Olivia Newton-John made a huge career change in 1973, from a burgeoning pop darling in the UK to a Grammy-Winning Female Country Artist in the US. During that same year, almost everything in my young life changed as well. I had a new home and my very own bedroom for the first time. I had a dad, and a new last name, and three new sets of aunts and uncles, and three new cousins, and a second set of extraordinarily kind and loving grandparents. Everyone in my new family loved me as if I were one of their own, and so far as I knew at that time, I was. I still feel that way today. Nonetheless, I missed living in the home and with the grandparents whom I had lived with since the beginning of my memory. My mom and I rode up and down a ten-mile stretch of country highway countless times to visit Grandma and Grandpa at their big, green house on Gracia Street after we moved out of their home in 1972. Olivia Newton-John’s angelic voice was also new to me that year. The lyrics of “Let Me Be There” floated through the radio airwaves from the surrounding country music stations into our El Camino and into my young mind during so many of those car rides. “Wherever you go, wherever you may wander in your life, surely you know, I always wanna be there…Watching you grow and going through the changes in your life, that’s how I know I always wanna be there…” Her soothing voice was an invisible security blanket surrounding me and reminding me that although I no longer lived with them, Grandma and Grandpa would always be there for me.
Everything about Olivia was intriguingly foreign to me–her golden blonde hair and sparkling eyes, and her skin, the very definition of a peaches and cream complexion. She was country, but she didn’t have that cowgirl-country style like other artists I admired at the time–Tanya and Loretta and Dolly. And she didn’t have their southern drawl either. I was awed by her distinctive part-Aussie/part-British accent on familiar country staples like “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Country Roads, Take Me Home,” and “Angel of the Morning.” The genuine sweetness and light that emanated from her in television appearances also contributed to my placing Olivia ahead of Linda, Cher, Michael, and even Barbra, earning my greatest admiration of all musicians at that point in my life.
Not everyone embraced this new foreign songbird. In addition to earning a Grammy for Let Me Be There, Olivia was also awarded Country Music Association Female Country Vocalist that year, which created a rift in the country music industry. George Jones led an outbreak of nearly 50 artists to form the Association of Country Entertainers (ACE) in order to “preserve the identity of country music as a separate and distinct form of American entertainment.” There were never any new George Jones records at our house after that. And by 1975, even Tammy left George and got herself a D-I-V-O-R-C-E.
Throughout the mid-1970s, Olivia released six albums that were “certified gold” and produced 15 chart-topping singles. Her albums were always birthday or Christmas wish list items granted to me. My mom and dad were also fans of her music, and her reputation as a good human also made Olivia an ideal heroine for their young daughter, obsessed with becoming an entertainer. At that time in my life, Broadway was my primary objective for my future. I was shy and awkward around other kids, but yes, please, put me in front of my family with a record player and my latest favorite LP record, and I would sing and dance as long as anyone was willing to listen and watch (and long after that, actually). I spent countless hours alone in front of my bedroom mirror rehearsing in preparation for my big break. I was also more than willing to perform in the grocery store if an Olivia tune came over the PA, after all, a talent scout might be right there in the cereal aisle of the IGA. Yes, I really believed this. I had heard Olivia, and many of my other musical idols interviewed by Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas, or Johnny Carson, talking about how they were discovered. I didn’t know talent scouts didn’t roam the streets of rural Missouri towns. I spent the 1970s, assured that I’d find my way to Broadway one day.
In 1978, my country and Broadway music obsessions merged, when Olivia played the role of Sandy in the film adaptation of Grease. I wanted to wear my dad’s letterman’s sweater with turtlenecks and saddle shoes and pull my hair into a long curled ponytail wrapped in a scarf for school each day, and I did. I didn’t really care what kids thought of my 1950s wardrobe, I thought it was cool. My mom and Grandma always supported my creative endeavors, by sewing skirts and dresses to encourage my hopeless devotion to my various music-inspired personas throughout elementary school.
