Michael Hutchence lost his sense of smell – and it all went downhill from there

A renowned “sensualist”, in losing his sense of smell the INXS frontman had been left “floating in space”, deprived of the essence of his being.

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The INXS frontman Michael Hutchence had a fascination with Patrick Süskind’s 1985 novel Perfume, in which an 18th-century homunculus with a powerful set of nostrils murders 24 virgins to extract their scent for a bottled cologne, and is eventually torn to pieces by a Parisian mob. He gave a copy to his lover Kylie Minogue. He took his sister Tina, who’d raised him in infancy, to trace the book’s locations. And he read passages of Perfume aloud, which feature as ghostly voiceover in a new BBC Two documentary, Mystify: Michael Hutchence.

Seven years after the book’s publication Hutchence, by now dating Helena Christensen, received a punch from a Danish taxi driver that caused two areas of brain damage and deprived him of his sense of smell. In the new film, a neurology expert explains the connection between smell and desire. A renowned “sensualist”, in losing his sense of smell the frontman had been left “floating in space”, deprived of the essence of his being, after what the band still refer to as his “pushbike accident”.

It is the film’s curious way of flagging up the personality change that resulted in Hutchence’s depression and increasingly self-destructive behaviour, ending with his suicide in 1997, when he was getting about as much attention from the UK tabloids as Princess Diana. The idea that he had died from auto-erotic asphyxiation, incidentally, was suggested by Paula Yates, with whom he was painfully entangled. It turned out to be one of rock’s more humiliating playground rumours. But Hutchence does seem to have suffered humiliations – a year before his death, at the 1996 Brit Awards, he gave the Best Video gong to Oasis, and Noel Gallagher declared that “has-beens shouldn’t present awards to gonna-bes”.

I’ve always seen Hutchence as a good frontman trapped in a really boring band. INXS aren’t due a critical re-evaluation – their music is free from gravitas and remains unaffected by the saga of their frontman’s life (Wikipedia tells me they were around until 2012!). In their early days, they were briefly known as the Vegetables. The film breezes over this era and soon they’re playing to huge stadia across their native Australia, white-vested and brawny as workmen.

In the midst of this you get the sense of Hutchence as someone born to be a star, with all a star’s contradictions: kind, insecure, destructive, violent, addicted to experiences, unable to be alone – but with nowhere to put the energy. He moved like Mick Jagger, but he had no Stones. He couldn’t play any instruments, though he learned to write songs. He spouted Sartre as a young man, but he was no intellectual. He once said that touring was a job that took two hours a day, that they were the hours he enjoyed – and the other 22 hours he didn’t sound happy about.

He seems to have put the rest of his energy into women – and what relationships they were. In a bizarre amount of 1990s personal video footage, we see him inter-railing with Kylie; when apart, the pair sent “love faxes” – the WhatsApp of the 1990s – between their hotels. His love affairs were festivals of sensory exploration (Kylie: “Sex, love, food, drugs, music, travel, books… all his senses needed stimulation”) and his emotional attachments were genuine (Helena: “He was very committed when he was with someone; he just wanted to nest”). Only, they didn’t last… “When Michael didn’t know what to do, it was time to change – because that will make it better,” says his sister-slash-mum Tina, off-camera.

Hutchence’s parents were socialites who lived in Hong Kong and would play Serge Gainsbourg’s “Je T’aime” when it was time for the children to leave the room. When he was 15, his mother took him to America for 18 months, leaving his brother Rhett in the care of a woman she found through the Australian nanny service company Dial-An-Angel. Rhett, who looks like a strange, beat-up version of Michael, became a heroin addict. Michael put him through rehab. But it was the favoured child who’d end up taking the more destructive path. “He was a dreamer,” Tina recalls. “We didn’t know what he was dreaming about.” 

Next week: Tracey Thorn

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article appears in the 09 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain