Then, foolishly, I waited and hoped, but Olivia Newton-John, the Australian goddess of song, did not write me back. Not even a mass-produced, machine autographed headshot. Nothing. The brutal, unrequited void.
When I was seven years old things got so musically out of hand I was forbidden to play the Carpenters when other family members were present in the home. “The Singles 1969-1973” was my very first record. It had an all-brown cover with an embossed logo you could lovingly run your fingers over. There was an air-brushed picture of Karen Carpenter where her hair is so strongly backlit she is approaching full solar eclipse. On an inside lyrics pullout there were, alas, only two pictures, but you could enjoy them in endless alternation. There was a picture of her in a car with her brother and then another one on a little wooden bridge where she is smiling softly, demurely at someone.
It was my first album and I was on top of the world. I loved that album completely, utterly, purely. I played it endlessly, in a looping continuum that would humble the most diligent iPod. Endless days of “They Long to Be (Close to You)” finally drove my mother to the breaking point and the edict came down.
To be fair, there was an earlier rumbling of trouble. We were visiting a family friend’s house and their teenage son had a copy of the same Carpenters album in his record stack along with much cooler rock stuff like Peter Frampton and Elton John (let’s not argue about it) and before I looked-both-ways I blurted out that I, too, loved the Carpenters and that I have this exact same album and play it all the time. Really, all the time. I needed him to know I meant business.
That little paroxysm of joy didn’t last long. It wasn’t his album. It was his sister’s. He immediately let me know he hated the Carpenters and that they sucked shit. Everyone laughed in a not nice way.
I don’t know if I came to Karen’s defense or just took it, but I realized that day that the world was a bit hostile to my little corner of happiness, and it was at least partly Karen’s fault. By the time the No More Carpenters Edict was announced chez moi, I was more than a little ashamed of her and the super-soft feelings she brought in tow. My musical skin had started to thicken and in time I knew what sucked shit, too. Keenly. And, of course, now there’s no going home again – even if I wanted to.
But there was a rebound romance.
It was with Olivia Newton-John – ONJ, as one of her albums was titled. Please, Mr. Please. Don’t play B17. She was totally different. She was no Karen Carpenter that everybody hated and made you feel stupid hanging out with and just go away will you. I don’t like you anymore. Get out of here. I mean it. Go!
But even with Olivia there were problems, although they weren’t of the musical variety. If I had secretly resented Karen Carpenter’s do nothing “arranger producer” brother – whatever that worthless job was (he certainly didn’t deserve to be in the pictures with her or to make the Carpenters plural, the Intruder) then I knew from ONJ’s album thank you notes that there was going to be trouble in Olivia Land too. In her liner notes, she mentioned somebody named Farrell or Farley or Ferret, her “manager” – Bastard! – with all kinds of verbal gush that even an 8 year old rival could divine was not good. Still, she was 26 at the time and single which was at least technically promising. The projected-age calculus to get me to 16 and within marriage striking range in at least some states was discouraging, but not impossible.
I was a romantic.
The fact is, for a while there, other than the fact that I didn’t like her music nearly as much, ONJ couldn’t have been a more perfect replacement for Karen. I had a photo cutout on my wall from People magazine where she’s standing next to a horse at a stable. She was even on the cover and there was a whole three page article about her. (So much to say about Olivia Newton-John!) She was all photo-shoot cowgirl in her jeans, boots and judiciously unbuttoned plaid shirt. Her hair is backlit (and she’s not hanging out with her John Boy brother in all the photos like Karen always was). The article mentioned she was related to Sir Isaac Newton which would make her smart, a plus in marketing her to the family. She had that beautiful parted-in-the-middle 1970’s hair and a soft, confident smile for someone. Perhaps for me?
Not for me.
That got cleared up. I sent her a fan letter the length of the Barrier Reef. You can imagine, with the information I’ve given you already, what was in there. I’m too proud to revisit it. Then, foolishly, I waited and hoped, but Olivia Newton-John, the Australian goddess of song, did not write me back. Not even a mass-produced, machine autographed headshot. Nothing. The brutal, unrequited void. We had a post office box for our household and I walked into the post office every day after school for two months and asked at the desk for the mail like some little boy in an Italian film.
« È ci una lettera da Olivia? »
« Non ci è oggi posta per voi, ragazzino.»
It was love poured into the yawning, indifferent vacuum. It was the Ferret guy. It was me. It was Life. When I think back on it now, I should be happy she didn’t take out a restraining order after that letter. The non-response from her, my first brutal dead-end from a woman, was a turning point, though and there was a definite takeaway. I deliberately stopped liking her music soon after and, as I like to think about it, broke up with her in my eight-year old fashion. I simply stopped buying her records and shortly afterwards her whole career fell apart.
Take that, Xanadu.
When I was in my mid twenties living in Los Angeles, Olivia Newton-John had a vanity boutique of some sort on Melrose Avenue where they sold koala t-shirts and pastel-colored soap. I worked as a waiter nearby in Beverly Hills and she came in to the restaurant one afternoon and I waited on her. She looked much older than in those People magazine shots, well-lined now, and not so excitingly blonde anymore. There was no horse. No plaid shirt. No backlight. She didn’t seem all that Isaac Newton smart.
But there we were together. Me, at twenty-four years old as handsome as I was ever going to get, and her on the wrong-side of forty. Another impasse.
She put it best: “if we both were born in another place and time this moment might be ending with a kiss.” It was like that Harry Chapin song “Taxi” except she was the loser driving in the front and I was the one in back feeling superior and leaving the big tip. I know that’s somehow directly backwards with me being the waiter and the tipping, but still, that is how it was. The fact remained I wouldn’t date Outback Grandma with all her crows-feet no matter how she begged. But there was a time when I honestly loved her and she honestly loved me. It was our song. It was her song, but it was o-o-o-ver.
Karen, for her part, has fared much better, and I’ve tried to make up for dumping her so faithlessly. I have a seven year old daughter for whom I purchased that same Carpenters album last year before my wife and kids summered in Maine. When I came out to visit, my daughter had fallen completely in love with it, the little darling, and you couldn’t drive thirty feet in our rental car without playing “Sing, Sing a Song” for her and watching her innocent face explode in a paroxysm of joy. So I guess you can say Karen and I are kind of gingerly closing the gap these days, and in my own way I’m trying to make it up to her for being such a jerk.
Because, you know, we might have really had something there.