“I would rather go blind, boy/ Than to see you walk away from me”
One of the most brutally frank lyrics ever bled onto a page, dispensed through one of music’s most devastating vocal performances. In two and a half minutes Etta James took every song of broken love and heartache up to that point, every songwriter and singer who tried to articulate their pain, and brushed them aside. You only thought you felt loss. You only thought you knew what hurt was.
‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ was laid down at Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios for the sessions that culminated in James’ eighth album, Tell Mama, a collection where each rhythm track and organ vibration, horn punch and guitar lick is as subtly executed as the last. There are few stables of musicians that were as taut, intuitive and finely honed as those players at Muscle Shoals, and they shape the track’s soulful foundations, urging the story to unfold on the crescendo of Roger Hawkins’ snare roll. “Something told me it was over/ When I saw you and her…” The briefest of pauses, before James delivers the killer blow – “…talking.” From Etta’s lips, it carries so much weight; a litany of implications and finalities implicit in that one word.
Recorded in ’67 and released the following year, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ appeared on the flipside of the ‘Tell Mama’ single, a song James didn’t rate as highly as the rest of us. ”Never liked it. Never liked singing it,” she later admitted. Funnily enough, though, she had a lot of time for Rod Stewart’s 1972 version of its monumental B-side. On her second live album, Red-Hot & Live, Etta introduces the song, name-dropping Rod the Mod and telling the assembled that she thinks of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ as a country & western song – that she always fantasised about being a country & western singer. Imagine that? She may have been on to something. Only Hank Williams equalled Etta in digging straight to the core of hurt and heartache and laying out the wreckage. The song weighs heavy with pain and resignation; memories and ghosts. Its understated power lies in the negative space – the absence of anger in Etta’s voice, the absence of resentment towards the track’s unidentified woman. There’s simply no room for it. Grief is all-encompassing.
There are few songs that deliver a gut punch like this so concisely; a confessional of such emotional depth delivered over just three economical verses. According to James, the outline was written by her friend Ellington ‘Fugi’ Jordan and shown to her when she visited him in California’s Chino prison during a stint for robbery (Jordan, incidentally, collaborated with progressive Detroit funk rock band Black Merda on his own psych funk record Mary Don’t Take Me On No Bad Trip – with he and Etta’s song retooled as ‘I’d Rather Be A Blind Man’ – and was subsequently instrumental in the band being signed to Chess Records). James then finished the rest of the song with Jordan, but gave her own songwriting credit to her then partner, Billy Foster of The Medallions, for that most unforgiving and soulless of motives…tax reasons. The royalty payments trickled steadily into Foster’s coffers from that point on, a source of chagrin that needled James for decades to come.
A striking live version of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ was captured at Montreux Jazz Festival in 1975 – her first European visit – not long after James’ stint in a drug rehabilitation programme for heroin addiction. She told the crowd, “I can’t speak French, I cant speak nuthin’ but English and American English…slang”. But what Etta did – what music does – transcends language. She had been singing the song for almost ten years by this stage, its edge in no way blunted by the passing of years and countless deliveries, nor the singer’s own hardships. If anything, her experiences galvanised the song’s sentiment. The audience’s nervous laughter in reaction to her pained expression and uninhibited, almost confrontational entreaty to the heavens at the song’s finale only heightens the effect of its retelling for the nth time – because performance or no, when Etta James sings, it’s for real. “I’d rather be a blind girl than to watch you walk away from me.” It’s one of soul music’s greatest cuts, one of music’s great elegies – as shattering as it is sublime.