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ONJ and me

During Saturday’s breakfast on the patio, I popped the needle on Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits.

Instantly, I was six years old and back home in Kapunda. Mum and Dad’s lounge room is again wallpapered, the TV’s black and white and the carpet is burnt orange. It’s winter, and I’ve got on my footy boots. They’ll be on all day.

When Mum and Dad downsized, all the family vinyl came to me and since taking delivery of a retro record player at Christmas I’ve been happily swimming in nostalgia. Some of the albums had been untouched since 1988.

ONJ features prominently on the soundtrack of my childhood.

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The second song on side 1 is, ‘Banks of Ohio’ and this transports me to a still, musty room on Hill Street in Kapunda. I’m still six and strumming a guitar during my weekly lesson, while the massively patient teacher, Deborah, helps my fingers to stretch across the chords. I love the idea of a guitar and singing, but the latter is galaxies beyond me and my gruesome tone deafness.

ONJ does the definitive version of this nineteenth century standard. Her voice and the melody are bouncy, and I always loved the basso backup of celebrated singer Mike Sammes who subterraneously echoes Livvy’s, ‘where the water flowed.’ Sammes also contributes on, ’Let Me Be There’ and ‘If You Love Me (Let Me Know).’

Trying to sing along with Deborah, I’m a little anxious about the lyrics. The narrator declaring that she, ‘held a knife against his breast’ is squirmingly grown-up and I vow to avoid this so-called Ohio River. Bad stuff happens on its distant, murky banks.

Nowadays the tune would come with attendant humourless warnings: adult themes, graphic violence, and persistent mention of a river that enjoys confluence with the Mississippi in Illinois.

The song’s a murder ballad.

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Sipping coffee out the back and then emerges gently from our turntable the 1975 Grammy winner for Record of the Year. As it plays across the garden we discuss ‘I Honestly Love You’ with Claire suggesting it’s ‘depressing’. I counter that it is certainly pretty although I’d always viewed it as a disposable love song.

On it Livvy’s voice is beautifully warm and pure, but not drenched in palpable sadness. It bathes the listener in sunlight. But as with much music there’s a disconnect between the medium and the message.

Hearing it as Mum played it at home and on the car AM radio, my generation’s all logged many hours in its company. But following breakfast last Saturday we were moved by repeated listens and became profoundly aware of its narrative intensity.

As we learn both characters in the song are trapped by marriage, and unable to be together. The lyrics are by Peter Allen, who at the time of composition, was married to Liza Minelli but had fallen in love with a man who was similarly stuck.

I’m hesitant to see all texts as autobiographical because sometimes stories are just fictional. Not everything is inspired by real life. But there’s a good case here.

The opening verse is disarming: tender, vulnerable, brave. I imagine our main character talking in a café or a park. 

Maybe I hang around here

A little more than I should

With this we’re instantly eavesdropping on a private confessional and there’s tension as ONJ sings, ‘I got somewhere else to go’.

While the chorus of, ‘I love you, I honestly love you’ is necessary, the verses and the bridge are superior because these are where she reveals the story. The characters remain ageless, genderless, and timeless.

In the second verse we hear, ‘Maybe it was better left unsaid’ and this second ‘maybe’ confirms our narrator’s nervousness. Her vulnerability is crushing, and we all know a bit about this. The repetition of ‘chance’ in the third verse shows how powerless they both are in this sometimes-cruel universe.

How can I have been unaware of all of this since I was a child?

The way the strings soar in the final verse is stirring while a harp is used sparingly but to great effect. It lifts a tender song to an enhanced fragility. The eternally imponderable is here too in

If we both were born in another place and time

This moment might be ending in a kiss

But there you are with yours and here I am with mine

So, I guess we’ll just be leaving it at this.

The last line is only superficially dismissive of their plight and given the emotional stakes of the story is also deeply ironic. If we view the song as a monologue, it’s dramatic and affecting.

I love rediscovering old music and reaching a new, heightened appreciation.

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Of course, many of ONJ’s songs feature women who’ve relinquished or make no claim on their rightful power. These are females for whom life appears to happen rather than be controlled. ‘Sam’ and ‘Please Mr. Please’ are key examples. Claire suggested that maybe ‘Physical’ was in part ONJ actively promoting a feminist perspective.

Students of ‘I Honestly Love You’ will know that it features in Jaws just prior to Amityville’s second shark attack but I prefer to reference the 90’s indie singer Juliana Hatfield who, in 2018, produced an album of ONJ covers. She remarked that

‘I have never not loved Olivia Newton-John. Her music has bought me so much pure joy throughout my life.’

And I agree when she goes on to say, ‘Listening to her is an escape into a beautiful place.’

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Jazz and me

trumpet

My own musical career was fleeting. When I was eight I learnt guitar until the teacher moved, and Kapunda being a country town, that was it. I remember strumming in that measured, funereal way to “Banks of the Ohio” and being uneasy at having to sing

 I plunged a knife into her breast

 And told her she was going to rest

 She cried “Oh Willy, don’t murder me

 I’m not prepared for eternity.”

