It’s interesting the way that certain performers hold onto their fame forever, even after death, and how some completely fade away, even if their music survives. Dying young has made so many rock ‘n’ roll stars into permanent icons–Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain–and yet there are those who rarely get a mention, the untimely ends somehow escaping romanticized sadness. Michael Hutchence of INXS was only thirty-seven when he died, just a few years after becoming a full-fledged sex symbol when his band’s album Kick turned into a huge blockbuster. What’s more, his death was ruled a suicide, inspired at least in part by his involvement in a messy love triangle with British TV host Paula Yates and fellow rock star and deified activist Bob Geldof. Everything is there to make Hutchence’s story the sort that gets told over and over again. The sense I get is that this plainly doesn’t happen.
Maybe it’s as simple as the music made by Hutchence as his cohorts was considered fairly passé by the time of his death. There was still plenty of airplay for the major hits (about a decade old by then), but newer releases from INXS were mostly met with shrugs. Cobain was already enjoying his spins in the tabloids, thanks largely to the endless train-wreck sensation that was and is Courtney Love. But there was also no doubt that the music he was making had heft and meaning. It probably helped build his cult that his songs were like purely distilled expressions of the agony that made him reach for the shotgun in the first place. Good as some of the INXS material was, they were relative baubles. Any edge was a put-on.
That’s probably most clear in Hutchence’s one real venture away from the band during his recording career, the self-titled debut and sole album released by the band Max Q. A collaboration with Australian experimental composer Ollie Olsen, this is theoretically Hutchence exploring his darker instincts, penning songs about social ills and filling the tracks with acidic electronic sounds. Maybe it doesn’t sound like a complete masquerade, but there sure seems like there’s a disconnect between the creator and the material. He’s like the director in Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, wanting desperately to make something of heavy meaning, ignoring that his real strength is in being an entertainer.
And yet that instinct for entertaining can’t be entirely eradicated by the questionable ambition. “Way of the World,” the lead single from the album, might not be infused with the power to shake souls and transform minds, but it sure is catchy. It’s not a song that still gets a lot of attention. It’s not carrying Hutchence’s presence past his mortality the way the biggest songs created with INXS do, but it’s as good of an example of his agreeable skills as a songwriter and singer as any. Whether or not he’s a towering figure in the annals of pop music, he’s definitely worth remembering.
(Disclaimer: There’s plenty of INXS albums that are readily available from your favorite local, independently-owned record store, although some surprising titles seem to be out of print, at least domestically. The Max Q album looks like its not available in any way, aside from purveyors of used records and CDs. There’s not even a digital version available, as far as I can see. Regardless, if someone with due authority to request its removal contacts me with such a request, I will gladly and promptly comply.)