De-mystified: The stories behind 6 Michael Hutchence-inspired songs

Lyndsey Parker
Yahoo Music
Michael Hutchence, 1960-1997 (Photo: Yahoo7Be)
Michael Hutchence, 1960-1997 (Photo: Yahoo7Be)

It’s hard to believe that Michael Hutchence, the devastatingly charismatic lead singer of pop/funk/rock band INXS, passed away 20 years ago, on Nov. 22, 1997. Even in an era when we seem to be losing music icons every day, Hutchence’s death still resonates, fascinates, and frustrates fans. The man was only 37 years old, with seemingly everything to live for: He was preparing for INXS’s 20th anniversary world tour, and had just become the father of a daughter, Tiger Lily, with his new girlfriend, Paula Yates (Bob Geldof’s ex-wife, who died of a heroin overdose three years later). While Hutchence’s death by hanging was ruled a suicide by the New South Wales coroner, many people believed it was the accidental result of autoerotic asphyxiation, and some conspiracy theorists still suspect foul play. But everyone can agree that was a great talent was lost forever, taken from us too soon.

Hutchence is the subject of two new documentaries — Australia’s The Last Rock Star, which premiered in October 2017, and Universal Music’s Mystify, out in 2018. But over the years, Hutchence has inspired no fewer than six songs, written and recorded by his peers who knew him best: Smashing Pumpkins, Berlin, U2, Duran Duran, Kylie Minogue, and the Church. Here are the stories behind the last rock star that inspired these great rock tributes.

Smashing Pumpkins, “Shame” (1998)

Key lyrics: “You’re gonna walk on home/You’re gonna walk alone/You’re gonna see this through/Don’t let them get to you…Hello, goodbye, you know you made us cry”

“Shame” came out on Smashing Pumpkins’ fourth studio album, Adore, about seven months after Hutchence’s death, and it seemed written from the point of view of someone encouraging a friend not to make a tragic, irreversible mistake. “The one thing I do remember about the song was I woke up that morning and wrote it and recorded it by noon or something. So the recording that came out, literally, is when the song is not even three hours old,” Pumpkins frontman William Patrick Corgan tells Yahoo Music. “And it was done live in the band with [guitarist] James [Iha] and [bassist] D’arcy [Wretzky]. I think it was one of those things like I kind of came out of a dream I was meditating on — that sense of like, what would you say to somebody if you could speak to them 10 minutes before they take that walk? That there’s always another day? I don’t know.”

Corgan met Hutchence in the ’90s through supermodel Helena Christensen, who was dating Hutchence at the time, and “was very fond of him.” The two singers were in very different places, professionally — Smashing Pumpkins were darlings of the alternative rock scene, while INXS’s star was on the decline — and Corgan recalls their friendship bittersweetly.

“There’s certain things that happen in your life that you reflect on later that make more sense. At the time, I was on top of the world, and Michael was still trying to kind of regain his footing, as far as his place in the music world,” Corgan muses. “I wish I had had more understanding or empathy for the situation that he was in. … Michael had fought very hard to win respect and credibility within the music world, and he had done that, but he didn’t get to see the full fruits of those labors. He fought hard to be taken as something more than just a heartthrob, and I know it pained him that people dismissed his work and his contributions as sort of a ‘teen’ thing.

“I mean, I don’t think many of us would handle fame and heartthrob stuff young very well,” Corgan continues. “It just seems like that’s a recipe for a particular kind of intoxication, which most people don’t survive very well. The battlefield is littered with former heartthrobs. … And so, I wish I had maybe understood the dynamics a little better. I was quite young myself, and looking back now, I certainly have a lot more understanding of the spot he was in.”

