That Voice

By Sheila Squillante, Barrelhouse


The last time I cried over a celebrity death was in 1990. I was dropped out of college and working in the most mediocre women’s clothing department at Macy’s. Not cool Juniors and not the upscale, upstairs area where you could buy glammy evening gowns heavy with sequins and bugle beads. I don’t even remember what this department was called. It was just where you could buy the knock-offs, the pantsuits, velour sweat shirts and shoulder padded rayon blazers. Totally mediocre. I was on the floor when someone—a customer, I suppose—told me that Jim Henson had died.  I holed myself up in one of the fitting rooms and sobbed for a long time, slightly stunned by my own reaction.

This morning, I woke like most of us did to the news that David Bowie died yesterday after having been ill with cancer for eighteen months, and I have been in tears literally all day. My husband and I are wandering around the house together, listening to all the Bowie classics as well as streaming Blackstar. And crying. We keep hugging each other and saying, damn, damn. I know. It hurts.

And damn, it does hurt, in the same way Henson’s death did, I think because, to my mind, each of them was the only one.

No facsimile available. Mold broken. The absolute opposite of mediocre. The world changed forever by their presence in it.

And yes, I loved Bowie’s music. We could talk about that all day, and will here on the Barrelhouse blog in the coming days and weeks. I hope you’ll come back to read the tribute conversation we’re working on, or even submit something of your own to the blog.

But I’m also remembering how much I loved, oh god, that voice.

Not his singing voice (well, I mean, yes that too), but the one he used during the extended version of that—now we understand terrible, colonialist—song, “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” which was produced to raise money for Ethiopia famine victims in 1984.

I was fourteen, absolutely pubescent and desperately earnest. So that when that low, honeyed voice interrupted the music—"This is David Bowie. It’s Christmas, 1984…"—when he spoke directly into my very cells, well, things…happened inside of me.

I played it over and over again just to give myself goose flesh.

Most of the social media tributes I’m seeing point us back to Ziggy Stardust and Young Americans and Heroes (and please go listen to all of that right away), but I’ve just outed myself as a child of the 80’s so this tribute will end embracing that. I’m signing off to put on my red shoes and dance the blues.