It’s 6am, the sun is only just nudging its way through the clouds. I am up early to write my Soapbox. I was going to write on something else, but this morning when I woke and stumbled to my desk I saw my open diary: 22 January, Michael’s birthday. He would have been 61 today.
I have never written about Michael. There just seemed to be too much said, too much that couldn’t be taken back, too much that he could never defend himself against. I certainly didn’t want to add to that. I’ve read so many things where people try and pinpoint who he was, and the closer they get the further away he seems. It’s like chasing shadows. It’s almost impossible to encapsulate a person with language, especially when they’re gone. A person’s essence has this fluidity that makes them illusive when drawn onto paper or the flickering words of a screen.
But today I feel drawn to write something; a small acknowledgement to a man I knew for only four years. My then partner’s brother, Michael Hutchence. I wasn’t really into INXS, I thought they were too mainstream. I didn’t think I should mention that upfront. When you meet a rock star it’s best not to insult them off the bat. It’s awkward meeting famous people. There’s a massive status imbalance. It’s probably why most celebs prefer to speak to each other. It’s hard to have a regular chat when someone’s laundry is laid out in the tabloids and they have this huge public profile, that you notice even when you haven’t been paying attention and you’re just a regular Joe. You think, should I tell them about my last trip to Centrelink? You certainly don’t expect them to be interested in you.
But that was what Michael was exceptional at; making people feel comfortable. He asked questions. Some people ask questions because they know they are supposed to ask questions– but they’re not actually interested in the answers. They usually fire out another unrelated question half way through your response. Michael actually listened. I remember being shocked. Which is weird in itself. But I didn’t expect him to be so interested – not just in me, but in everyone he talked to. He could be in a room full of super famous hob-nobby people, but if he was talking to you he wasn’t looking over your shoulder for someone better, he was actively listening to you.
It taught me something quite profound. All these noisy people in a room vying for attention, and the most intensely charismatic person is the one who is quietly focusing on the conversation of another. How can that be? What is it about truly listening that is so intoxicating? I’ve always been one of the noisemakers. It never occurred to me that the most powerful people in the room know how to stand back, choosing not to absorb the spotlight but to reflect light on another. To be truly heard, to be truly seen is a deeply sensual human experience. To be acknowledged, understood and validated is one of our most primal human needs, but so often it eludes us. And in constantly seeking to be listened to, we often forget to listen.
Being listened to is incredibly seductive. To have someone make themselves completely available to you, to be present and to really see you is more alluring than good looks or tight pants or big boobs. It’s an intimate human engagement.
Who would have thought? Listening is sexy!
When people met Michael they would talk about how he lit up a room, about his incredible charisma. The foundation of his charisma wasn’t being a focus puller, a show off, or a ‘rock star’ it was simply how he made other people feel. They’d tell their story. He’d listen to them, and then they’d walk away going ‘that guy’s amazing’. He didn’t really have to say anything. He just had to give them his attention. Giving real attention to another human being is truly generous. It affects people.
I remember driving through Sydney in the early hours of the morning with Michael at the wheel, I think we were going home from a party. I was in the back, half asleep with my partner and baby. There was an old woman on the side of the road hitching. Michael pulls the Jag over and offers her a lift. It’s clear she’s distressed. She wants to be dropped at The Gap. Michael won’t take her there. He asks her questions. She tells her story, about what has happened to her. It takes a long time. We seem to be driving forever. Eventually, as the sun comes up, Michael drops her at the beach. She leaves the car with a little more hope. Someone has shown her kindness. Just a random man in a nice car with a small family in the backseat. She didn’t know she’d been picked up by someone who was the lead singer of some world-famous band. That was irrelevant. What was relevant was that someone had shown her the kindness of caring about her story. Someone had listened.
That night sits as one of my most enduring memories of Michael. It reminds me to be quiet. To listen rather than always speak. It’s a big learning for me. I make a living out of making noise. But this morning, when I sat at my desk, I wasn’t going to write this – then I closed my eyes and this came. I guess you could say, I listened.