Corgan, who says he was a “big fan” of INXS in his youth, even if his snobby indie-rock friends didn’t put the band on “cool list,” wholeheartedly believes that if Hutchence had lived, today INXS would be bigger and more respected than ever. “Sometimes we don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone. It’s like the Joni Mitchell line, you know? And I think Michael was somebody who maybe in his time wasn’t respected or treasured as much as he should have been, and that was a shame, because I think it would’ve helped him,” he says. “It’s like, if only you had a crystal ball, you wish you could’ve explained to Michael that he had 30-plus years ahead of him of musical opportunity, and that the world was changing. You almost wish you could go back in time and say, ‘Look, if you just hang in there, the world’s actually going to come back to you quite well.’ But standing there talking to him in those conversations, it felt like the world had passed him by or something. But it hadn’t, really. It may have seemed that way, but it hadn’t.

“INXS would have landed just fine. They probably would’ve had more hits. They would’ve had other chances. They still would have been an arena-level band, especially with a guy like that up front. So it is a shame that he wasn’t around long enough to see the other side of that eclipse. Sometimes the business that we’re in is very cruel, and sometimes it seems to take people that deserved a better lot in it. And it struck me that Michael had never sort of gotten treated the way he deserved to be treated. He certainly expressed that to me a number of times. It feels a little bit like, ‘Gee whiz, I wish this could have been a happier ending.’”

Berlin, “Sacred and Profane” (2002)

Key lyrics: “Rock star, sing my song/Make me yours alone/You’re the highest high/The lowest of the low … I want to know you I want to know your name/Push me to the wall”

When frontwoman Terri Nunn began work on the Berlin album Voyeur, she actually enlisted Corgan as a collaborator. “I had already started the lyric to [‘Sacred and Profane’] and sent it to him, and he really liked it, and I told him who it was about. And he said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. I wrote a song about him too,’” she recalls.

However, “Sacred and Profane” could not be more different from “Shame,” despite the Corgan connection. Corgan’s tribute was a depressing depiction of a troubled man’s final moments; Nunn’s was a sexy remembrance of a charming, passionate lover with whom she had a brief but memorable affair in 1984, when INXS and Berlin were both breaking out on MTV.

“That’s how he hit me: in a positive, sexy way. And he hit me like a ton of bricks — personally, professionally, artistically, spiritually, intellectually,” Nunn tells Yahoo. “So it’s a positive and sexy song. It’s not about, ‘Oh, we lost him!’ It’s just about, ‘Oh dude, you f***ing rock.’ It’s a great feeling that he gave me, and I tried to put that into this song.”

Nunn and Hutchence met backstage at an INXS show at London’s Marquee club, while Berlin were in the U.K. recording their second album, and Nunn was crushing hard from the moment she saw Hutchence take the stage. “I still remember it to this day, like it was yesterday. The impact of watching Michael onstage turned me into an absolute 14-year-old, drooling mess,” she giggles. “Watching that guy express music, and his passion for it, and his desire to connect with people about that passion, through that passion, was completely transformational for me. Wanting him as badly as I did, as a woman, I was just losing my mind over him. ‘How do I touch this guy? How do I meet this guy? What can I do to make this happen?’”

Nunn made it happen, soon after that encounter, but after three dates, Hutchence returned to Australia. “I was smitten, and trying to figure out how I could make a long-distance relationship work — which is stupid. I mean, it was not gonna happen. Not at all,” says Nunn. “Neither one of us were ready for any kind of a real relationship. It was just a fascination with each other. And I wasn’t ready for someone like Michael anyway. I mean, his appetites were large. He dated a lot of women. He did a lot of drugs. … And I knew, with the appetite he had for drugs and alcohol, that he might not be around very long.”

Years later, after Hutchence passed away, Berlin toured with INXS, then fronted by Rock Star: INXS talent show winner J.D. Fortune. Nunn was still perplexed by the circumstances surrounding Hutchence’s death (“It didn’t add up to me; I couldn’t figure it out”), so she “asked [INXS multi-instrumentalist] Andrew Farriss what he thought. Was it a suicide? Or was it not? And he didn’t feel it was. He didn’t get that from Michael at all, at the time, that he was ready to off himself. So it may have been an accident. Michael wanted more and more sensation in any possible way he could get it. And maybe he just went too far.”

