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Belated grief... At first, I was content to let the death of INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence -- who was found hanging nude from the doorway of a hotel suite in his native Australia on November 22 -- pass without so much as a mention. As the tabloid rumors swirled (Was it really suicide? Or was it some autoerotic asphyxiation fetish gone horribly awry?), I began to think that his end seemed horribly logical: In living out the film-noirish implications of INXS's 1990 hit "Suicide Blonde," he had merely succumbed to the hard-living, play boy lifestyle he'd chosen for himself.

Granted, Hutchence's untimely demise and the circumstances surrounding it came as a shock to most of us, but the event's overall impact on music in general promises to be minimal, especially in this country. As some indication of how newsworthy the Hutchence story was locally, his passing was addressed in a small wire story buried on page 26A of the November 23 Chronicle.

That shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone (like myself) who followed the band closely over the years. After all, INXS peaked in the U.S. a decade ago with Kick, a hook-infested reconciliation of modern dance technology and the band's pub-rock roots that made the Rolling Stones' Emotional Rescue sound like a sorry whimper by comparison. At the time, INXS were on their way to becoming Australia's answer to the Stones, with Hutchence a strutting Aussie personification of Mick Jagger. Ahead of its time, Kick was a deserving multiplatinum hit internationally. But the release's success was such a surprise to INXS that they spent the better part of the last eight years trying to recover from it. Maybe, in the end, Hutchence believed he never would.

Even during their '80s heyday, INXS were typically written off in the States as little more than a funk-pop anomaly lifted to above-average status by a charismatic frontman. A preening, self-conscious performer with expensive tastes, Hutchence could never hope to have the same sway over America's youth as, say, a homegrown hero such as Kurt Cobain. And even if he did come close to winning us over at one time, by the time he died, his cult of personality had long since deteriorated.

Using the above reasoning, I initially dismissed the Hutchence incident as just another senseless rock and roll casualty. But as the weeks passed, I realized his passing had hit me harder than I'd thought -- and for reasons more sentimental than anything else. In 1983, when I was still in high school, INXS's Shabooh Shoobah wrenched me out of my classic-rock coma and convinced me that a band could be image-conscious, synth-happy and hit-savvy and still rock. In a sense, it also persuaded me to take a chance on INXS's less-commercial xxcountrymen, Midnight Oil, which, in turn, opened my eyes to a tougher, more cerebral wave of '80s rockers, from U2 and XTC to R.E.M. and Dream Syndicate. And while I rarely listen to INXS these days, I frequently go back to the bands that INXS nudged me toward, however indirectly.

A little later on in life, my first assignment as a music critic came when the editor of my college newspaper slapped an all-access decal on my shirt and led me backstage to meet INXS before their show in our campus gym. Kick had just been released, and the band was doing a string of university dates to warm up for a larger tour to come. I knocked back a few Coronas with bassist Garry Gary Beers, in awe of how relaxed and down-to-earth he and the rest of the band were. Hutchence, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found. Then, just as I was about to be escorted back to my seat, the singer made a brief appearance, his emaciated model girlfriend draped over his shoulder. Looking bored, bleary-eyed and somewhat disheveled, Hutchence glanced around the room, grinned slightly and walked off without saying a word.

On-stage later that night, Hutchence put on a display of showmanship worthy of the best frontmen in rock (Jagger, Jim Morrison, Robert Plant, etc.), and he did so for a measly few-hundred fans. Rather than showering us with emotion, he killed us with charisma -- but never was he less than passionate. From that point on, Hutchence was bulletproof as far as I was concerned. In the end, I guess I was wrong -- and perhaps that realization hurts more than anything.

I only hope that Hutchence's death brings INXS's patchy 20-year run to a close. I can't imagine the group carrying on without him; losing a drummer, as R.E.M. recently did, is one thing, but you'd have to think Hutchence's larger-than-life persona was too entangled in the very essence of INXS for the band to survive without him. I don't plan on leaping off any balconies in honor of the guy I once saw as an invincible superstar (as one crazed fan did at the singer's November 27 funeral service in Sydney), but I am willing to acknowledge that he had an impact on me. And I'd be willing to bet there are more than a few of you out there who are too embarrassed to admit the same.

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