TOBY CRESWELL Shine Like it Does: The life of Michael Hutchence. Reviewed by Annette Hughes
Shine Like it Does is an empathetic and thoughtful portrait of one of the great performing artists of his generation.
There are several books about Michael Hutchence and INXS – so why does the world need another one? Because Toby Creswell, with 40 years of writing about music to his credit, has authored this one. And because he is also a cultural commentator with a lifelong view of the rise, success and inevitable fall of a star, this book has depth, breadth and gravitas. It looks not only at the life, but also the times of a gifted performing artist. Creswell has done a fine job of compression and selection to achieve just the right balance of pivotal personal and career moments in Hutchence’s life, set with precision in the context of his social and cultural milieu.
I never got Michael. Perhaps because we were the same age. I never fell for the big-eyed, effeminate, mop-haired singer, halfway between Mick Jagger and Harry Styles. He didn’t have the edge of danger, that mystique that surrounded Jim Morrison. And though they both displayed that Byronic swaggering sensuality, Michael was the boy you could take home to Mum. Indeed, according to Michael’s first true love, Michele Bennett, when the pair split, her parents wouldn’t hear a bad word about him.
Even if you are not a fan of Hutchence and INXS — which, given their massive sales in the Australian market, must leave only a handful of us — the book remains a riveting work of narrative non-fiction. It cracks along at the pace of a lost weekend on speedballs in prose that draws the reader into Michael’s world and compels us through the adventure with the players – backstage, in the tour bus, in the studio – and into the memories of many of Michael’s closest friends, to whom he lives on, larger than life.
Creswell’s intention is to create a portrait of the man beneath the glamour. His introduction lays his cards on the table:
Michael was a man of contradictions … Channelling F Scott Fitzgerald, John Le Carré suggested that only someone who can hold two fundamentally opposing views and still function can be called an artist. That was Michael. A loner who hated solitude; an unfaithful romantic; a shy boy who played to 25,000 people … He was fiercely ambitious, but also abhorred the idea of a career.
And Creswell is a fan:
Michael was, without question, one of the truly great frontmen — he expressed the music in a dynamic way that few others could.
But this is not a hagiography. Nor does the author make any claims about what happened in that hotel room at the Ritz Carlton, or why. Everything there is to know about that death is detailed in the other books. Creswell’s aim is to look at the life of Michael Hutchence, who emerges from this narrative as a much more complex and interesting person than he is generally given credit for. His trajectory to wordwide fame is set in the context of the times, traversing the ‘It’s time’ optimism of the 1970s and morphing seamlessly into the funky hubris of the 1980s, all with INXS playing the perfect soundtrack for the wash of ‘stupid’ money that touched every aspect of the arts. No one thought it would ever end.
Born in 1960, Michael was one of Gough’s children – the generation of Australians who emerged into adulthood in the late 1970s; the first generation with no sentimental ties to the colonial ‘mother country’. Well-educated, optimistic and determined to shake off the Australian cultural cringe, they hit the stages, made films, designed and painted a whole new version of Australia, eager to break out of the straightjacket of Empire. Young women and many of their mothers demanded their own place in the new society and a slice of the pie, which, by now, had become very high.
Creswell points to the childhood trauma of Hutchence’s parents’ broken marriage as the defining moment that informed all Michael’s ill-fated adult relationships. Michael’s character sealed itself around the separation like an oyster around a grain of sand. He was the peacemaker, the one who tried to soothe his brother Rhett’s hurt, the one who tried to bring it all together, but to no avail. His parents split regardless.
Michael’s mother worked in showbiz, doing hair and makeup for the soon-to-be booming film industry. Her job appears to be one of the straws that broke the back of his parents’ relationship, and Michael seems to have learned nothing from it. He split with Michele Bennett, his first love, because she wanted to follow her own career, and Michael was jealous of the time it took her away from him. He consorted with a succession of high-profile professional women, including supermodel Helena Christensen and Kylie Minogue – neither of whom would be likely to trade their own fame and fortune for staying home to wait for him to need them. Paula Yates, on the other hand, already had kids. With her, he found a ready-made family to belong to, and add to.
Following his parents’ separation, Michael threw his lot in with his new band – the Farris Brothers. On the last day of high school, the young men made a pact to act on their shared vision. They ‘left school, got into a panel van and drove Mad-Max style to Perth’ where for 10 months they forged an unbreakable bond. In just a few lines Creswell creates a cinematic setting for the first scene of this band of brothers’ archetypal quest:
Standing on the Nullarbor Plain … Michael would have been acutely aware of the immeasurable space and the great Australian silence that roars out there like an amplifier turned to eleven. He was hungry for poetry and art … No doubt thoughts of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady were there, alongside images of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on their Easy Rider choppers, riding across the night in search of truth and fun.