No other album before or since has provided the intensely thrilling sensation that the ten tracks of the Xanadu soundtrack elicited in this 11-year-old superfan of Olivia Newton-John in 1980. Olivia’s single “Magic” was released during the week of my eleventh birthday, which I, of course, found not at all coincidental, but rather, purely magical. I was absolutely enchanted, wholeheartedly believing in the magic of those lyrics. Every word of that song resonated with truth and kept me dreaming about finding my place in the entertainment world. We have to believe we are magic, nothing can stand in our way.
I’d become a fan of Electric Light Orchestra’s music during weekend visits to the local roller rink, so the concept of a film that would feature the music of my favorite band of the time and the music of Olivia, as the lead character in the film was so intriguing that I wished my summer between fifth and sixth grade away, in anticipation of the film’s opening day. Three other singles, “I’m Alive” and “All Over the World” both by Electric Light Orchestra, and the title track, a collaboration from both artists, were all released throughout the summer in advance of the film. The film finally hit screens across the country on August 8, 1980. My mom, brother, and I made a trip to Kansas City to see it, and that three-hour car ride to the city felt like days. We went to the theater in a lovely district of Kansas City, designed to replicate Seville, Spain with dozens of gorgeous fountains and sculptures in addition to about 15 blocks of shops and restaurants housed in Spanish-inspired architecture. It is genuinely a beautiful, romantic space. There could not have been a more inspiring setting in my home state for me to see Xanadu for the first time.
Xanadu did not disappoint, not me, anyway. The critics, however, had a very different opinion of this musical love story on roller skates that includes disco and big band music, Disney-esque animation, Greek mythology, and 18th-century poetry, set in 1980s Los Angeles. The amazingly-high-tech-for-its-time special effects brought the nine Muses to life from a mural on the Venice Beach Boardwalk within minutes of the film’s opening. This is where we first see Kira, the roller-skating muse, one of the nine daughters of Zeus, played by Olivia Newton-John. Her sisters are a multi-racial ensemble of goddesses, a boldly inspiring cinematic interpretation in 1980. After witnessing Xanadu, I had to update my skating wardrobe to emulate my new screen heroine, by adorning my white roller skates with leg warmers. I also wore frilly peasant blouses and flowing prairie skirts of pastel floral prints to the roller rink. I hung nine (one for each of the muses) of my grandma’s scarves from an elastic belt around my waist, and wrapped shoulder-length strands of ribbon around my hair barrettes, in an effort to replicate the muses’ attire as I floated around the rink floor at Topp Cats. Yep, I really did that. Watching this video today, I can recall the magically inspiring energy of Xanadu coursing through my body, and the muscle memory in the pivot of my feet as I skated to “I’m Alive”.
After coming to life in the first few minutes of the film, Olivia as Kira, roller skates up and down the city’s coast from Zuma Beach in Malibu to the Boardwalk in Venice to bring two music-loving, but disgruntled-by-the-industry, individuals together to convert the once illustrious, but then decaying architectural icon, the Pan Pacific Auditorium, into a roller-disco-meets-big-band-nightclub. Once she brings the two men together at the venue, she recites Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1797 poem about Kubla Khan’s palace in ancient China to the two dreamers, and magically, Xanadu is rebuilt in Southern California. This scene is followed by a series of musical numbers featuring Olivia dancing alongside the delightfully unmatched genius of none other than Gene Kelly, reprising his portrayal of Danny McGuire from his 1944 film Cover Girl. Until Xanadu, nearly all of my favorite films and Broadway musicals had depicted New York’s entertainment industry and NYC itself–Funny Girl, The Goodbye Girl, Mahogany, Annie, The Wiz, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Xanadu was my first glimpse of the city of Los Angeles, and I was enamored. All this, along with the breathtaking backdrops of the beach and the palm trees and the gorgeous art-deco architecture of Los Angeles, was Xanadu. For a dreamy, pre-teen farmer’s daughter who has lived inside her fantasy of working in the entertainment business since she could walk and talk, I was spellbound. From the moment I saw the opening scene with Gene Kelly playing his clarinet on those majestic red rocks at Zuma Beach, my fascination for NY was magically transported to LA. About a month after seeing Xanadu for the first time, I was required to select an instrument to play in the sixth-grade band. I chose the clarinet because of Gene Kelly’s character.
