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Clear Inspiration: Olivia Newton-John Remembered

Being such a new wave '80s fan, I sometimes tend to downplay the influence of the soft ballads of the '70s, which I sang along to as a child and a tween. Sometimes I relegate them to a guilty pleasure in my mind, and I assumed a lot of too-cool post-punkers did, too.

Not until the passing of Olivia Newton-John did I realize how many of us--even some of the coolest core new wavers I know--are gushing about how much they loved this woman. She had a once-in-a-century kind of breathy, ethereal voice, one that's very difficult to imitate. And one that could mesmerize the snidest of us. She was one of the reaons I wanted to sing, one of the first voices I tried to emulate. And she made possible one of the first moments where I realized that shrimpy little me might be able to actually connect with an audience. Here's my story.

When I was 12, I wanted to be Olivia Newton-John. I had asked my mother for voice lessons, but she literally laughed at me, because you know, that was something that only rich people's kids did, and we were lucky we could afford shoes. Not that my parents weren't supportive. It was more that we knew our lot in life. So that was disheartening. And I was tiny and geeky and having a hard time that year, so that didn't help.

But I sang everywhere I went anyway, and I went to day camp that summer. My good buddy Caryn from group G-8 asked me to sing for her on a regular basis, because she said I sounded good. So one day I when I went over Caryn's house, she grabbed a tape recorder, and she said, "Come with me, I want to record you."

So we went down to the corner of her street and we sat on the curb, just the two of us, and she turned on the tape recorder. And I sang this beautiful little folksy song by Olivia Newton-John called "Sail Into Tomorrow," which I just adored.

And as we sat there, people who were walking by from the neighborhood--just people walking their dogs, kids riding their bikes and stuff, a couple power-walking--actually stopped and came to the curb and stood there to listen to me.

And I'm getting choked up now because this was a special moment for me. Because by the time I was done with that number and my favorite Barbra Streisand song from the A Star is Born album, there were several people of all different ages from her neighborhood standing in a half-circle around us at the curb, listening to tiny 12-year-old me, all of 4-foot-10, scrawny piece-of-nothing with the ugly too-short pixie haircut.

And Caryn said, "You see!"

Thank you, Olivia (and Barbra, too). And thanks for the autographed 5x7 you sent me in response to my fan letter in the seventies. It meant a lot to me.

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