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While at university I discovered Vince Jones, jazz vocalist and trumpeter and his album For All Colours. Its sophistication reminds me of Frank Sinatra, and “Straighten Up and Fly Right” stars a rowdy Wilbur Wilde sax solo. I then knew that the saxophone could be as cool as a guitar.

The first concert I attended was Midnight Oil at Memorial Drive (Julia) and Vince Jones at Le Rox in Light Square was the second. Standing with other students in the airless dark I note that Vince wears a suit and tie, and in contrast to Peter Garrett’s frenzied jumping the jazz ensemble appears uninterested.

But, I was in. Jones himself once said, “I want to be inside every atom of every note.” Over the next decade I saw him often, usually in the Piano Bar of the Festival Theatre. And then, I don’t know why, he stopped regularly touring Adelaide.

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One wet Saturday in England I heard a BBC Radio 4 documentary on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, so immediately jogged up the high street to a HMV and bought it for ten quid. And as rain and sleet lashed our windows, its saxophonic hymn brightened the crushing winter sky.

The storms of Coltrane’s personal life thundered in counterpoint to the spiritual still of A Love Supreme, and within two years of its 1965 release he would be dead.

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One distant summer some Kapunda boys and I drove across the Hay Plains to spend a fortnight in Sydney with an air-traffic controller mate. He was among rude privilege in a Drummoyne apartment. We parked Woodsy’s Datsun 180B on the street. As we’d daily exit the Western Distributor there was a looming billboard with a huge fanged spider warning us to watch out for funnel-webs. We did. I still do.

Besides playing cricket by the Parramatta River, and body-surfing at Bondi and Curl Curl I hauled everyone to The Basement in Circular Quay. I was a fan of Live at the Basement on ABC Saturday evenings, and Galapagos Duck was the house band, and Don Burrows and James Morrison were often guests. I can’t tell you who played that sultry evening, but I liked it. The wooden tables, the ambiance, the enveloping melodies.

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Among the more brilliant things about living in England is chucking a sickie, and knicking off at dawn on a Friday to another country. Easyjet flew us from Luton to Cologne so we could explore their Christmas markets.

The city is largely unremarkable save for its compelling cathedral; the Dom. With twin spires ascending to 515 feet, it was the world’s tallest building until the Washington Monument. Similarly astonishing is that in 1162 Emperor Barbarossa secured for the Dom the authenticated remains of the Three Magi. We drifted about its vast interior and leaving, presented some Euros to a nodding priest.

Papa Joe’s En Streckstrump is Cologne’s premier jazz venue so we find our seats early for Sun Lane Ltd, an ensemble from nearby Aachen. Slender waitresses disperse wine and beer. We can scarcely see through the stinging blue smoke. The punters surge in. Bespectacled, ample musicians squash timorously onto the picnic-rug stage. The pianist looks like a sheet has been stretched about a lumpy, wobbling refrigerator.

Standing unnaturally close, an energetic type suddenly clambers up and straddles a nearby stair- and me, as if he and I are posing for a gay fire-fighters’ calendar. I am startled. Forgetting that Europeans are often bilingual I blurt, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’

As the gentleman dismounts the step, and my groin, I mutter, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome!” my intimate twitters.

“Say what you really want!” adds his friend. We don’t see them again.

The traditional jazz is brisk and zestful, and spilling out onto the Rhine’s bank Nina’s “99 Red Balloons” bursts from a heaving club. Lingering at the chilly Alter Markt, the wife sips a concluding gluhwein; the spiced, red wine and we confirm that Cologne jazz goes pretty well.

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It was nearly an hour commute across Adelaide’s most miserable suburbs; Snowtown territory. After many months afternoon radio had become tiresome; especially when the old-age surrender of organising life around news bulletins, those ridiculous frissons began, so I fought this inevitability, by committing to Miles Davis. I submerged myself in Bitches Brew.

Menacing and swirling about you like a phantasm, the music is a sexual maelstrom, and its recording began within hours of Hendrix and his pyrotechnics at Woodstock. Was it jazz? Was it rock? Was it funk? I wasn’t sure, but I again knew that the trumpet could be as cool as a guitar.

Despite its ominous cadences and rhythms, I found it transportive and therapeutic as I’d make my way home to the beach. Bitches Brew is vital to jazz-fusion, and while the opening two tracks are rightly celebrated, “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” on side four is the standout. I still love getting lost in this 94-minute ocean.

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This story begins with Mum and Dad’s record collection. Don’t they all? In among the usual 1970’s fodder of Ripper ’76 and the Best of Abba there’s some curios, and in the not on 5AD or 5KA and certainly not on Countdown section are some jazz albums, one a Dixieland compilation. I don’t especially recall any of the tracks, but these made significant impacts upon my psychology and vocabulary.

The jazz evoked widescreen travel and the speaking of strange tongues and moving about in dazzling metropolises that one day I might be permitted to visit. It was New York and Chicago and New Orleans. It wasn’t that I was trapped in dusty little Kapunda, it was that a planet was out there, and Mum and Dad’s jazz records captured these teeming, thrilling possibilities.

They still do.

BB