Nunn and Hutchence’s last communication came about a year after their fling, when she sent him a track and suggested they record it as a duet, but he rejected the idea because he didn’t care for the song. However, Nunn harbors no hard feelings, and still seems a little “smitten” remembering her former paramour years later. “He was an extremely bright guy. And he was also very sexually adventurous in a way that I liked. He was a dominant in bed… and I like that! So for me it just was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve found my man!’ And then it was like, ‘Um, no you haven’t.’ Oh well. But it just absolutely threw me and floored me, what kind of a person he was.”

The Church, “This Is It” (1998)

Key lyrics: “He had a room in the best part of town/He got a chocolate on his eiderdown/Staring out over roofs at the Cross/Suppose he must have felt somewhat at loss … Watching things you put up start to crash/Even though you’ve got a fistful of cash/Watching the future it bursts on through/I was one of those who used to envy you”

“This Is It,” from Australian alt-rockers the Church’s 11th studio album, Hologram of Baal, is the most literal of the Hutchence tribute tracks out there, chillingly chronicling Hutchence’s final hours in a Sydney hotel room. “I was very shocked and depressed by Hutchence’s death, because it was so inexplicable,” the band’s Steve Kilbey told Yahoo Music at the time of the song’s release. “It’s like, this guy’s got everything — money and girls, all the things we all aspire to. And yet, once again, like a lot of celebrities, he’s taken his life. What hope does that give all the guys working in the factories, you know?”

Echoing Corgan’s statements, Kilbey also said he thought the decline of Hutchence’s teen-heartthrob status “weighed heavily on him. …He was getting towards 40, but his appeal was based on being a sexy young guy, which he was starting to not be anymore. That’s the dilemma if that’s what you are, as opposed to, hopefully, what we look upon ourselves as musicians. If you went and saw the Modern Jazz Quartet, you wouldn’t be thinking about how fat or how old they are, or if their beards are gray. You’d just be, ‘Yeah, I like this music.’ But Hutchence was trapped in this youth thing.”

Looking back at the Australian music icon’s legacy 20 years later, Kilbey tells Yahoo in 2017: “Michael Hutchence was the only person I ever met who I thought truly possessed that elusive quality of ‘charisma.’”

U2, “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out of” (2001)

Key lyrics: “I never thought you were a fool/But darling, look at you/You gotta stand up straight, carry your own weight/These tears are going nowhere, baby/You’ve got to get yourself together/You’ve got stuck in a moment/And now you can’t get out of it/Don’t say that later will be better”

The most famous of all musical Hutchence tributes, this song, like Corgan’s, also expresses a desire to intervene and stop Hutchence before it’s too late. “Being right there. Just wanting to be in that half hour. So in the song, I’m right there. … I wanted to have that argument in that half an hour,” Bono told Rolling Stone in 2001.

The song was written from a place of both rage and guilt, Bono elaborated. “The first verse, it’s really very defensive. I think other people who have lost a mate to suicide will all tell you the same thing — just the overpowering guilt that you weren’t there for that person. … Can you really be that busy that you don’t notice your mate on the slide, as it were? … So I just remember feeling this overpowering sense of guilt. And then anger. And annoyance. That song is an argument. It’s a row between mates. You’re kind of trying to slap somebody around the face, trying to wake them up out of an idea. … I felt the biggest respect I could pay him was not to write some stupid soppy f***ing song, so I wrote a really tough, nasty little number. Sort of, you know, slapping him around the head. And I’m sorry, but that’s how it came out for me.”

Interestingly, Bono also told Rolling Stone that he and Hutchence had discussed suicide around the time of Kurt Cobain’s death, and “both agreed how pathetic it was. … We were sitting here thinking, ‘It’s not right, it’s just not right.’ You can’t make judgments about people — I wouldn’t dare to on that level — but I would always say to Michael, ‘My heroes are alive, not dead.’ I always hated the idea, as Chrissie Hynde describes it, of ‘dying stupid.’ And we kind of promised each other we wouldn’t cross that line where things get stupid.”

