Profane Listening: Teaching Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments
In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” John Donne famously cautions his beloved to keep composed and quiet – like a dying “virtuous” man – as they part from one another:
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Rarefied, sinecured, privileged and private, their bond differentiates itself, at least as far as the poem’s speaker is concerned, from “[d]ull sublunary lovers’ love.” Refurbishing clichés of neo-Platonic idealism, Donne labours to distinguish their joys from vulgar heterosexual desire – his opening conceit enacts, literally, a mortification of the flesh – by linking love parasitically to a form of spiritually-ascendant class mobility. That elitism, moreover, is tied directly to a contradiction built into the poetic speech act: he’s telling her not to tell, creating an exclusive circle of two – speaker and listener – as his poem’s contingent public domain. Or maybe even a circle of one, himself, since the poem’s success depends wholly on whether his audience, the beloved interlocutor hailed by his lines, is even willing to listen, and to be correspondent to his desire, to do as he tells her to. There is a doubled model of listening articulated through the poem that seems to me to hinge on what its reader, its audience, is inclined to do with its profanity, its repurposing of the sacred for its own persuasive ends. Donne’s inflated coinage “profanation” casts our inner ears back, I think, to the word’s Latin etymology: the verb profanere (to desecrate, to violate, to make unclean) suggests being outside or before (pro-) a temple (fānum), which at least implicitly prods its listeners to consider the ersatz sacredness of this or any poetic text: how metaphysical, how hermetic, how divorced from this world, can such words ever be? The hyphenated compound nouns (“tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests”), while presented under prohibition, also make audible in their clashed, clumped consonants (rfl, dsn, stsm) the very – and very human, embodied – noise that Donne wants to suppress. The poem tends to profane itself, I mean.
I am teaching The Commitmentsby Roddy Doyle this week, and part of the reason I have started off with this excursus through Donne is that the novel is one of the most profane and noisy texts I have encountered. Reading excerpts and examples aloud in class, in public, activated some shame in me that’s most likely connected both to my own well-spoken intellectualism – despite common sense and academic privilege, it still felt a bit wrong and even a bit dangerous to utter all those “fucks” and “shites” and racist epithets in front of students – and to a hackneyed moralism circulating around how we listen to popular music, which is arguably the governing trope of the book as well as the focus of my course (and I’m thinking of how iTunes, for example, labels its downloaded songs, based on assessments of the lyrics, as either “clean” or “explicit”). The Commitments, at its heart, is an explicit, expletive text.
It’s hard to gauge student reactions sometimes, but this class on the literature of popular song has tended so far to be a bit quiet, and who knows exactly why. Faced with reading Doyle’s novel, however, I can imagine they might feel a little shouted down, and a little affronted. In the book, as the band is cobbled together and starting to rehearse, they’re presented as Jimmy Rabbitte’s students. The book opens with Outspan and Derek asking for Jimmy’s musical advice, a moment that leads directly to the formation of The Commitments:
—We’ll ask Jimmy, said Outspan. —Jimmy’ll know.
Jimmy Rabbitte knew his music. He knew his stuff.
Jimmy is the discursive centre for this particular configuration of Barrytown, this orchestration of their disenfranchised urban space, their north Dublin, and the vocabulary, the knowledge, in which he trades and which constitutes his cultural capital, is pop music. Jimmy, it’s worth noting, doesn’t play an instrument (well, none of them do, at first, except maybe for Joey The Lips Fagan), and he never performs on stage with the band; his music consists of talk, and his way of organizing the band involves giving lectures, correcting and managing what they “know” about and what they can learn through African-American soul music: “They loved Jimmy’s lectures,” the narrator tells us, although it’s not always clear that Jimmy has any more privileged access to Black music than anyone else. Even Joey The Lips’s stories of playing with Otis Redding, James Brown and just about any other “name” in R & B canon seem like a mix of fiction and wishful thinking; he claims to get a call to play with Joe Tex, but after he leaves Jimmy remembers that Joe Tex had died in 1982. When Joey The Lips confesses that “The biggest regret of my life is that I wasn’t born black,” the insurmountable disconnect, around race, between the given and the made, between provenance and aspirational self-fashioning comes crashing to the fore. The learning project in which Jimmy has the band engaged is doomed by its inherent dislocations, by its insurmountable, racially marked otherness. If “soul is community,” as Jimmy and Joey both contend, the success of their common project, the outcome of their commitment to any “real” provocation to social or cultural transformation through what Jimmy keeps calling “sex and politics,” remains inexorably out of reach.
