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Friday, December 1, 2023

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Arts + CultureMusicSpeaking to Olivia

Speaking to Olivia

She'll always be remembered for her music and beauty, but Olivia Newton-John also welcomed questions about grief and loss

Admittedly, it wasn’t until 2016 when I belatedly became a fan of the beloved woman with a cherubic voice and smile, Olivia Newton-John. A few weeks prior to the Australian singer-songwriter’s arrival in the Bay Area to perform a show featuring LIV ON, her latest CD, created with singer-songwriter Amy Sky and Songwriter’s Hall of Fame member Beth Nielsen Chapman, we spoke only briefly about her music career. The bulk of our conversation was not about the 100 million albums sold and nearly 40 entries on the Billboard Hot 100 including five No. 1 hits that catapulted her to the top of pop and country music charts. Nor did we speak about the splash she made with her appearance in Grease, the 1978 film adaptation of the Broadway musical that starred Newton-John and John Travolta.

Instead, we talked almost exclusively about Newton-John’s breast cancer, first diagnosed in 1992, and the opening in 2012 of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in her hometown of Melbourne, Australia. The center offers cancer treatment, education, research, training, and a dedicated wellness center. At the time of our conversation, I asked Newton-John what next steps to her would signify success in the fight for improved awareness, treatment and cancer care. Ever the optimist, she said, “It’s happening already. The beginning of immunology used to fight cancer. The use of cells in the self to fight cancer: it’s my hope that I’ll see cancer eradicated in my lifetime.”

Which makes the Monday’s news of her death at age 73 hauntingly tragic. She passed five years after announcing in 2017 the breast cancer had returned and eventually metastasized to the sacrum. 

In breaking news reports on television and social media, expressions of admiration poured in from colleagues in the music and film industries, family, friends, fans of her music and people aware of the cancer center and many other humanitarian organizations and activities she supported—children’s literacy, animal welfare, environmental protection and others. They spoke, as people do after someone dies, but not usually in such volume and with unwavering certainty, of her graceful heart, her don’t-look-back, no-regrets attitude, and the intelligence and strength with which she directed her five-decade career.

Image via www.olivianewton-john.com

I thought of how she could have been inflated with ego or impatient when speaking to me and conducting what surely was a zillionth interview. Instead, she was warm, intimate, more mellow than the “mellow” in one of her greatest hits. I remember she referred to her collaborators on the new CD as “girlfriends” and “sisters” and made me feel like I was held in the same regard.

So I was comfortable enough to ask her what period in her life she would like to return to for a do-over. “I don’t think about going backwards. But maybe my teenage years. I’d visit my grandfather,” she said.

Her grandfather was Max Born, the Nobel-prize-winning physicist and one of the founders of quantum physics. A Jew in Germany during the early 20th century, he left the country when the Nazis came to power, became a British subject, and eventually taught at the University of Edinburgh for two decades. Newton-John said her teen years were a time when she was touring a lot and didn’t have time to spend with him. “I’d like to go back to those years to visit with him more,” she said.

The songwriting she did for the LIV ON album, she told me, gave her an outlet for expressing the “many layers of grief and their commonality.” She and other people suffering a cancer diagnosis or other kinds of loss stop talking about the pain, primarily because their friends and family get tired of it. “A friend of mine who lost a child went back to work one week later and she was told to get over it. I didn’t understand how people could lack compassion. It gave me impetus to start a conversation. When you do it with music, people share, they get opened up. Music goes straight to the heart of people. Creativity is a great way of healing.”

And so it is that the remedy for when a star such as Newton-John ceases to shine is to slap an LP on the turntable, or spend an afternoon—or days—watching YouTube videos and streaming Grease. Check out “Stone in My Pocket” a song on LIV ON Newton-John told me “was written in honor of a friend who said her grief was like a brick she was dragging around after her father had died.” Afterwards, collect a pile of stones—or bricks— and build a small temple in memory of Newton-John, a person of enormous talent and an even larger heart for humanity.

When you walk away, don’t look back. Whistle a tune and move to the next horizon. It’s what she would want us to do.

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