Creswell suggests that ‘he had left behind a family in flames and now maybe he was making a family unit of a different kind’.
Manager Chris Murphy was only 25 when he signed the band. Murphy was ambitious and born into showbiz. He knew what it took and was determined to take them to the top. He stayed home instead of schmoozing with the boys’ club of Australian managers that had ‘a fraternal atmosphere something like Fight Club’. While they ‘snorted coke off toilet seats’, he was busy drawing up his five-year campaign plan for world domination.
Murphy had convinced the band, now called INXS, that he could make them big – bigger than any other Australian act. They eagerly signed on the dotted line, but the cost of that sort of deal with the devil is submission to the grinding machinery that controls popular culture. At such a tender age it is impossible to comprehend what that means in terms of damage further down the track – like busted knees from drumming, drug and alcohol abuse, the stress on relationships and family life. Those things were nowhere in their windscreen. It was going to be sex and drugs and rock and roll all the way down, and they knew it. They had achieved the ultimate teenage-boy wet dream – a real shot at rock-stardom. This would be the adventure of a lifetime and they went for it, determined to give it everything they had. Which, as it turned out, was a lot. Especially from Michael.
They stepped into a decade-long Sisyphean cycle of production and marketing, touring and recording, fully focussed on what they were doing and where it might take them. As the leading salesman of their product, Michael was on constant show on and off stage. As their popularity grew, so did the demands on his time. Nothing was left to chance. Every aspect of the project was choreographed in ridiculous detail. Once you make the leap to the big time, you are no longer in a rock band, it’s a circus. But the band remained unfazed: ‘The bigger we get, the more we become it,’ Michael told a journalist.
Regardless of the hype, Michael was ‘just a man’ under all that swagger and pout, whose presentation and image was carefully constructed by committee. The team behind the glamorous illusion comprised the band (including the rock star himself), management, marketing, touring and publicity heads-of-department. To create and run a show of that magnitude for that long required a juggernaut to crash through any obstacle to success. And it needed many roadies. And groupies. And booze. And amphetamine. Lots of amphetamine.
But in 1988, at the end of the Kick tour, they were ‘… exhausted. They were fried.’ The band went back to their families to detox and decompress. But Michael didn’t have that choice – he was by then a household name. He couldn’t just take his INXS hat off and put his feet up at the end of a tour. Perhaps he felt the rock star thing had diverted him from his original poetic impetus and thought that, with the band in hiatus, now was the time to push his own limits. As he said himself, ‘What’s the point of success if you can’t do what you want?’ So during this down time he hooked up with Ollie Olsen to make the much-vaunted Max Q album.
With so much time and money invested in the band, it is easy to see why all those interests might get anxious when Michael decided to stretch his artistic wings outside INXS. Management went to great lengths to distance Michael’s name and likeness from the album, so though it was highly acclaimed, that did not translate to sales.
‘He wanted to deconstruct what he was,’ said Olsen. ‘He wanted to be taken more seriously as an artist … He wanted to be more respected by critics and not seen as a fluffy pop star … We were just on the cusp of something.’
According to Creswell, ‘Michael was incredibly proud of the album … He loved Max Q. It is unquestionably one of the best records that Michael ever made.’
Hutchence’s trajectory straddled the great leap into the digital age. In 1980, everyone had a record player in the house – either the portable you’d saved up for as a teen, or the family radiogram. Ten years later, no one except the most dedicated DJ wannabes owned a turntable, and dance music and Ecstasy culture were taking hold in the clubs everywhere. INXS rode the last highly lucrative wave of a music culture based on record distribution, a culture that would inevitably dump them and the entire industry onto a looming reef of digital technology.
Perhaps, had he known that management had pretty much scuttled his Max Q project, Michael may have found the courage to walk away from the band and go on to do more projects with Olsen; or perhaps a brilliant career as an actor or librettist lay in wait for him further down the track.
It is pointless to speculate on what might have been. What we do know is that in the leading role of his own mythic tragedy, a hybrid of Orpheus who lost everything when he looked back, and Icarus who flew too high, Hutchence was among the greatest performing artists of his generation. Toby Creswell’s empathetic and thoughtful portrait has done the man justice.
Toby Creswell Shine Like it Does: The life of Michael Hutchence Echo Publishing 2017 PB 236pp $32.99
Annette Hughes is a singer-songwriter performing with Geoffrey Datson in their duo Datson+Hughes. Their debut album Flowers and the Axe is out now on vinyl: www.datsonhughes.com
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