So, here I am, going through my notes to write about our sailing trip, but then I realize, this blog has to be about Olivia. She passed away two days ago, at age 73 from cancer, and for those two days I’ve been listening to her music nonstop, remembering her songs, her voice, and what she meant to me. I better get these reflections down.
First, before you read on, you MUST stop. Go to spotify, and find this list. Start playing (any song will do) and then please continue reading.
My love affair with Olivia started when I was four years old. While my parents were at work that summer, my babysitter let us watch HBO all day long and Grease seemed to be on repeat. All the kids at the babysitter’s house loved it. I was so young I didn’t understand that the transformed Olivia at the end of the movie was also the poodle-skirt wearing innocent girl at the beginning of the movie. In my mind, Olivia was the one in the black leather outfit, dancing at the carnival and driving off into the sky. That other girl at the beginning of the movie was cute, but I loved Olivia.
Not long after, my mom spotted the Grease record album at a garage sale, and suddenly I was the owner of a full-color, folding out double record album, complete with all the photos from the whole movie. I learned all the songs by heart, playing them over and over. For years. Then, in grade school, I learned something even more exciting—Olivia made other records! I began collecting them, using my allowance to buy one at a time at the record store at the mall. By middle school I had quite the collection: Totally Hot, Soul Kiss, Come on Over, Making a Good Thing Better, Olivia’s Greatest Hits Volume II, Let Me Be There, and of course, Grease.
Being an Olivia fan didn’t do me any favors socially. Most girls were listening to The Bangles and Tiffany and Whitney Houston. Luckily my best friend, Adina, was a fan. I remember us spending hours in my room, swapping out records, album covers all over the carpet (remember when albums came with written lyrics?) and debating about what our favorite Olivia song was. We also kept tabs on Olivia’s life, and were praying that she and John Travolta would end up together in real life. I remember we were in the grocery store when we saw a headline stating that Olivia had married Matt Lazzari—someone else! We were sort of devastated for a while.
But then, they got divorced, and we found out Olivia and John Travolta were making another film! Yes! Two of a Kind came out, and despite their brilliant performance and an awesome song, they never fell in love. We became obsessed with the movie though, and I even learned the song on the piano. Yes, I was a very cool kid.
My coolness continued in fourth grade, when every Friday a different student was chosen to bring his or her favorite record to play for the class. How I agonized over the decision of which two songs would help my classmates learn to love Olivia. I chose “Deeper than the Night” and “Please don’t keep me waiting” from her album Totally Hot, and my mom kindly typed up the lyrics and made copies. I proudly distributed the lyrics to my classmates, dropped the needle on the record, and waited for them to experience the beauty. As Olivia started singing, I noticed they weren’t singing along. “You have the lyrics in front of you—you can sing with her!” Several kids sang a few bars but after I played the second song the teacher sighed and said, “Ok, we can do recess early today.” I didn’t understand how they could miss the magic of Olivia.
My friend Adina eventually moved on to other musicians, and for a few years we had heated debates about who would be the more successful singer: Olivia or Madonna. Um, I think you were right, Adina.
And then, there were the concerts. When I was younger it didn’t even cross my mind that I could see Olivia live. But I got my first glimpse of her in 1998—it felt like a magic trick. I was driving home from my first job out of college, and I heard the radio DJ say that Olivia was performing a free show at 6pm at the rollercoaster on the beach. Tonight! Unbelievable!! I raced home, grabbed my roommate Maggie, and we rode our bikes down to the boardwalk. There she was, across the crowd, singing her fan favorites. I was breathing the same air as Olivia! It was one of the best moments ever.
After that I kept an eye out for a real show. The following year she played at Humphrey’s by the Bay, a small, intimate venue. The show sold out and I didn’t know what to do, until I found a guy on Craigslist selling his extra ticket. I called him and he agreed to meet me outside the show. It was a little awkward as I told him, “My boyfriend didn’t want to go—thanks for the ticket.” He said, “My boyfriend wouldn’t come either!” That’s when I saw that the crowd was pretty much all gay men, who, by the way, are the BEST guys you ever want to watch an Olivia concert with. Me and the boys stood up the whole show, singing along to every song—no shame, all love!
The next time I saw Olivia, I remembered that an audience member had brought her flowers and they let him on stage to give it to her, so I came armed with a bouquet. This was probably my favorite concert ever, because I went with Adina. There we were, twenty years later, at a winery venue in Saratoga, singing along to Olivia just like when we were kids. And yes, I walked down the center aisle with my bouquet and the security guards let me hand it to Olivia, and she said, “Thank you, they are lovely. You are so sweet.” So basically, I talked to Olivia.
It took me a good forty years, but I finally became Olivia, at least for one night on Halloween. It was probably my best costume ever.
Another thing I didn’t expect—the day she died, I got so many messages from friends and family, letting me know they were sorry to hear she passed, and that they were thinking of me. Some of the texts were from friends I hadn’t talked to in years. This was very sweet.
My dear Olivia, I’m full of love and gratitude for your beautiful voice, your lovely songs, and all the memories that were enriched by your music playing in the background of my life. And at this moment, I am imagining you arriving to Xanadu, where
“A million lights are dancing and there you are, a shooting star
An everlasting world and you’re here with me, eternally.”
I love you, Olivia!