Strange Desire

It was Christmas morning 1998 and I’d been up for hours, shredding the paper from too many gifts and waiting patiently for my mom to finish her stuffing so we could head to my grandmother’s house for extended festivities. To fill the spare moments, I flipped on VH1′s “Pop Up Video” for the thousandth time but had no clue this viewing would shape so much of my existence.

During the first few riffs of INXS’s iconic “Need You Tonight,” I recognized it as a song I’d heard and liked before. As a black leather-clad Michael Hutchence swaggered into view with a white rat on his shoulder and that bold and simple “SEX” pin on his lapel, I was spellbound. Being deep in hormonal pre-adolescence, I’d been keen to the ineffable charm of rock stars for some time already, but this was different. This was androgynous and effortless, filthy and sensual, an unfamiliar breed of ostentatious eroticism that wasn’t easily found in the vacuous wasteland of late-90s pop my friends were so into.

As the pop-up facts rolled on and I discovered this new love of mine was actually already dead, a melancholic longing filled the space occupied seconds before by discovery and desire. My mom rushed in flustered by our perpetual lateness and as we rode quietly to my grandmother’s house three towns away, the seed of obsession deep in my belly grew hotter by the second. I needed to know MORE; I had to know everything about this ghost.

A few days later, my mother—an avid supporter of my rock ‘n’ roll obsession having been quite the dish herself pre-children—dropped me off at the local used record store with $20 so I could rifle through piles of pre-owned CDs and cassettes. While no copies of Kick were to be found, I managed to dig up the band’s follow-up, X. The aesthetic was so very 1990, a time before I was cognizant of any of the concepts touched on in songs like “Suicide Blonde” or “Bitter Tears,” and I found myself growing nostalgic for a time I’d never really experienced. It’s not unique to fantasize about bygone eras and your imagined place among them, but it felt like a whole new introduction to consciousness for me—I’d technically been alive for it, and yet somehow it had no importance to me until it was too late. My heartbreak at just barely missing the party did nothing but solidify my adoration.

That album quickly became a key to the locked doors of sexuality and passion and even my own primitive version of magic. I’d gather candles from around the house and sit in my room after dark, light them all, put “By My Side” on repeat and do my adolescent best to commune with Michael’s tortured ghost. With not a single clue how to follow through with a formal ritual, I went on pure divine intuition. Teenage and even younger girls are amazing that way—the lack of self-consciousness that exists right before you’re really subjected to the patriarchal objectification, when your guilt around sexuality is obscured by acute curiosity—that’s the time when you can really hone and create your own pathways to magic in whatever form feels right. Even through the years of losing my faith time and time again since, I look back and revere those first few séance-type experiences with pride and awe. I knew nothing about trance states, hallucinations, lucid dreaming, or sex magic, but here I was tapping into all of them, inspired by my precocious obsession with a dead rock star.

Throughout the next few years I came of age, and the fascination only grew deeper. As I collected each album and burned through every biography on Michael I could find, I built what I now recognize as a crude altar. Magazine clippings, books, tapes, pictures, CDs—the normal paraphernalia a girl with a crush will collect—congregated in a low shelf in my bedroom. On each death anniversary and birthday, I’d kneel before it and cry a few tears for the life of a man I’d only known in death. It remains the closest thing to prayer I acted out in those post-bible camp years of religious exploration and loss.

I became painfully private, enraged by any intruders in my sacrosanct space where I indulged a rich fantasy life projection far away from the lower middle class confines of my rural home and limited access to the outside world or friends. The obsession transcended the physical attraction or emotional attachment to the music itself; Michael was symbolic of everything foreign and tantalizing I needed in my life. The stories of his sexual exploits outlined in the books I pored over became legend in my mind. His presence in live videos was sidereal guidance toward my own self-confidence, an introduction to corporeal awareness at a time when my own body was awkward and alien. These experiences were punctuated for me by my first watch of a VHS tape of lesser-known INXS videos containing the especially racy “Taste It,” the video that cemented my formative interest in kink with a touch of surrealism.

