This article was originally written for my Mining Co (now About.com) site on November 23, 1997 — the day after Michael Hutchence was found dead. It has not been updated, and only reflects the information and perspectives available at that time.
On November 22, Michael Hutchence, the lead singer of INXS, apparently chose to take his own life. Not another case of “rock star accidentally overdoses,” but seemingly a more concerted effort to end his life — death by hanging.
Already I’ve heard, “People die every day. What makes him so special?”
To that, the answers are multifold and highly individual, and each one demonstrates the impact that Michael, as an artist, had on people around the globe during his long and successful reign as king of the band. “INXS got me through all the trials and tribulations of my adolescence,” wrote a friend of mine, while another posted online, “I grew up listening to INXS in the eighties into the nineties… I cannot put into words what I’m feeling at this time. We loved you Michael!”
To me, the one that brings this all home says simply, “Let us reflect on someone that gave us comfort and pleasure in a media that we all can’t do without to live properly… music.” Exactly. I believe that the fundamental goal of most musicians is the same: creative self-expression. People are social creatures, who want to prove ourselves and to have an effect on others. Regardless of how you felt about Michael as a man or as a singer, you have to admit that during his nearly twenty-year tenure with INXS, he certainly achieved that goal – and, along the way, touched the lives of millions.
And you can count me as one of the millions. I saw INXS live several times, and met Michael in 1986. (See photo below.) I didn’t know him or talk to him for any length of time, but when I heard the news of his death, it struck me in a lot of different ways. There was shock and disbelief that he took his own life, sympathy for the very mortal man that he was, sadness from the longtime fan inside me, anger that he would leave his child with such a legacy… and then back around again, interspersed with the more than occasional “why?!”
Every time something like this happens, there are a thousand cries of, “He had everything! Why did he kill himself?” A valid question, though I would never attempt to probe the psyche of Michael Hutchence, or presume to know his situation. I would, however, hope that you – musicians of the past, present and future – might stop for a minute and think about what being a musician means to you, and just how much it’s worth.
When looking at the bigger picture, it’s hard to ignore that so many self-destructive musicians seem to be the vocal frontmen. (A few examples: Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode, Bradley Nowell of Sublime, Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon… and so on back to Jim Morrison, Terry Kath of Chicago and Joy Division’s Ian Curtis.)
It’s a chicken-or-the-egg issue: are troubled extroverts drawn to center stage to express themselves and their emotions, or does the harsh glare of the spotlight take its toll on the souls of these artists?
On the newsgroup alt.music.inxs and elsewhere, it’s already been postulated that Michael subscribed to the “live fast, die young” theory: “Maybe he wanted to immortalise himself while still relatively young… to become a legend and couldn’t do it while he was still alive.”
Offshoots of the same notion include that perhaps Michael felt overwhelmed and out of place alongside the new, young, up-and-coming bands. Even Green Day gave Michael a hard time recently when they stayed at the same hotel in Los Angeles, and later referred to Michael as “someone from an Australian band that’s not very famous anymore.”
That statement is not really true: Although INXS were no longer considered superstars stateside, they were still legendary in their Australian homeland. Further, Michael lived in London and was hounded constantly by the press. Cyberbuzz reported that shortly after Princess Diana’s death, Michael recalled his last conversation with the Princess, when she sympathized, “If it’s not me, it’s you.”
Michael said the proudest moment of his life was last year, when he delivered his baby daughter, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily. “It’s a bit like joining the human race,” the Bradenton Herald quoted the proud father as saying. “Suddenly, the axis shifts slightly.”
Sadly, that shift of life’s axis was not great enough.
Photo of Michael in NYC by Shirley Chan