12/08/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
SITTING BY A WINDOW OF THE popular Flavour of India restaurant in suburban Sydney Nov. 21, rocker Michael Hutchence seemed a picture of contentment as he, his father, Kelland, and stepmother Susie tipped back bottles of Bengal beer, broke naan bread and dug into a platter of samosas. "He was what I call vintage Michael," the elder Hutchence says of his son, the INXS singer whose public brawls and onetime open drug use led London tabs to dub him the "wild man of rock." "He was just in such great form, laughing, joking, mimicking, like he does." But when his stepmum excused herself to go to the ladies' room, Kel recalls, "I held his hand across the table and said, 'Mike, is everything okay? I know you're very happy, but you seem a little uptight.' And he said, 'No Dad, I'm fine. Really, I'm fine. I've never felt better.' "
That all was not well with his son became all too clear the following morning, when a maid found Hutchence, 37, hanging by a leather belt in his suite at a nearby Ritz-Carlton hotel. News reports noted that Prozac, a common prescription drug used to treat depression, was found in the room. Police, awaiting the results of a full inquest, including toxicology reports, declined to rule if the rocker, who had led INXS to the top of the international pop scene in the 1980s, had committed suicide. Upon hearing the news of his son's death, his bereft father said, "What can I say, I've lost my loving son."
To fans left to ponder the latest in a long, sad series of rock deaths, Hutchence seemed an improbable suicide. Unlike Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, who took his own life in 1994, the Australian native was known not for rage-fueled lyrics but-for bringing what London rock journalist Matt Snow called "a cheerful sexiness to rock and roll." Not only had Hutchence told friends he was looking forward to his band's upcoming 20th-anniversary tour of Australia, but after a string of high-profile love affairs with the likes of Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue and supermodel Helena Christensen, he seemed finally to be truly in love. He and flamboyant British television personality Paula Yates, 37, who split with rock do-gooder Bob Geldof to take up with Hutchence in 1995, reportedly planned to marry on Bora Bora in January. Surely at their sides would have been their 16-month-old daughter Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily. "Michael was performing better than ever," says friend and Sydney music writer Ed St. John. "He's got a young kid and he sounded so happy. Everyone's just totally baffled. You can only assume that something dreadful happened to him in those hours on Saturday morning."
Speculation has indeed focused on those last hours. At about 9 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 22, an unidentified woman in a room next to Hutchence's reported hearing him angrily shout, "She's not your wife anymore!" A close friend of both Yates and Hutchence's says that the INXS singer phoned Yates and then Geldof that morning. Yates's ex had been contesting custody of their three daughters (Fifi Trixibelle, 14, Peaches, 8, and Pixie, 7). Yates told her friend that Hutchence pleaded with Geldof to allow Peaches and Pixie to accompany Yates to Australia for the INXS tour. "Michael's last words to Paula were 'I love you. I'm gonna ring Bob now and just beg him, beg him to let the children come,'" says the friend. "Whatever Bob said, all the hope went out, I think."
Sadly, Yates and Tiger Lily had to make the trip to Sydney after all, arriving Nov. 24 to help arrange the funeral. It was a bleak ending to a spicy relationship that had transfixed Hutchence's fans. The flirtatious Yates had married Geldof, 43, in 1986, the year he was knighted for organizing Live Aid. She met Hutchence that same year, when she interviewed him for Britain's music show The Tube. "He asked me back to his hotel room," she later recounted. "I said, 'Sorry, I've just had a baby.' Then I spent 10 years regretting [not going]."
In 1995, Hutchence, then steady with Christensen, appeared on Yates's "On the Bed with Paula" segment of The Big Breakfast, a morning TV show created by Geldof. Yates conducted interviews as billed, in bed. Later, reporters were camped out when Hutchence and Yates trysted at London's swank Halkin Hotel. Christensen told friends she was devastated by being dropped by Hutchence, and Geldof fired his soon-to-be ex from his show. Then Yates blithely announced that she had received her new breast implants and described her intimacies with Hutchence in some detail. "The first time we went to bed," she said, "he did six things within the first hour I was sure were illegal."
Yates and Geldof, whose divorce became final in 1996, reached a bizarre property settlement in which they swapped homes, with Geldof moving into Hutchence's digs and his ex moving back into her former home with her new lover. In September 1996, Yates and Hutchence made headlines again when they were arrested for suspicion of drug possession after the family nanny reportedly found a small amount of opium in a shoebox under their bed. The case was later dropped for lack of evidence, but, saying he was concerned for the welfare of his daughters, Geldof pressed for their custody. "He has completely manipulated everyone," fumed Hutchence recently. "He is Satan."
Remembered by friends as urbane, witty, bright and charming, Hutchence was born in Sydney and spent much of his childhood in Hong Kong, where his father ran an international trading company and his mother, Patricia Glassop, worked as a makeup artist. It was in high school in Sydney, where his parents had moved before divorcing in 1975, that he met Andrew Farris, now 38, who invited him to join his band along with two of Farris's brothers and two friends. Boasting one of the longer intact lineups in rock history, INXS played its first gig the night Elvis died in 1977. They had recorded five albums by the time stardom struck with 1987's Kick, which went on to sell 10 million copies worldwide and earned Hutchence comparisons to "the young Mick Jagger" and, prophetically, to the Doors' self-destructive Jim Morrison. Hutchence chafed at the comparisons and relied on self-deprecation to hold hubris at bay. "Really," he told PEOPLE in 1988, "I've run out of clever ways to describe how amazing I am."
Disappointed that recent INXS albums, including last April's Elegantly Wasted, had sold poorly and stung by Oasis's Noel Gallagher's calling him a has-been during the Brit Awards last year, Hutchence was looking forward to the Nov. 25 launch of a sold-out homecoming tour to commemorate his band's founding. And after years of excess, Hutchence, who reportedly split time between homes in Hong Kong, London and the South of France, and who had amassed a considerable fortune (thanks partly to a savvy investment in an unlikely hit film, 1986's Crocodile Dundee), was eager to settle down to family life. "Life is short," said the first-time father, who doted on Tiger Lily and her mum. "You have to pack everything into it because there's no going back to have another go."
SHELLI-ANNE COUCH in New York City, MOIRA BAILEY in London and CRAIG HENDERSON in Sydney