So many fetish archetypes come into play here: Two young peeping toms voyeuristically explore a quiet Australian neighborhood when they happen to peer into a window where guitarist/saxophonist Kirk Pengilly (not generally the most gender-bending of the band) is having his fantastically long, pointy fingernails filed into perfection. Michael, wrists bound and writhing in the floor of some blandly suburban ranch house, begins to have his clothes cut off by a blonde in satin lingerie who then shoves her fingers deep into his lip-syncing mouth. The other band members come in and out of focus; brothers Tim and Andrew Farriss sit on a nearby couch identically suited and posed observing Michael while bassist Garry Beers wanders in to perch on a chair near the action, then drummer Jon Farriss enters to witness the scene gnawing on what looks to be some type of roasted meat.

Every player is central to the bondage ritual, every aesthetic choice toeing the line between indulgence and excess, art and smut. I once recreated this scene one-on-one with a sexual partner when I was 18, at which point I knew it would never be enough for me to experience sex without at least basic elements of kink involved. Sexual awakening is a wildly complex process, but the privilege of pinpointing this one touchstone for me has proven useful many times throughout my adult life when I’ve lost connection to my innate carnal self. One re-watch will transport me back to my lonely childhood bedroom, where I was learning how to live and dream and feel and fuck.

The ensuing years of my taste development were broad and experimental, but nothing ever replaced the comfort I took in revisiting these albums and videos. This came into play when I packed up my battered life in West Virginia after a traumatic divorce and ran away to New York City. I began to buy new books on Michael’s life, watching interviews I’d somehow missed over the years and revisiting the behind-the-music style documentaries to remember the initial spark I felt so long ago on that Christmas morning. I saw it all with refreshed eyes and a renewed sense of loyalty to myself. No one had ever quite shared my specific fascination with INXS, so it became an act of radical self-care to reconnect with a thinly veiled part of me I’d held quietly sacred for so long. It’s true you can rewrite your history when you move somewhere full of strangers, but I found it far more fulfilling to fully embrace my past and the art and ideas that so heavily shaped the woman I am now.

With my reconnection to INXS and Michael’s history in particular, I wound through the things previously unreachable to me as a rural teen. I found a copy of “Dogs in Space” and finally saw Michael’s convincingly natural turn as the singer of a Melbourne punk band who gets too wrapped up in the “Little Band” scene of the late 70s. My favorite scene blurs the line between real and imagined Michael when his on-screen girlfriend Anna is asked by another young femme “What’s it like to be in love?” Anna responds “With that thing? Pretty frightening.”

I then saw Michael’s small but resonant role in the tragically under-watched Frankenstein Unbound, a perfect testament to the dichotomy his presence. He seems so shy, even as he plays the highly sexualized and polyamorous Percy Shelley, husband to the famed Mary (played by Bridget Fonda) and the third in a fictitious threesome involving the couple and Jason Patric as Lord Byron. Michael’s cocksure bravado in musical performance is tempered by a timorous nature present in his acting and interviews. These revelations made him, especially at a transitional period for me, simultaneously more relatable and holy.

With the twentieth anniversary of Michael’s death (11/22) fresh on my mind, I find myself revisiting the endless coverage surrounding his death—narratives from that final night, events leading up to and following it, his partner and mother of his child Paula Yates and her life story as it relates to her decade-long obsession with Michael and subsequent marriage-ending affair with him, and so much more. I think about his death by hanging and how it almost certainly inspired my belt and asphyxiation fetishes, emblematic of early ties I formed between desire and death, suffering and worship.

Having turned 30 last December, Michael’s 20th death anniversary coincides with what feels like the end of my probable Saturn return. My husband recently said to me: “Your love of INXS is so out of step with everything you are and so perfect because of it.” It’s true to an extent (they were so mainstream and I’m a bit too tattooed, too sartorially tawdry), but it’s an eye of the storm thing. I go on occasional frenzies where I become enamored with one genre or album and play it to death, but my center always comes back to the core band that got me through the growing pains of being a chubby band nerd who worshipped at the altar of Michael Hutchence. Rock stars can be gods among men, and my favorite’s legacy is to me an effigy to sexuality and expression as the religion, a reminder to be present in my own body and self no matter the places I go, as encapsulated by my favorite INXS album title: welcome to wherever you are.