Will yeh please put your workin’ class hands together for your heroes. The Saviours o’ Soul, The Hardest Workin’ Band in the World, —Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes —The Commitments.
This is a tough one for me to talk about — I’m a long-time fan, I’ve read it a dozen or so times, it’s all I can do to not turn total fan-boy and just gush. eh, I might not try too hard.
My college roommates and I became fans of the music video for “Try a Little Tenderness” from the soundtrack for the movie adaptation, and we waited for what seemed like a interminable amount of time before the movie came to the art-house theater in town. I loved it from the opening sequence on and tracked down the novel the next day. It blew my mind (for reasons I’ll get into in a bit), and I read it a dozen or so times over the few years until I loaned it (and the rest of the trilogy) to someone at work. Naturally, I never saw him again (I ended up with a copy of Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying and another book in the transaction). I finally let myself buy a replacement copy a few years ago (found a used copy with the same cover), and have now read it twice. And, if anything, my appreciation grows each time.
It’s the late 80’s and three young Dubliners (from the poorest part of Dublin) have formed a band — sort of. Not everyone in it are musicians yet, but they’re working on it. Thanks to the direction of their keyboard (defined in the loosest possible way) player, they’re going to play synth-pop and go by the name “And And! And” (and, yes, I got the exclamation point in the right place). Their first order of business (while learning how to play) is to hire a manager. Jimmy Rabbitte is the guy from their school/neighborhood who’s the area’s music/music industry expert. As evidenced by the fact that he’s the first one anybody knew of that was aware of Frankie Goes to Hollywood — and, even greater — he’s the first to realize how bad they were. Jimmie gets things going immediately by dropping the name (especially that !) and the keyboard player.
Instead, they’re going to play American soul music — and then put an Irish twist on it — local slang, geographic references, and so on. Jimmie puts an ad in the paper to recruit some musicians, hits up a coworker he heard at a company party, and so on. As a result, he collects a very strange crew of musicians — including a trumpet player decades older than the rest of them, with plenty of professional experience (the trumpet in “All You Need is Love,” for example). The rest, as they say, is history.
The story of The Commitments is told through a very unconventional prose and dialogue style. It’s like Doyle took Leonard’s 10 Rules to the furthest point possible (other than #7, which he violates in every line). You can hear these characters talk, you can feel the energy in the room — heck, this book comes closer to capturing musical performances better than anything this side of Memorex or vinyl. Couldn’t tell you what anyone looks like (well, The Commitmentettes are pretty attractive — especially Imelda), what their homes are like, the weather, or anything of that other stuff that tends to fill the pages of novels. But I can tell you what happened, to whom, and how all related reacted. Which is good enough for me.
This isn’t one of those books that gives you diminishing returns upon re-reading. It’s fresh (while dated — no idea how Doyle pulls that off), funny, and full of soul. Dublin soul, of course. Just like the rag-tag musicians that come to life in its pages.
Oh, if you can get your hands on the soundtrack albums (or find them streaming somewhere) to listen to while reading, it makes it all better (even though there’s almost no overlap between songs).