Goodbye is a Crime

Yep yep, I am actually going to fire up the ol’ blog and write some emo crap about Xanadu. I cried for a few minutes after reading of the death of Olivia Newton-John, less because she was some figure looming over my life, some obsession, than because I did have this crazy affection for her just for a moment when I was quite young that looked like one thing but was another, and there seemed to be more to the story.

After what looked like a latency-period crush on a blonde babysitter named Rhonda in Oklahoma and some kind of (I assume, rather than remember) effusive feelings about Leather Sandy in Grease and then Kira in Xanadu, I remember my mother joking to someone that I liked blondes. Give or take an “e”, she was correct actually; until relatively recently I had some annoying erotic archetype of the blond–my northern California memoir will be entitled I Was Told There Would be Blonds–but Rhonda and Sandy and Kira were obviously in another category, if I had known what was what.

Anyway I forgot about all of it for plenty of years and then knew later on that Xanadu was epic camp and loved it as that, and saw the state musical that treated it as such, and then at some point realized that as clumsy as it is, I just think it’s a joyful bad thing, which is to say a good thing. Right, yes, the screenwriting is from hunger and some of the acting goes right along with it, but I think I’m prepared in this overheated moment to say that every last musical number in it is a treasure of one kind or another, and I think if there’s anyone around in a hundred years, they’ll see it as a period piece and a happy trifle and really not as trash.

But no, you couldn’t call me an ONJ fan who kept up with what the hell she was doing over the years except once in a while I did wonder, as recently as a month ago. And you couldn’t say that she was one of the main icons of my emergence as a big gay homo, so when I say Xanadu meant a lot to a proto-gay eight-year-old in a movie theater in a town of 30,000 in Kentucky, I don’t really mean that I came out of the theater knowing something new about myself or feeling I would always love Olivia-Newton John.

I did remember certain moments unexpectedly, word for word, thirty years later when I got it on DVD. Proving she is a muse, Kira has Sonny look up “muse” in a dictionary and the end of the definition was “and now do you believe me, Sonny?” because one power muses have is altering print documents. (I have at some point figured out which muse Kira is but it’s tricky, because several of their names and job descriptions seem to match up to the lyrical arts and none of them directly reference roller skating.)

I did respond viscerally to the exuberance of the opening scene set to “I’m Alive” where all of them are like “this 20th century parking lot is wondrously unlike Mount Olympus!”

I did have the soundtrack cassette. I did, sitting through a long drive in the back of the car with my sister, tell her I wanted to start a band that did 40s music and 80s music that smooshed together (I don’t think people said fusion at the time, and certainly eight-year-olds did not) like the admittedly most purely camp number in the movie, the one with ONJ singing I think all three parts to an Andrews-Sisters-style number and, theoretically elsewhere, a band (in real life called The Tubes) playing some deathly distillation of 80s new-wave until it turns out they’re on two stages in the same room that come slowly together, and they all look at each other with shock, and then recognition, and then their songs overlay into one song I just cannot lie and say I don’t find transcendent in its schlocky way. It is good-hearted in a mode that has died in movies, and that’s a lot of what camp is, sincerity curdled by time.

But I didn’t write a sequel in a notebook or even have a roller-skating party. When I say it meant a lot, I’m looking back, and being grateful for a cultural artifact in which I only dimly recognized something about how things were going to go for me. People who loved Judy Garland, even the queerest of them, maybe didn’t always know they loved her because she was a vocal representation of our every sorrow and triumph. They just responded to something that felt true, and later in life found that this truth was an article of faith among their fellows.

I look back and think well: I was right; and I think: how lucky to have had something to grab onto even if fleetingly and unknowingly. There were other queer totems later that were more lasting and more important. But I’m thankful that Olivia Newton-John, dressed as a fucking Greek muse on roller skates in Los Fucking Angeles cast a little light on an extremely ordinary childhood, and that I was, whatever else could be said so early, queer enough to bask in it.

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