio recording an album can hang heavy: an hour of studio downtime lasts longer than an hour of standard time. But I’m not sure that’s the reason Michael invited me. I’m not certain he was enjoying extended downtime with his fellow band members just at that point. They were there, except Andrew, but Michael mostly talked with me.

As I was leaving, I passed Andrew Farriss in the corridor.

“Hi!” I said brightly. “It’s Elly!”

“I know who you are,” growled Andrew, brushing past me.

What did Michael talk about, that day?

He talked about romance. He talked about sex. He was intrigued by the concept of designer baby sperm donations. He was interested in donating to a sperm bank – a sperm bank, I think hypothetical, that specialised in supplying sperm from donors with outstanding talents or attributes. He talked about who and what he found attractive. Princess Stephanie of Monaco. I couldn’t see it, but to Michael she was “Hot!”

He told me his theory of romance. Whether that was a theory of the moment or a life-long perspective, I cannot say. But Michael told me he saw romance as a masqued ball. The dancers are in costume. They circle each other, flirt, retreat, flirt some more. They engage in stylised games to hold each other’s interest. The first one who drops their mask, loses.

Game over.

Early in 1985, I met up with Michael in a Kings Cross night club and we talked poetry. I was preparing to self-publish a small book of poems. I told Michael I couldn’t sleep, pages of typeset proofs scrolled relentlessly through my mind. Michael had a talent, among his many talents, for appearing to listen intently while quite possibly screening out much that was said. He did ask questions about my poems. But the question, unexpected, that struck me was this: “Am I in there?”

In truth, several famous Oz rock identities were “in there”, in my poems. Michael was not.

It was too late to write a Michael poem, a poem for “my” Michael, to include in my collection. But I did write a poem for him, which was never published.

I called it Someone Famous, With Girl.

stops at the sound of
his name called by
a stranger – then
recalls
who she is and forgets
himself: it’s you
he smiles (he always means it)
he laughs (and feels abashed)
her eyes mirror his
she is his (they always are)
they are both young
veterans
they both can
remember
moments of belief, of the only kind
he’ll know
all strangers
his kind. He is
kind, or he could be, this singled out
outsider
he takes her
camera and asks
Am I in there?

Michael Hutchence Elly McDonald

Michael Hutchence with Michele Bennett (pic: Daily Mail UK)