My first concert was Olivia Newton-John during her Physical tour. It was 1982 and I was 11. I remember exactly what I wore, because it would be snazzy today after many years of it being an utterly shameful outfit: a navy blue knicker jumpsuit with gold piping and epaulets. With wedge heels? Lookout. I felt like a dork. I was a dork.
My best friend and I were determined to get tickets, so we sat on the Ticketron telephone line all day, dialing and redialing the rotary until we didn’t hear a busy signal. Because my mom was a divorcee and a little cooler to be seen with than my friend’s mom, the cafeteria lunch lady, she had to accompany us, but that made dancing in the aisle to “Totally Hot” a memory I hope was buried in her lifetime of more important shit to worry about. We danced to “Physical” in the Summit, which was where the Houston Rockets played then and is now Joel Osteen’s megachurch. Olivia Newton-John was arena rock.
My friend Camille and I were competitive in our love for Olivia, so we bought her entire catalog of LPs and memorized every song, trying to one up each other on lyrical knowledge. This is the only time I can remember having been competitive at anything. I was downright territorial. Only I truly knew Olivia. She was my idol, and nobody loved her more. On Halloween, in the fourth grade, I remember Camille walking out of the gym looking just like Olivia in the end scene in Grease with the satin pants and off the shoulder shirt. Her hair was curled—and I swear it was frosted like Olivia’s at the end of the movie—in the exact same way. Camille looked more like her than I did. I was seething with jealousy. Her mom—no, surely a team of professionals—must have helped her with that costume. Fucking hated her. Still do. If I saw her in the street, I’d kill her.
There were failures: I happened upon an album I had never seen but assumed was Olivia’s, and likely from Australia. I didn’t know the term “import” in 1979, so I bought Sounds Like Olivia Newton-John. In my head, I interpreted the title as something along the lines of, “Hey! Sounds like we got Olivia Newton-John in the house.” Wrong. It was an album of Olivia Newton-John songs performed by a group called Mirror Image.
I thought numbers would help, like an ONJ Army. I tried unsuccessfully to get a Black girl into Olivia, but I did convert a Jehovah's Witness to fandom. The problem was, when people became fans, I got competitive. I succeeded in creating a group of people I had to outdo. (Not the Black girl—she wanted to get me into Denise Williams.) I misunderstood lyrics. In Let Me Be There, I thought the lyric was “let me take you to that wonderland that only toucan share,” the thought being that toucans belonged in wonderlands. I just accepted it. There were no lyric sheets. When I belted it, my best friend and the Jehovah’s Witness both laughed. Big mistake. Never sing with confidence in front of people who want you to fail. I was embarrassed and consumed with anger. I couldn’t leave because they would talk about me. I couldn’t stay, because I hated myself. The lyric is “two can.” I was the underdog.
But I won. My mom went to Bora Bora on vacation and met a count or something with ties to Olivia, which is weird that she would come up in conversation when my mom wanted to ditch her kids for the tropics. A few weeks after my mom returned, and one night after a sleepover with my friend, during which we had discussed fantasies of meeting ONJ, I received a manila envelope addressed to me, and from it I pulled out an autographed 8x10 glossy of Olivia barefoot on the beach with a headband circling her shag haircut. Her beachy clothing was caught in the wind and she looked serenely at the sand. It said: To Shannon Love, Olivia. And there was an O with an X in the middle of it—sometimes, no lie, I’ll still put that under my signature. It looks a little like Zodiac’s symbol turned on its side.
The summer between eighth and ninth grade, my mom got married and we moved and I needed to get a new identity and I was angry and didn’t know why, but it had nothing to do with Olivia. I turned my back on her, betrayed her for punk rock. Really, it was just easier to fit in with the shitty kids. I still hung out in the Galleria Mall but in different parts. In the late ’80s, I’d pass Olivia’s store, Koala Blue, full of boutique Australian-inspired loungewear (whatever that is), and want to go in, but there was nothing there for me. There was no black.
One day, my neighbor, who looked like a boy Syd Vicious with the chain and padlock around his neck, was hanging out in my cool-ass teenage bedroom. I don’t know what had happened to all my Olivia LPs, but I had hung on to the autograph, which this punk kid found and waved in my face. I grabbed it, and to prove how punk I was, ripped it in pieces. I haven’t forgiven myself. If that guy had Olivia’s autograph, he would have displayed it proudly and ironically, but I was weak, I didn’t say, “Fuck yeah, I know every word to ‘The Dolphin Song’! Eat me, prick.” Even better, “Now we’re going to listen to my Olivia albums. Take that Misfits shit off.” That would have been the punk thing to do.
I was a hopeless devotee, and have only shared my love for Olivia in recent years with my closest friend in NYC, who bought me a ticket to see ONJ’s Montclair, New Jersey show in 2016. Many old ladies with their husbands on date night, gay men (my friend among them), and I were in the audience, and it was packed. The soft sway of white people to “Sam” and “Please, Mr., Please” probably looked like a wheatfield from her perspective. I held up my phone, took video, and messengered it through Facebook to my childhood best friend. I may have been sticking it to her in my nostalgic message. About a year later, she posted video of her at an Olivia concert on the same tour. Feeling a twinge of jealousy and competition, I withheld my “like.” I got there first, but she probably had a better time.
Godspeed, Livvy—her nickname for those in the know. For others out there who were religiously faithful and possessive about her, I am not your competition. We are one for real this time.