“If You Go Away” is like the ink that picks up fingerprints. Think of the song, think of any of the singers who have interpreted it, and you almost can hear each version in your head before playing it. It brings out all the mannerisms in the singers who over-emote (Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Celine, Streisand, Neil Diamond), the transformative brilliance in the singers who grasp nuance and waves of emotion (Ray Charles, Dusty Springfield, Nina Simone, Sinatra), the trademark quirks of the Stylists (Scott Walker, Sting), and the purity of the singers who simply sing (Glen Campbell, Brenda Lee).
It’s kind of unwreckable (evidence: Madonna’s version is perfectly ok), because even though you can hear the calculation in every single syllable of the Streisand version, the near self-parody of the gloomy Scott Walker version, the thudding muscle-flexing in the Tom Jones version, the song can bear the weight. It’s better when it’s tender, and better when it’s in its original French as “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (Sandie Shaw: tender and French and swoon-worthy), but when a singer decides to belt it out, a cry of desperation, it becomes less a sorrowful plea, more an and-I-am-telling-you-you’re-not-going. That’s fine. If you like that sort of thing, turn up the Neil Diamond. He comes at it with some Jewish angst and the whole “If you stay/I’ll make you a night” part becomes, stay, zitsn, I’ll make you a sandwich, what’s your hurry?
You can see why all those Pantheon Singers have wanted to take a run at it. How many other songs do Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Ray Charles have in common, and how many of those wove their way through Walker and Springfield and then to Sting and Madonna? There’s that poignant Jacques Brel melody, which isn’t all that challenging range-wise and can be adapted to the less vocally acrobatic (say, Belinda Carlisle), and mock all you like the lyrical oeuvre of Rod McKuen, he didn’t do badly at all with this translation, didn’t get ostentatiously poetic. He keeps it relatively simple, but it certainly dramatic enough: I’ll be a mess if you leave me, I’ll do anything to keep you, please don’t go away. So for the shouters it’s I’M SUFFERING HERE, and for the more subtle it’s fatalistic and forlorn. “If you go away, as I know you must.” That might be the center of the song. All the oh, come on, can’t you see how much I need you is an exercise; in the end, there’s that sigh of resignation. “As I know you must.” But we don’t know why, we don’t get the other side, the backstory. It’s a soliloquy, not a dialog,
There are a few live-on-TV versions of “Ne Me Quitte Pas/If You Go Away” that are beyond beyond. You can see in the Ray Charles clip that he gets tangled up: he doesn’t quite have a grip on the lyrics, and he loses the thread. But it’s just him and his piano, and it’s a bruised, haunting interpretation. Nina Simone goes full-out French on a show from 1971, and it’s one of those Simone performances that’s almost too raw to watch; it feels as though she’s on the verge of breaking down, and it’s like you’re watching something private and not a little unsettling. And then there’s Dusty, on August 15, 1967, and I only mention the date because it seems to me that the four minutes that she sang “If You Go Away” on that day were as perfect an example of dramatic-pop-ballad singing as you could imagine, and such an achievement should be pinpointed with accuracy. It’s pure Dusty pre-Memphis, of course, with all the gestures and glamour that have made her a camp icon, and it’s too bad people focus on that, because there are moments — a series of moments — in this performance that are just stunning, and if acting out the lyrics with her hands helps her get to the heart of the song, so be it. I’ve heard her sing this song so many times, and it always utterly knocks me out. Near the end, she stops singing, and says, “Oh I’d have been the shadow of your shadow, if it might have kept me by your side.” Go on, break my heart.