On August 8, 2022, entertainer Olivia Newton-John lost her battle with cancer. Rather, on August 8, 2022, Olivia Newton-John’s battle with cancer resulted in a draw.
To say the Australian-born entertainer was prolific, life-changing even, is to put it mildly.
When Newton-John was catapulted into America’s collective conscious in 1978, playing Sandy in “Grease,” she’d already released 11 albums. She would go on to release 26 studio albums and six live albums in total. In addition to “Grease,” she appeared in 14 films, including 1980’s “Xanadu,” as well as a number of television shows and specials.
She won Grammys, People’s Choice Awards, Academy of Country Music Awards, and American Music Awards. She once had seven songs top the adult contemporary charts consecutively. Alas, as with most fame, hers proved to have a shelf life and her star began to fade in the late ‘80s, at which point she began to focus more on environmental advocacy and breast cancer, which she had initially beaten
The disease would reappear two more times after her initial bout, in 2013 and 2017, the latter of which metastasized and spread to her lower back. Newton-John leaves behind a daughter, Chloe, with whom she recorded “Window in the Wall” which hit number one on the iTunes pop chart in 2021. Her final film appearance was “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” alongside Paul Hogan and Chevy Chase, which did not do as well.
The albums, movies, and accolades are not what I’ll remember her for, though. Instead, my memories of her primarily revolve around a singular January night in 1983, though that night has led to many more.
When Olivia Newton-John catapulted into my conscious, I had presumably seen “Grease,” though as I was only two and a half when it was released, I cannot be sure. I can assuredly say that I have seen the movie many, many times since. I have seen it far more times than I have wanted to. At one point, I bought my wife both “Grease” and “Grease 2” on DVD with the premise being, “I bought these so you can watch them whenever, with ‘whenever’ being defined as when I’m not watching with you.”
Nothing against “Grease” or Sandy, but I’m not big on musicals unless we’re talking “The Blues Brothers.” What I am a fan of is music, and at some point in my young life, I heard a song that wholly captured my attention — Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical.”
While I was too innocent then to understand the actual theme of the song, thinking it was simply about exercise as the video showed, I was so rapt with her that I convinced my mother to let me stay up and watch her 1983 HBO special. I remember waiting for the performance of that smash hit, which wouldn’t arrive until track 17 of the 18-song setlist, which also meant I got to stay up even later.
Finally, it arrived and I was treated to the woman performing my favorite song live and on stage. It was as if she were performing for me. It planted a seed that grows to this day. I’ve gone to see James Brown, David Lee Roth, the Grateful Dead, Parliament, Cypress Hill, Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys, and Beck, just to name a few.
Once live shows started returning after our disastrous Covid response, going to see them has been a priority, particularly for artists who might hang it up soon, which is why I’ve gone to see Bobby Weir & Wolf Brothers, Dead & Company, and Willie Nelson just this year. Run the Jewels are on the ascent, but they were just a few miles from home, so I went to see them, too.
Regrettably, though, I never saw Olivia Newton-John get physical in person. Now, I never will. Instead, I’ll forever have to live with the memory of that HBO special, watched so many years ago.
But I still have her to thank for the inspiration she offered me back when I was a young man, unaware of what so attracted me to her performance. Thanks for introducing me to the magic of live music and rest in peace.