In early 1975, when I was just 16 years old, I lost my mother to cancer. I’d spent much of the prior 18 months watching her battle this disease, which started in one kidney, spread to her brain, and ultimately metastasized pretty much everywhere else. My father left us when I was a baby and I had no siblings, so my mother was my entire world. Losing her had a profound effect on me. I’d spent my early teens visiting her in hospitals, trying my best to help take care of her when she was home, and somehow managing to juggle this with the demands of school, the drama of puberty, and trying to live a somewhat normal teenaged life. When my mom died, I lived with my 85 year old grandmother, and given her age and frail condition, I found myself continuing to be put in the role of caretaker, and it was nearly impossible to relate to friends my own age who had none of the responsibilities that were weighing on me. In short, it was an immensely lonely time for me.
Just weeks after my mother’s death I was listening to the radio on a cold, late January night when I heard a song that immediately caught my attention. It was by an artist named Olivia Newton-John, and though she had actually already gained some notoriety for prior songs, particularly on the country music charts, I was unfamiliar with her. The song I heard that night was, Have You Never Been Mellow. What drew me instantly to the song was this woman’s pure, sweet, almost angelic voice, but upon further listening, the song’s lyrics seemed to be speaking directly to me, a sad, lost boy who’d gone through a traumatic couple of years:
Running around as you do with your head up in the clouds – I was like you.
Never had time to lay back, kick your shoes off, close your eyes – I was like you.
Now you’re not hard to understand. You need someone to take your hand.
Have you never been mellow? Have you never tried to find a comfort from inside you?
Have you never been happy just to hear your song?
Have you never let someone else be strong?
Yes, I longed to be carefree, without the crushing feelings of responsibility for myself and others, and to have someone upon whom I could lean. That song was intensely personal to me at that time of my life, and even today when I listen to it, it takes me back to that time, as music so often has the power to do.
But on a happier note, Have You Never Been Mellow started my love affair with Olivia Newton-John. I bought and cherished the album of the same name, and when I saw the photo of her on the album cover, I was astounded to see that her angelic voice was matched by her angelic beauty. I then familiarized myself with her earlier releases, If Not For You, Let Me be There and If You Love Me, Let Me Know. Unlike today, when artists seem to release new music once every few years, in the 1970s they’d record a new album every few months. Olivia was such an artist, and I ran to my local record store in eager anticipation with each new release: Clearly Love debuted in late 1975, Come on Over and Don’t Stop Believin’ both came out in 1976, and Makin’ A Good Thing Better arrived in 1977. I also loved her beautiful and haunting background vocals on John Denver’s Fly Away and was always thrilled to see her when she made the occasional guest appearance on TV.
In an interesting parallel to my own experience, I have a good friend who recently shared with me that Olivia’s song, Don’t Stop Believin’ was of great comfort to him after his own mother died of cancer and as he struggled with school and other personal problems. It’s another example of how a particular song can be so intimately associated with the things going on in our lives at the time when we first hear it.
Of course, Olivia is probably most famous for her role in the 1978 film Grease with John Travolta. Much has been written about her character, Sandy’s transformation from a naïve, pastel-sweater-wearing young girl to a leather clad, cigarette-smoking vixen and the film has recently been criticized by some as perpetuating rape culture and lacking ethnic diversity, which makes me long to return to the “innocent” 1970s when people didn’t overthink a silly musical. Personally, while I found Sandy’s cinematic transformation amusing and was pleased to see Olivia skyrocket to even greater fame as a result of the film and the hit soundtrack, I preferred the quieter, simpler version of her that I’d come to know. But some of her biggest hit singles were launched by the film, including her duets with John Travolta on You’re The One That I Want and Summer Nights, and her solo ballad, Hopelessly Devoted to You.
Her next album, 1978’s Totally Hot, ran with this new, spicier image, and delivered perhaps some of her best music, especially the hit A Little More Love, her own composition Borrowed Time, and the amazing track Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting, a sizzling 6-minute- long display of Olivia’s incredible vocal skills in which it is sometimes difficult to differentiate her voice from the synthesizers.
In 1980 Olivia starred in the film Xanadu, a widely panned musical in which she played a Greek muse, a daughter of Zeus, who comes back to earth to help a struggling artist open a roller-skating disco nightclub. You can’t make this stuff up, but someone obviously did! While the movie has been ranked among the worst films of all time, the music soundtrack was a huge success, featuring Olivia’s #1 smash, Magic and her celebratory collaboration with the Electric Light Orchestra on Xanadu. The soundtrack also featured a lesser-known ballad called Suspended in Time, which remains one of my very favorite of her songs.
