Track One: I Heard It Through the Grapevine

I had been working late, coming home on the 605 Freeway, listening to SNAP (an alternative music program) on public radio station KCRW. The host, Deirdre O-Donahue, had just returned from a roots-finding mission in Ireland. She was raving about a book she had picked up there about an imaginary rock band called The Committments. She mentioned the author–was that Paddy Doyle? My car radio didn’t pick up KCRW in Santa Monica very well. I thought, I’ll call her and get the author’s name when I get home.

Of course, like most radio stations, the line was busy.

Track Two: Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)

Now, I had been doing my own roots-finding through Irish music as well. It started with The Waterboys, but then I found the Pogues used, then blossomed into fruition when someone sold their entire Van Morrison collection to the used CD store. Buying used CDs is smart. Not only is it good for the environment–used CDs don’t have longboxes and buying one is a bit like recycling–but it is usually cheaper than a new CD and a higher profit item for the store compared to a new CD, otherwise known as a win-win situation. Independent CD stores are like independent bookstores; since they can’t compete with the discounts that the chains are able to get, they usually carry a wider selection and have used bins. So, within the space of about two months, I had 15 CDs of great Irish growling. This book called The Committments, about an Irish rock band of the same name, sounded like just my thing.

Track Three: Land of 1,000 Dances

Books and stories about rock music have always interested me, especially if they have a twist. My friend Jim Cappio can’t stand this “subgenre” and you may share his opinion, but to each his own.

There’s been some good work done this way, like (in order of recommendation):

  • The Armageddon Rag by George R.R. Martin, about the fictional Nazgul
  • This is Spinal Tap (movie, album, way of life)
  • “Flying Saucer Rock and Roll” by Howard Waldrop, about the fictional Kool-Tones
  • “Touring” by Gardner Dozois, Jack Dann, and Michael Swanwick, about Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, and the Big Bopper
  • Espedair Street by Iain Banks, about the fictional pop band Frozen Gold
  • The Kill Riff by David J. Schow, about the fictional heavy metal bands Whip Hand, ‘Gasm, and Electric Shock
  • The Scream by John Skipp and Craig Spector, about the demon band of the same name.

Track Four: I Found a Love

Jill and I just moved to Colorado–Jill to return to college, me to get out of the smog. Unfortunately, I had to return to LA after we had completed the move to train my replacement for the job I left. (Well, the money was nice, too.)

I was flipping through the LA Times and noticed a movie ad for…The Committments. Goddamn! they made that book I can’t find into a movie. Who’s it written by? Roddy Doyle.

I’ve got to have it, no ifs ands or buts. I rush down to Book Soup at 9:00 pm on a Thursday. There it is, sitting on the shelf, The Committments, by Roddy Doyle (Vintage Contemporaries, 1989). I rush “home” and read it in three hours.

Track Five: Do Right Woman Do Right Man

The Committments is a novel of dialogue–or, more accurately, dialect. It tells of the formation of Dublin Soul. Soul music in Ireland? Well, the theory is that the Irish are the “niggers” of Europe, and the Dubliners are the “niggers” of Ireland, and the North Siders are the…you get the point. Rescuing a couple of mates from the horrors of playing Depeche Mode, Jimmy Rabitte puts together The Committments by placing an ad in the paper reading: “Have you got Soul? If yes, the World’s Hardest Working Band is looking for you.”

Jimmy, the manager, has got a good head on his shoulders. He knows the music business (having eaten Melody Maker and NME for breakfast every day), so his question for potential band members is simple: What are your influences? He gets a drummer who idolizes Animal of the Muppets, a saxophonist who says Clarence Clemons and the guy from Madness, and trumpet player Joey “The Lips” Fagen, who proves to be the superglue for the group. Joey “The Lips” has played with everybody who was anybody, talks like a southern evangelicist, and, man, can he play that horn. And, because soul music is the music of “ridin'” (read: sex), Jimmy finds The Committmentettes, to provide the visual component as well as backup and lead on songs by the Motown girl groups. Add a piano player, change some lyrics to fit the politics of Ireland, and you have achieved Dublin Soul.

The Beatles were four poor sods from Liverpool, and they only managed to stay together for 9 years. How long are nine desperate for attention Dubliners going to stay together? Ah, there’s the rub.

There is true humor in this book, humor that speaks to you if you ever played in a band or follow rock music. There’s also enough situational humor to cross over for those who don’t necessarily go for this type of book. And there’s a moral/point/call-it-what-you-will, as well. More on this later.

Track Six: That’s What My Heart Needs

The only thing wrong with Doyle’s book is that it needs a soundtrack to go with it. Here he is, trying to put James Brown on paper, but you gotta feel it, UHHHH, to know what it’s like when James says, “Let’s take it to the bridge,” or “I wanna kiss myself–I got Sou–Sou–L!–An’ I’m SUPERBAD!” So, if you’re lucky, and you’ve got these songs, put ’em down on tape before you open page 1:

  • “Chain Gang,” written by Sam Cooke
  • “Good News,” written by Sam Cooke
  • “Knock on Wood,” written by Floyd & Cropper
  • “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” written by Holland, Dozier & Holland
  • “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” written by Dean, Riser & Weatherspoon
  • “Walking in the Rain,” written by Mann, Weil & Spector
  • “At the Dark End of the Street,” written by Penn & Moman
  • “Night Train,” written by Forrest, Washington & Simpkins
  • “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine),” written by James Brown, Byrd and Lynhoff
  • “Super Bad Super Slick,” written by James Brown
  • “Out of Sight,” written by James Brown
  • “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” written by James Brown & Newsome

And, hey, make a copy for me while you’re at it.

Track Seven: Destination Anywhere

The movie has a soundtrack; it’s good, but it don’t match the book. That’s not the only thing that don’t match the book.

At the end of the movie, after the band has broken up, Jimmy gives us a voice-over about the future of each band member a la Animal House. This ending (and entire movie) prompted the reviewer for the LA Weekly to wonder why we were getting a movie about some nonexistent band in Dublin, rather than the life story of, say, Wilson Pickett or Marvin Gaye. He’s got a point, but he also missed the point of the book (and, of course, no thanks to the change made for the movie).

In the book, after the band has broken up, Jimmy and the core two players are sitting around his house. Jimmy says, “listen to this,” and plays them “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” by The Byrds. And so starts another chapter (and ends the book) on The Committments. What’s the difference?

You realize that it’s not the music, but the music, that is the hope for The Committments. It doesn’t have to be Dublin Soul, or Dublin Rockabilly, or Dublin Social Angst. What Doyle is telling us about is how the power of rock music can give people hope, how it democratically lifts people off the street by giving them a goal to shoot for. In the movie, by showing the only possible future for the players, it defeats itself. The point is the struggle for the goal, not the attainment (or nonattainment) of it. In the movie, the gaps are filled; in the book, Doyle lets our imaginations write our own ending for The Committments. Which is more powerful?

If you’re reading this, you probably read science fiction. I think you know the answer.

[Originally published in Mark V. Ziesing’s book catalogue in 1991.]


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First Impressions Copyright © 2016 by Glen Engel-Cox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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