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THE COMMITMENTS
By Roddy Doyle
Vintage

The Commitments is untouched by the mythopoeic purple that has plagued rock bigthink since Jim Morrison walked the earth. It essays no bohemian picaresque, biz expose, or garish-cum-turgid rumination on the perils of stardom. No--this slim volume may take its title from the band whose story it tells, but it isn't a rock novel as that sorry subgenre is ordinarily conceived. It's just a good novel. A very good novel. A fucking terrific little novel--terse as a tolltaker, funny as a priest with his peter out.

The classic it recalls is Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: working-class rake strides grinning into the trap that is the rest of his life. In both the realism is too busy documenting the undocumented to trouble itself with any show of formal innovation, and in both third-person omniscience is softened by the author-narrator's absorption of his subjects' vernacular. But where Sillitoe merely merged his own upwardly mobile plaintalk with his Nottingham hero's dry pub wit, adding plenty of interior monologue for extra flavor, at least half of Doyle's book is eccentrically rendered dialogue. Cheerfully, almost voluptuously, he gives it up to the unstaunched profanity and raucous, repetitive slang of North Dublin speech.

The milieu isn't the usual rock and roll subculture--no bohemians here. It's prebohemian, though maybe not permanently--these underemployed characters are going to evolve, and so is bohemia. The Commitments themselves evolved, out of a synth-pop band called And And And--or would And And! And look deadlier? That's Outspan Foster's idea, but Derek Scully isn't so sure ("What's an explanation mark?" he asks). So they consult Jimmy Rabbitte: "Jimmy had Relax before anyone had heard of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and he'd started slagging them months before anyone realized that they were no good."

Jimmy quickly convinces his mates that synthesizers are out: "It's back to basics." Soon the guy with the synthesizer is out too, and Jimmy is forging a political soul band ("The Irish are the niggers of Europe, lads") from Outspan, Derek, a prick of a coworker with a deadly voice, three neighborhood birds, a fledgling sax man, and a drummer who practices a lot because with his father dead "there was no one in the house to tell him to shut the fuck up." And, oh yes, 50-year-old Joey The Lips Fagan, a trumpeter whose storied past includes tours, dates, and jams with James Brown, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder ("Little Stevie then"), Joe Tex (twice), the Tremeloes ("I know, I know, I have repented"), the Stranglers, and, believe it or not, the Beatles: "ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE ----DOO DUH DOO DUH DOO."

No fool, Jimmy doesn't believe it--until the geezer adds: "Five pounds, three and sixpence. A fair whack in those days.----I couldn't stand Paul, couldn't take to him. I was up on the roof for Let It Be. But I stayed well back." Still no fool, Jimmy asks: "Wha' do yeh want to join US for?" Joey, who lives for music, has an answer: he's tired of the road and has to look after his ailing mammy. But his bandmates are just reaching out, as Jimmy, who also lives for music, understands full well. "Yis want to be different, isn't tha' it? Yis want to do somethin' with yourselves, isn't tha' it? . . . Yis want to get up there and shout I'm Outspan fuckin' Foster."

That's what makes this subculture crucial. Jimmy believes--or anyway, convinces himself--that his social identity, which he knows is bound up in his oppression, is as local as his accent: "An' Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland. The culchies have fuckin' everything. An' the northside Dubliners are the niggers o' Dublin." Yet for some reason he feels compelled to realize this social identity in "soul." That soul is African-American is significant but secondary--what counts is that soul is Other. Jimmy and his band aren't just northside Dubliners; they're also natives of the international subculture of anomie. For them, as for millions if not billions of underprivileged citizens the world over, identity isn't so much a crisis as a chronic disorder. They seek a cure elsewhere because nobody nearby has come up with one. For reasons they don't examine--part media bath, part intrinsic appeal--they like rock and roll as kids, and as they grow older they begin to perceive it as universal language, available technology, and way out. They form a band not for money and not really for the love of music. Fame's the thing--and if by some stroke they get famous, of course, that won't do the trick either.

The Commitments do not get famous, although eventually they play a couple of gigs and interest a local label in their Dublin version of James Brown's "Night Train": "--HARMONSTOWN RAHENY--AND DON'T FORGET KILBARRACK -- THE HOME OF THE BLUES ----." Most of the book takes place at rehearsals, as the Commitments joke, carp, grow, get their shit together, listen to lectures from Jimmy and sermons from Joey The Lips, and sing: 10 or 15 of the book's 165 pages are filled with capitalized lyrics. And then, just when Jimmy has nailed the record deal, they break up--because the drummer can't take the prick anymore, because the prick has dreams of glory, because the sax man discovers bebop, because all three birds take up with Joey The Lips.

Jimmy has a bad week that gets worse after Joey reports that he's off to rejoin Joe Tex and Jimmy suddenly remembers that Joe Tex died in 1982. But a few weeks later Derek and Outspan are back at Jimmy's place listening to the Byrds with the Commitments' bouncer-roadie Mickah. It turns out Mickah can sing some--he'd like a stage name, though, maybe Tex Wallace. Jimmy will play drums. The birds "could wear tha' Dolly Parton sort o' clobber." No pricks, and sad but true, no politics either--Doyle understands that in the absence of a struggle that can change the world and mitigate chronic existential disorders, politics are basically a form of available rhetoric. That's not to say they're unfelt, but if they don't cure your ills by getting you over, what's the point? Jimmy's seen the error of his ways--or so he convinces himself.

"Joey said when he left tha' he didn't think soul was righ' for Ireland. This stuff is though. You've got to remember tha' half the country is fuckin' farmers. This is the type o' stuff that they all listen to. ----Only they listen to it at the wrong speed."

Deadly--just deadly.

Village Voice, July 18, 1989