Oil Of Olivia

Basking in the glow of Newton-John

Olivia Newton-John will uncork her purty li'l pipes this weekend at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and I admit of my own free will that this doesn't gross me out. Today, hordes of teenage girls all gussied-up like Times Square trollops shake their down-kissed little peaches in our collective face, flashing "come hither and I shall teabag thee exquisitely" looks at the camera, all the while singing 25 torturous notes per syllable in between tongue-cramping salivary exchanges with sun-dried crones desperate to retain their questionable past allure. Perhaps with encroaching age, my libido has gone the way of my hairline, but all this stage-managed, pedo-pandering corporate erotica fails to induce so much as a respectable semi in grandpa's musty old shorts.

Newton-John comes from an era that now seems positively exotic in its simplicity and innocence. The early '70s was the last hurrah for the virginal, Sweet Polly Purebread female vocalist whose material championed a sort of chaste, idyllic romance that never really existed, a tradition dating back to the dawn of recorded music and June-moon-crooners along the lines of Ada Jones. That doesn't mean Newton-John didn't have pubescent yogurt cannons erupting like Mount St. Helens during her own time—and a marvelous achievement that was, generating sexual heat among a generation forced to endure daily the sight of Richard Nixon's face. But in the Newton-John method, lust was never more than implied and base desires went unspoken—a wonderful, winking flirt. To me, this veiled approach to prurience was a lot more exciting than today's smut-chic: just as Hitchcock could frighten you into spasming turtleheads by merely suggesting the vile designs of a necrophilic psycho, so could Newton-John incite vigorous bouts of palm-love by the oblique but implicit notion of what was in those panties.

Newton-John was already a bit of an anachronism when she first surfaced in 1971. Livvy had been part of a failed, Monkees-like, Don Kirshner-orchestrated girl group called Toomorrow before her self-titled debut album was released. In this, the golden era of the self-absorbed female singer/songwriter, Newton-John, with her comely, girl-next-door looks, restrained delivery and proper Australian accent, came off more like a young Marianne Faithfull than a world-weary Carole King. She tastefully, thoughtfully covered such substantial material as Dylan's "If Not for You," Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night" and Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind," but delivered them with such breathy femininity that all nuances of verschmelz inherent in the lyrics melted away in the face of her appealing, girlish keen.

Follow-ups became, in some cases, more Rondstadtian, as was the fashion of the day. Vaguely rural-sounding tunes such as "Let Me Be There" and "If You Love Me Let Me Know" stormed both the country and pop charts, while more lightweight fare such as "Have You Never Been Mellow" and "I Honestly Love You" continued the earlier suggestion of hushed Utopian lovey-boo-boo. Newton-John's odd success in the country field—she won a Best Country Vocal Performance Grammy as well as Top New Female Vocalist and Female Vocalist of the Year awards from the County Music Association (CMA) in the mid-'70s—produced a nawsty backlash, as several members of the CMA quit the organization in protest over Newtie's triumph. I felt bad for her about it: Newton-John's early records were certainly no less "authentic" than anything being released by such contemporary "country" singers as Kenny Rogers, Glen Campbell or Ronnie Milsap, and they were absolutely enjoyable as pure pop fluff—yep, a guilty pleasure-o-roonie. There seemed an ugly bit of xenophobia and sexism about all the Liv-bashing: she wasn't Amur-kin and didn't possess a weenus; hence, she must be less country than a real live hillbilly songster like . . . Kenny Rogers?!?

Now, I'm not going to defend Newton-John as a formidable vocal talent or even an exceptional song interpreter, but her early output was clearly less offensive than most of the dreck topping the pop and country charts in the mid-'70s, and she'd carved out her own undeniable niche as the Whitebread Princess of country pop. Newton-John exuded a quiet sex appeal, earnestness and simplicity. Because of that no-bullshit approach, her hits of the era sound far less ridiculous today then anything unleashed by such famous Studio 54 types as Cher and Diana Ross.

Then, silly Newtie, she went and flushed it all down the loo. By the late '70s, our tenderhearted maiden abruptly transformed into just the sort of garish tart she'd been the blessed antithesis of mere months earlier. I never saw Grease because I couldn't bear to watch this chaste, secret heartthrob of my late pubescence affect leather-jacketed '50s tuff-chick shtick. Even a cursory glance at the hype for Xanadu made one run for the relative comfort of something more substantive and tasteful—like, say, an episode of Welcome Back Kotter or Alice. Then came that unfortunate "Physical" deal, wherein an already-aging Olivia donned the ultimate fashion atrocities of the day—leg warmers and headband—and commenced to writhe about shamelessly for the camera to an excruciating Disco Lite beat. By the mid-'80s, predictably and as a direct result of having sold her soul, her career had become snigger-worthy burned toast. I've always maintained that had she stayed the original course of grace, Liv might have eased with poise into middle age and a lengthier, more esteemed career.

In the meantime:

•Aside from a wrinkle here and there, the woman actually remains quite fetching.

•She has become a health and environmental activist, which pleases me greatly.

•She survived breast cancer about a decade ago, which also pleases me greatly.

•For her most recent album, Newton-John re-recorded a brace of her early, pre-Grease hits and did a splendid job of it, although I fail to see the point in such a rehash.

•Despite those misgivings, it seems she retains enough juice to command a $130 ticket price. Say what?

Nope, I never did buy an Olivia Newton-John record, and truth be told, I'm sure I never will. But I'll forever have fond memories of a time when the sweet murmur of her voice wafting from the AM radio could make a teenaged boy believe that there was a pure and absolute love awaiting somewhere over the horizon.

Olivia Newton-John performs at The Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. $30-$135. All Ages.
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