Making a Good Thing Better

Love Has Flown: Remembering Olivia Newton-John

Losing Olivia Newton-John this week made for summer dreams ripped at the seams. Like so many of you, she was my first love.

Guess mine is not the first heart broken; mine are not the first eyes to cry. But, dammit, losing Olivia Newton-John this week made for summer dreams ripped at the seams. Like so many of you, Newton-John was my first love. I was something of a precocious kid when it came to girl-craziness anyway, so I had complicated affairs with Suzanne Somers, Barbie Benton, several Hee Haw girls, all of Bob Barker’s Beauties, and each of Charlie’s Angels. But no one multiplied chills like Newton-John.

Was it love at first sight? (Tell me more, tell me more.) Well, I don’t remember the first time I saw Newton-John, but to be born during the Nixon administration is to experience the whole Olivi-age in real-time. When you were raised by a 1970s mom who owned the entire Newton-John discography and who danced around the living room singing her songs into a hairbrush, Newton-John was daily home decor as ubiquitous as the wallpaper and the shag carpets.

Which of Newton-John’s 1970s album covers was your favorite? Mine was Making a Good Thing Better (1977), definitely—the flower in her hair, the 20-tooth smile, the Queen Bee of Cute Bangs. Unless it’s Come on Over (1976) with Lovely Livvy submerged to the neck in the pool, wet-tendriled, lips barely apart. Or maybe it’s Clearly Love (1975), featuring Olivia with the coolest denim wrap shirt, the featheriest hair, and the comeliest nasolabial folds. Or perhaps it’s Totally Hot (1978) when Newton-John went full leather ‘n’ lust but still had the shiniest cheekbones in show business.

When the needle dropped on those albums? Newton-John changed whatever’s wrong and made it right. She took me through a wonderland that only two can share, or at least that was the effect on a seven-year-old whose first exposures to songs by Bob Dylan (“If Not For You”), the Beatles (“The Long and Winding Road”), Willie Nelson (“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”), Kris Kristofferson (“Help Me Make It Through the Night”), and Johnny Cash (“Ring of Fire”) were actually courtesy of Olivia Newton-John albums.

And that voice. Newton-John’s soughing tone, filled with sighs and purls and that billowy vibrato that could turn into a crystalline, knife-edge skyrocket when she mined the silvery spheres at the top of her mesospheric range. It’s all there on her overlooked version of “The Air That I Breathe” from 1975’s Have You Never Been Mellow when she whispers the song as a lullaby and then harmonizes with herself on a towering collage of coloratura notes.

So before I owned any of my own records, it was all Elvis and Olivia at my boyhood home. Ours was the house that friends and neighbors would call to make sure we knew that Newton-John was scheduled to appear on Sonny & Cher or Donny & Marie, monumental events to organize life around. Even when Elvis died in 1977, Newton-John was there to assist. When the news broke that the King was gone, my mom threw me in the car and raced to Wal-Mart to buy Elvis’s final studio album, the just-released Moody Blue. When she put it on the console at home to facilitate weeping the afternoon away, there too was Newton-John, in the form of “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)” and “Let Me Be There”, Newton-John hits that Elvis had covered on his swan song.

Oh, you liked her in Grease, you say? Tell me about it, stud. I had acquired no real carnal knowledge by the time I saw Grease in the theater at age seven, but when Sandy showed up at the carnival with her leather jacket, bare shoulders, and painted-on spandex pants, I knew that I had been incinerated by Olivia Neutron-Bomb. Her Sand-formation from virginal schoolgirl to Pink Lady strumpet put me through a parallel metamorphosis. And if Olivia could pass her 29-year-old self off as a high schooler, then I could round my seven-year-old ass up to full-blown T-Bird and meet her in the middle.

I loved Xanadu, too, one of the greatest terrible movies of all time. Combining Olivia Newton-John, ELO, Gene Kelly, rollerskating, Greek mythology, and the Tubes, Xanadu was the perfect disco trainwreck within the cultural no man’s land of the 1970s turning into the 1980s. But then in the 1980s, Newton-John got “Physical”, scoring the biggest hit song of the decade by deciding that there’s nothing left to talk about unless it’s horizontally. The girl who chastely professed “I Honestly Love You” just seven years earlier now moaned that she wanted to get not just physical…but ANIMAL. Let’s get into animal?!? I didn’t know precisely what she meant by that when I was 11 years old, but I figured it would get me nowhere to tell her no, and the music video of her doing aerobics with a bunch of fatties wasn’t fooling me at all.

By the time HBO aired her 1983 concert, we had a VCR, so I could watch Newton-John, in her sleek mullet and headband phase, sing “Magic” and “Sam” and “Xanadu” (“You sarr it! You really did!?” she asked the crowd) whenever I wanted, prompting me to think that maybe I hung around here a little more than I should. (Which still didn’t keep me from watching the excellent 1983 ONJ-Travolta reunion stinker Two of a Kind—the one that spawned “Twist of Fate”—a couple of dozen times.)

Twenty years later, I decided I couldn’t take another minute of a day without Newton-John in it and finally got to see her live—at the Fox in St. Louis (22 June 2003). Fantastic career-spanning show with Newton-John in resplendent voice. My mother, of course, was there and handed her a bouquet of flowers during “I Honestly Love You”. After the concert, I noticed a small group of fans gathering around a tour bus behind the theater. As I got closer, one of Newton-John’s assistants stepped out to announce that, yes, oh dear god, Olivia will come out to say hello briefly.

I immediately sprinted—flying, panicked, elbows chopping desperately at the air—back to my car four blocks away, where I had brought a bag filled with the first 11 Olivia Newton-John studio albums, just in case. When I arrived back at the bus—sweating, gagging, wheezing—the assistant took a look at my stack of LPs and politely informed me that “Um…Ms. Newton-John will sign ONE of those.”

Newton-John was standing on the bottom step of her bus, so when my turn came, we were eye to eye. Now there’s nowhere to hide. I’m out of my head, so I have no idea what we said to each other. But I do know that her famous flashing blue eyes told me that she was hopelessly devoted to me. In any case, I got away with two signed LPs: Clearly Love for my mom and Making a Good Thing Better for me.

And now Newton-John rides that greased-lightning convertible up into the clouds…for real this time. It was our song, it was her song, but it’s over. Goodbye, Olivia. May the rest of your ride ever be mellow.