INXS' turn of good fortune

Times Staff Writer

THE members of the rock band INXS were making their way through a sound check at this city's Paramount Theatre on Monday when a guy, wearing his cap sideways and sipping Corona from a plastic cup, meandered on stage. The dude went straight for a microphone. He hooted a few times, muttered some old Doors lyrics and then took a snapshot of himself with his cellphone's camera.

No one called security -- turns out it wasn't just some random fan. INXS, meet J.D. Fortune, your new lead singer. And good luck with that. After the sound check in Oakland, Fortune, puffing on a Marlboro Light, stood in a theater doorway, a perch that put him in the appropriate spot between the city sidewalk and backstage.

"It is pretty crazy, right? I mean I was homeless, like living out of my car at one point, and now this. This was my dream too. Not just to be famous, but to be the lead singer of INXS." If some of that sounds a little too special or too specific to be true, it should be noted that INXS has found its new Fortune via "reality" television, a forum that has only a flirting friendship with actual reality.

The 32-year-old from Nova Scotia is a high school dropout, a onetime Elvis impersonator and, now, the winner of a 13-week CBS series titled "Rock Star: INXS," which culminated in September and featured a competition that might be thought of as "American Idol: Arena Rock." After television shows devoted to lip-syncing performances, films that celebrate tribute bands and entire Broadways productions based on classic rock, maybe "Rock Star: INXS" seemed like the next natural step.

Still, for the members of the band, the show sounded like a treasure map that leads you into a minefield.

"Our great fear was, obviously, that it would be cheesy and a disaster and that it would ruin everything we've all worked on for so long," said Andrew Farriss, the keyboardist who co-wrote the band's biggest hits with the late original singer Michael Hutchence. "But we also have been in search of something to keep the band and this music alive."

INXS made some of the most danceable rock music of the 1980s, when the group was fronted by the vamping, handsome Hutchence, a singer of sexuality often compared to Jim Morrison of the Doors. Nine years ago, Hutchence, like Morrison, died young and in a hotel room under somewhat mysterious circumstances. There were attempts to replace Hutchence -- Terence Trent D'Arby was one intriguing option that fizzled -- but INXS as a viable, living act faded more with every passing year. It was particularly painful to the five members who not only mourned their friend's death but also chafed with the view that they were somehow merely sidemen.

The new lead singer is not a Hutchence look-alike. On stage at the Paramount during the soundcheck, he looked from a distance a little like a dark-haired Justin Timberlake. In person, he seems younger than 32 -- his puppy energy is a matter of amusement and inspiration to his new bandmates, all Aussies who have been riding tour buses together since 1977. Their new lead singer was a 4-year-old in Canada that year.

Asked if they ever considered changing the band's name, guitarist Tim Farriss made a sour face. "If I had died, would I have expected the rest of the band to change their name? If any of us had died, would we want that? We have been together for decades now. This is who we are." Now, Hutchence's old band is risking its own mystery by becoming something closer to the Monkees, a just-add-water creation for television.

And if you put the Doors together with the Monkees, don't you get the Donkees?

"We basically," Farriss says, "dropped our pants in front of the world." Well, at least Morrison could appreciate that.

Here's the thing that was apparent on Monday night at the Paramount show in Oakland: The kid is good, really good. And the crowd loves him. Fortune performed a high-energy set and the band behind him sounded crisp and forceful on "Suicide Blonde," "Kick," "Never Tear Us Apart," "New Sensation" and all the other hits from the Hutchence days.

The band's new material, from a November release by Epic Records that carries the appropriate title "Switch," was recorded in a six-week scramble that often found the members in separate rooms laying down their contributions in assembly line style. Part of the rush was to cash in while the TV show was fresh in people's minds. "Switch" has sold 246,000 copies -- hardly a smash, but nowhere near a disaster either. The CD, the band's first since Hutchence sang on the 1997 release "Elegantly Wasted," set up the tour, which arrives tonight at Gibson Amphitheatre.

The tour kicked off in Vancouver on Jan. 18. Fortune, giddy at making his big debut in his native land, ran back on stage at the close of the show to croon the Canadian national anthem. The reviews of that night and the subsequent shows have been laced with surprise -- as in, sure it was a TV show, but these guys sound good....

The "crazy idea" of the show came from Kirk Pengilly, who plays sax and guitar in the band. There were varied degrees of resistance and shock among his bandmates; the most adamant against the idea was Andrew Farriss (one of the band's three Farriss brothers along with Tim and drummer Jon). The beefy keyboardist felt the venture was too risky and too close to " 'American Idol' -- that damned show that's ruining music."

Andrew eventually relented -- how else could the band mount a truly global search for a replacement? And thousands did audition before the final 15 made it on to the show. In his mind, Andrew was intent on replacing Hutchence with a female singer -- a strong way to separate the vocal present from the vocal past. But going into the finalist round, the three contestants still standing were all male.

Many of the roughly 6 million viewers who watched each episode assumed Australian singer MiG Ayesa would win for his homeland ties, while Chicago native Marty Casey may have been the crowd favorite (his band, Marty Casey & the Lovehammers, is the new INXS' opening act). Fortune had come off rather callow during offstage sequences during the show's run and disparaging remarks he made about his rivals made him the designated "jerk contestant" seemingly required for these types of shows.

But fans didn't make the call: The band was willing to put the audition on public display, but when it came to picking the new rider on the tour bus the musicians were going to have the final say.

Fortune says the pressure of the contest may have brought out some moments that looked bad on camera. But all that is over now.

"The happiest moment of my life was after I won and me and the band just went into a room and celebrated and hugged," he said. "There was amazing energy." The veteran members of INXS have an easy manner with each other and several noted that this tour finds them collaborating at a new peak of comfort and mutual respect.

There's comfort, too, talking about the death of Hutchence, which inspired many tawdry rumors but was eventually ruled death by suicide under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

Tim Farriss and bassist Garry Beers, for instance, could have dodged a question about the band's reaction to "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," the plaintive U2 song that pays tribute to Hutchence. Instead both said they found the music video and themes of the song a bit off-putting.

"I'm not really sure what that was all about and in some ways I think it's better to let things go, right?" Tim says. "In the video, Bono even looked like Michael. I don't know what that was all about." The conversation's lingering impression: Hutchence is not going away but the band wants to move on. And now young Fortune brings the band both a measure of novelty and a reprieve from the past.

On the tour bus ride from San Francisco to Oakland, Fortune, looking bleary, kneeled down and rolled himself into one of the coffin-sized bunks on the floor of the luxury coach. While the rest of the guys chatted and looked out on San Francisco Bay, the newest member snoozed and tried to recover from a head cold and, it seemed, some previous road recreation.

"You have to learn to pace yourself, in everything," Tim said. "Sure, there's a pub in every town. But you don't have to go to all of them, right? If you want to do this, you have to learn to keep steady."

The rest of this tour will be an interesting experiment, as it always is when a substitute steps in for a deceased rock hero. Both cheers and jeers greeted Ian Astbury, who just toured singing Doors songs, and Paul Rodgers, who recently stepped into Freddie Mercury's shoes with Queen.

Tim Farriss said Fortune needs to find his own way and not worry about the ghosts that intrude into conversation. "Once the music starts, he's fine."

The younger man agreed. "It's not nerve-racking. It's like being with a family. I'm just the new member of the family. Right now, for me, it's a learning process. I'm just sitting back and trying to learn. I was destined to do this. Really, I feel that. That's the reality."

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