In June of 1987, I sat on the same stunning red rocks to witness the sun melt into the Pacific for the very first time. It seemed as if I were watching a magic show of the grandest scale. My body trembled in response to the overwhelming sight and sound and smell and feel of the experience. I wrote in my journal that night: “Oh, to think that people live here in this place where they can experience such beauty every day!” It was completely unplanned, my friend had taken me to watch the sunset at Point Dume, having no knowledge of my pre-teen obsession with Xanadu. Since that moment, Zuma Beach has been my place of zen, the most peaceful place on the planet for me. I try to return to that spot whenever I visit Los Angeles. When I am there, like Danny McGuire, I am young again, restored by the memories and the music of my past and renewed by the excitement and anticipation of my life ahead of me.
Throughout the 1990s, my twenties, I attempted three romantic relationships, one resulting in an eight-year marriage. I have a whole list of B-17s for those bittersweet memories, if you know what I mean. In 1999, I went to great lengths to find a copy of Olivia’s 1976 Don’t Stop Believin’ album on CD, so that I could include the track “New Born Babe” on a mixtape I named Beautiful. It was a series of sweet songs to ease my newborn daughter to slumber on road trips to visit her dad on tour with various bands. Hearing that album for the first time in two decades, I found myself identifying with nearly all of the other tracks from that album, most that I’d long forgotten, that had held little value to me as a seven-year-old, presented a vocal illustration of the state of my life in the early 2000s. I listened to that album for comfort when the end of my marriage came to pass in 2003.
In 2006. A friend from my college years who shared my deep admiration for Olivia invited me not only to attend Olivia’s performance at the University of Missouri but also to meet her during her Grace and Gratitude tour. I don’t remember if the meeting was before or after her performance. What I do remember, is that it was one of those rare and unforgettable moments when I was mentally preparing to be face to face with a childhood idol and worried that they might be ego-maniacal and off-putting and would crush my childhood dreams. Olivia was incredibly gracious, more lovely than I could ever have hoped she would be. She signed my 1973 Let Me Be There album cover and my 1978 Grease poster. She was so kind in fact, that when I presented her with a drawing from my seven-year-old with a note that read “We love you, Olivia Newton-John,” she got a little teary-eyed and explained that she could not accept it. She said she too had just one little girl who was all grown up now, and that one day when my little girl was all grown up I would treasure this note far more than she ever could. I placed the note inside the album cover and never told my daughter the story because I knew at the time that she would be sad that Olivia had not accepted her gift. I framed the autographed album cover shortly after that evening. Recently, I took it down and I discovered that note. Olivia was exactly right, I told my grown-up daughter the story of Olivia’s grace as we listened to Let Me Be There together. There is something truly, deeply magical about hearing the crackles and skips in the exact same places where they were when I listened to that beloved record 49 years ago.
I’m sad today, it’s really the first day I’ve had a chance to process this sadness. I’ve been sad since August 8, when like magic, she crossed into the ethereal realm on the date of the 42nd anniversary of the release of Xanadu. I just happened to be taking my daughter to a concert in Kansas City that night, and after the concert, my daughter and I drove past that theater where my mom had taken me in 1980. It is also now just a relic of the past, the marquee is blank, like the one on the Pan Pacific in Xanadu. Olivia is Magic. I can’t explain it. I just spent a couple of hours trying my best to find the words, but I can’t. I thought maybe if I wrote this today while listening to my pile of Olivia records, It’d be ok to grieve the loss of someone who said “let me be there” to me when I was a little country girl with big dreams, and I took her at her word. If you are reading this, odds are you’ve also found yourself feeling sad about the loss of Olivia Newton-John because her music and her humanity mattered in your life too. I know she will always be there with me, her music, her magic, her grace and gratitude.
I’ve compiled my favorite tracks from her 1970s country LPs and of course her Xanadu tracks in the playlist below 💫