There is this great scene in the tragicaly underseen movie Ghost World where Steve Buscemi's akward, socially inept character goes out with the cute, but completely bland Dana. They go to a bar where a revered, old bluesman is playing. Buscemi is there for the music, but Dana is there to party and have a good time. When Dana starts screaming and dancing to the loud, blues-rock of the opening act the look on Buscemi's face is priceless. He's lonely, and certainly physically attracted to the woman, but her taste in music is so obviously out of whack to his you can see he's wondering what he's doing there with her, and how he can remove himself from her grip and settle in to enjoy the old bluesman.
I like the blues, but I can't help but feel like Dana in that situation. My education in the genre is minimal, and I imagine that were I to mention some of the stuff I like I'd be mocked and scorned by real fans (like Blinded By Sound's own Josh Hathaway.) I simply haven't heard enough of the blues to know my way around it. Mostly I just keep my opinion to myself on the subject.
Except for Etta James. Nobody mocks Etta.
I first heard Etta and "I'd Rather Go Blind" on a Chess compilation. The whole thing knocked mysocks off, but Etta in particular knocked me down, tied me up, and wouldn't let me go for weeks. I remember playing it at top volume in my car on my way to school expecting someone to approach me when I got out wondering who that soulful lady was. They never did, and to this day I can't imagine why!
From the opening riffs you know the song is going to be special. Its a pretty classic blues shuffle with a heavy, languid bass line and a mournful organ riffing on top. When Etta starts off with the line "Someting told me it was over," my heart just sinks and I know the end is nigh. Her voice is so full of suffering and anguish that you just might wish for world's end as a pleasant alternative to that kind of pain.
Most of us have felt heartbreak. Most of us can understand the sentiment that we'd rather go blind than watch our loved one walk out of our lives. But with Etta you can picture her sitting there, tears rolling down, with a fork up to her retina ready to rip them right out of their sockets. The song cuts right through, down to the marrow, leaving your guts on the floor, and the blood running down. That's a lot of violent imagery, but Etta knows that kind of pain.
I really know nothing about the blues. I've given up trying to pretend. I do know that Etta touches somethng deep down inside me and when she sings "I'd Rather Go Blind" I believe her, and I'm ready to enter the darkness right alongside.