Bono also contemplated what might have been, also he was less inclined to think that his friend’s death was an accident. “I’d love to think that he went out on some spectacular sexual maneuver, but knowing the state of him at that time, I don’t think so. But I’m sure of this: If he had lasted half an hour longer, he would be alive now. He couldn’t see past, he couldn’t see out that half an hour. And apparently that’s what people do… and a friend of his told me that he’d brought up our conversation a few days before that.”

This year, Bono stated in the Hutchence documentary The Last Rock Star, “When he ran out of that frothy fun-loving side of life, when he lost that joy, that’s when we lost him.”

Duran Duran, “Michael, You’ve Got a Lot to Answer for” (1997)

Key lyrics: “Just remember what friends were put here for/Michael, you’ve got a lot to answer for/And I know that you’re gonna call/If you need me/When you need me/If you need me”

Eerily, this prescient track appeared on Duran Duran’s ninth album, Medazzaland, one month before Hutchence died. At the time of its writing and recording, it served as a cautionary tale, a message to the hard-partying Hutchence from a concerned friend.

Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon, who penned the lyrics, was well aware of the “appetites” that Nunn spoke of, having been roommates with Hutchence at one time. “The most rock ‘n’ roll it ever got for me was when I lived with Michael Hutchence in the south of France in 1994. That was just ridiculous,” Le Bon once told the Birmingham Mail.

In a 2008 interview with Q magazine, Le Bon explained that the song was “about Michael being a naughty boy in the South of France and London when he was living with Paula [Yates]. He did like his substances. I couldn’t keep up with him. No way. We all know that Michael liked drugs.”

Following Hutchence’s death, Duran Duran started playing “Michael…” as a tribute to their fallen friend, but the song was later cut from then band’s setlist because Le Bon found reportedly found it too emotionally taxing to perform.

To this day, Le Bon does not do many interviews about Hutchence, but he recently asserted in The Last Rock Star that, unlike, Bono, he doesn’t “believe for a minute Michael committed suicide. … I lived with him for a few months years ago, and he loved life, women and drugs. He lived it to the full; there’s no way he’d have wanted to end it all.”

Kylie Minogue, “Bittersweet Goodbye” (2001)

Key lyrics: “Here we are in the dead of night/Will you keep me warm and hold me tight/All we have is until the dawn/Let the night be long and ease the dawn/I love you more than you’ll ever know/It hurts to see you go”

Minogue, who gave INXS the title for their 1990 hit “Suicide Blonde,” formed the ultimate Australian pop power couple with Hutchence when the two dated from 1989 to 1991 — before Hutchence left her for the above-mentioned Helena Christensen. Despite the heartbreak, Minogue remained friends with Hutchence and still speaks of him fondly. On her 2012 tour, she dedicated “Bittersweet Goodbye” to Hutchence, and on her 2015 tour, she also performed a cover of INXS’s biggest hit, “Need You Tonight,” to honor her ex.

“He was Byron-esque, he was poetic, he was cultured and hilarious and tender, he was all of these other things,” Minogue told BBC’s Radio 4 in 2015.

When their affair began, Minogue was known as the fresh-faced girl next door on the Aussie soap Neighbours, and the press credited Hutchence for sexing up her goody-goody image and “corrupting” her. Minogue credits Hutchence for helping her become a real musical artist.

“I guess I was at the perfect age — I was 21 years old — to get the butterfly wings and go out into the world, and we collided at that time and I guess he just fast-tracked some of it. Anyway, it was a glorious time. I loved it,” she told Radio 4. That same year, she told news.au.com, “I feel like he’s with me. I don’t want a monster to be made out of that and people to say I’ve become Shirley MacLaine, but I feel like he’s my archangel.”

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