Perhaps the pinnacle of her music career came in 1981, with the smash hit single Physical, which spent a whopping 10 weeks as the #1 song on the Billboard Top 40 charts and was the best-selling song of the 1980s. Physical was originally written for Rod Stewart and was also offered to Tina Turner, who evidently thought it was too sexual, so it’s rather amusing that it was the squeaky-clean Olivia Newton-John who ended up scoring such a victory with this song. Of course, by today’s standards the song is almost laughningly tame, but it raised eyebrows back then for lyrics such as:
I took you to an intimate restaurant, then to a suggestive movie…
There’s nothing left to talk about ‘less it’s horizontally…
Hearing Rod Stewart or Tina Turner utter such a phrase probably wouldn’t have caused anyone to give it a second thought, but for Olivia to be making such an inuendo was certainly playing against type. I recently read that after recording the song, she’d had some concern that perhaps she’d gone too far, so she decided that the accompanying music video needed to be humorous rather than sexual. The video featured Olivia putting a bunch of out-of-shape men through their paces at a gym and concluded with a surprise ending in which two of the men are transformed into buff hunks who ignore Olivia and end up leaving the gym holding hands with one another. It was all a long way from Have You Never Been Mellow.
In the early to mid 1980s Olivia had a string of a few more hits with provocative titles: Make a Move On Me, Tied Up, and Soul Kiss, as well as a couple of tamer ones: Heart Attack and Twist of Fate. In general, I’d have to say that these later releases were not my preferred musical style and though she continued to release several more albums over the next decade or so, they didn’t get much attention or airplay.
I feel as though I “lost touch” with Olivia Newton-John at this point. She’d always seemed to be a rather private person, and was not often in the headlines, though I was aware of her strong advocacy for environmental conservation and animal rights. I was also saddened to hear that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, but was impressed by how her battle with the disease led to her passionate devotion to philanthropic endeavors related to cancer research, natural healing, and the use of cannabis for pain management. The combination of her career in entertainment and her tireless charitable works led Queen Elizabeth to bestow Damehood, the female equivalent of Knighthood, to Olivia in 2020.
Although I hadn’t followed Olivia’s career closely over the last 20 years or so, her music was always with me. Typically, I’d play her songs at times when the news of the world or the stresses of life were getting to me, and I needed comfort. Her music also served as the perfect accompaniment when I was out in nature hiking alone, and I’d like to think that I may have scared off a bear or two as I sang along with Let Me Be There at the top of my lungs. Olivia also released several holiday albums which I quickly added to my Christmas playlists, making her an important fixture in contributing to the holiday spirit each year.
On August 8, I caught the tail end of a news story on the radio stating that “a star from the hit movie, Grease has died” and it didn’t immediately occur to me that it was Olivia Newton-John. I thought it had to be some other cast member, but after checking the news on my phone, the sad realization that it was Olivia who’d passed away at the age of 73 after a 30-year battle with breast cancer began to sink in. The news took the wind from my sails and simply seemed impossible to me. I think in my mind’s eye I still saw Olivia as the young, energetic woman pictured on her 1970s album covers – timeless. It also stung that it was cancer that had taken her from us, just as cancer had taken my mother so many years ago, and that Olivia had struggled with it for not years, but decades. And as I rapidly approach my 64th birthday, 73 seems like an uncomfortably young an age at which to die.
Olivia Newton-John is really the first beloved musical artist that I virtually grew up with who has now passed. The realization that much of the music that has formed the soundtrack of my life is now nearly 50 years old and that there will be many more such losses in the future is disconcerting. For the rest of that sad August day, as I returned from a short road trip to northern New England, I listened to my extensive playlist of her music, almost as a way to console myself that she wasn’t really gone. And in a sense, that is true; as long as we have these gifts of her music and the legacy of her extensive contributions to cancer research and charitable causes, she will always live on.
Since her passing I’ve started to explore some of the albums she released later in her career that I’d overlooked. I’ve already found many new songs to add to my playlists, particularly from the albums Gaia and Grace and Gratitude.
There have been many public statements about Olivia’s passing and all that she accomplished in her life. I think for me, personally, her contribution is best summarized in the lyrics of one of the songs from the Grace and Gratitude album, Instrument of Peace:
Where there is hatred, let me bring love. Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is falsehood, let me bring truth. Where there is pain, I’ll comfort you.
Where there is silence, let me sing praise. Where there’s despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is blindness, let me bring sight. Where there is darkness, let me bring light.
And with these words I speak, grant that I may not seek to be heard but to hear,
Not to be consoled, but to console; not to be seen, but to see; not to be loved, but to love
For when we give love we will receive. When we forgive love, we’ll find reprieve.
It is in dying we’ll be released. Make me an instrument of peace…
Goodbye, Olivia. Thank you for being such a beautiful example of what it means to be an instrument of peace.