The Bell Tolls For Olivia And For Me

by Kevin Burton

   There is a picture of Olivia Newton-John that haunts me.

   The picture is of her at the end of “Grease,” her character Sandy riding in the car with Danny, John Travolta’s character.  She turns around and waves at the camera as they ride off into the high school and movie sunset, as the song “We Go Together” plays.

   I rented that movie a lot in my college days. And Olivia waving froze me in my tracks every time. Why?

   The cast sings “We’ll al-ways be to-ge-ther…” and I am thinking, “no, actually you won’t.” High school ends and it is never the same.

   She was the picture of youth then. That ends too.

   Newton-John died yesterday of breast cancer at the age of 73. She died peacefully at her ranch in Southern California, surrounded by family.

   So now I imagine Olivia waving all over again. That first wave made me wistful. The second wave? Well that one is still hitting me. Give it time.

   Grease was the word in 1978.  It was box office gold, cultural catnip, 50 shades of cool. 

  You could not escape it. Most of us didn’t want to. Everybody liked the movie, everybody loved the songs and tried to sing them.

   “In the United States and globally, it became the highest-grossing musical ever at the time, eclipsing the 13-year-old record held by The Sound of Music, with a worldwide gross of $341 million,” according to Wikipedia.

   And we already had a history with Olivia before the Grease thing swept.  “If Not For You,” which was written by Bob Dylan, “Let Me Be There” and “If You Love Me Let Me Know.”

  Then came back-to back number ones, “I Honestly Love You,” which I didn’t care for,and “Have You Never Been Mellow” which I liked a lot. 

  Then came “Please Mr. Please” and some other good ones, including “Sam” a favorite of mine in three-quarter time.

  The Grease songs weighed in at number one. “You’re the One That I Want” three “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and five “Summer Nights.”

    If you’re tracking the trajectory of Sandy from Grease, Newton-John’s 1981 smash “Physical” is the logical extrapolation. The song spent ten weeks at number one. But that’s not my go-to snapshot of Olivia.

   The last time I “ran into” Newton-John, Jeannette and I were on our honeymoon in London.  She was being interviewed on the tele there. Don’t remember anything she said now.  She was older then but still energetic, telegenic.

   Once years before that, I was at a karaoke bar in Alaska and some woman launched into Have You Never Been Mellow.  I thought she was doing fine, but in the middle of the song she walked over to me and handed me the microphone. That’s the only time that has ever happened to me.

   Another Olivia moment.

   To make my world and that of Olivia Newton-John collide, requires a television, a movie ticket or a record player.  If I ever got within 100 miles of her, I never knew it.

   But some of these stars, ever-present, front and center, the ones singing lead on the soundtrack of your life, they can not leave this terrestrial ball without taking some little part of you with them.

   I was scrolling through tributes yesterday and that waving Olivia picture from Grease accompanied the New York Times piece about her.  I’m still transfixed.

   “My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better,” wrote her Grease co-star Travolta on Instagram. “Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road and we will all be together again. Yours from the first moment I saw you and forever. Your Danny, your John.”

    I heard the bell toll yesterday. I hear it with increasing frequency on the soundtrack of my life. On advice from John Donne, I didn’t ask any questions. 

   Given what I have learned about life, death and the afterlife, that “always be together” line, reprised in Travolta’s Instagram, is even more dodgy than it was in 1978.

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