They can’t help but profane their lofty goals. The alteration they want to bring about by singing about “real” love is framed, as in the Donne poem, by the negation of overwrought, mundane clichés and by the evocation of a transcendent ideal – an African-American idiom that inherently resists the idioms of both saccharine top-of-the-pops and Irish folk: “—All tha’ mushy shite abou’ love an’ fields an’ meetin’ mots in supermarkets an’ McDonalds is gone, ou’ the fuckin’ window. It’s dishonest, said Jimmy.” But performing covers of James Brown or Wilson Pickett hardly seems any more honest, any closer to the lived realities of Barrytown: “— It’s not the other people’s songs so much, said Jimmy. —It’s which ones yis do.” Connection and commitment means finding material that somehow speaks to their experience, and for Jimmy, that speaking means a felt connection at the level of a pre-articulate viscerality, something he hears, for instance, in the rough “growl” of Declan Cuffe’s voice. Jimmy links this fleshy throatiness both to James Brown’s thoroughly sweaty, embodied performance – the grain of his voice, an association mired in sexual stereotypes around black masculinity – and, compellingly, to the band’s obvious inability to get beyond imperfect mimicry of that style; their cultural “politics,” inured in an experience of pervasive alienation, seems best represented by their failure to represent themselves musically in any idiom. Everything is imperfectly borrowed, mistaken, and troubled. In Jimmy’s bedroom, listening to the record of James Brown’s “Sex Machine,”the complexities and complicities of musical and racial appropriation emerge in a mix of sacrilege and idolatry, in a prose that both mimes what it hears and disrupts any easy mimesis:
—Funk off, said Deco.
Outspan hit him.
Jimmy let the needle down and sat on the back of his legs between the speakers.
—I’m ready to get up and do my thang, said James Brown.
A chorus of men from the same part of the world as James went: —YEAH.
—I want to, James continued, —to get into it, you know. (—YEAH, said the lads in the studio with him.) —Like a, like a sex machine, man (—YEAH YEAH, GO AHEAD.) —movin’, doin’ it, you know. (—YEAH.) —CAN I COUNT IT ALL? (—YEAH YEAH YEAH, went the lads.) —One Two Three Four.
Jimmy positions himself dead-centre, as if to co-opt the sonic space of the recording, to claim it and manage it. The French-Joycean punctuation of dialogue with em-dashes tends to blur the distinctions between voices, to create a polyphonic overlay, a palimpsest. The identification of Jimmy with James manifests itself not only spatially but also in the collision of idioms from different “parts of the world”: James Brown’s sidemen aren’t Irish “lads” in any sense of the word, and when James Brown says “you know,” the point-of-view implicitly shared with Jimmy, the fella in the novel who, more than any other, presents himself as in the know, is both shared and dismantled; it’s worth noting how the transcription of the words in interrupted by editorializing and by typographical juxtapositions, but also how the original record itself involves call-and-response banter that cuts across and disrupts closure. That disruption is also audible in the textures of the transcribed words: “— GER RUP AH——“ they hear James Brown intone, abrading his words in a manner not too far removed from Donne’s noisy consonants.
If this record, though, is about affirming rough and vital cultural energies (YEAH YEAH YEAH), if it’s about the “politics,” of movin’ and doin’, Jimmy’s listening remains caught in a dynamic of negation and difference: “—No, listen, said Jimmy.” Making black music more “Dubliny” – by substituting, for example, the names of the stops on the DART line, moving North toward Barrytown, for the improvised train stops up the Eastern seaboard of the United States, tracing a kind of second-hand root for post-Civil War reconstruction, in James Brown’s improvised words for “Night Train” – enables what Jimmy wants to call “Dublin Soul” to be born, but those words also offer a fragile and finally untenable amalgam, as the band breaks up before it’s able to make even its first single on “Eejit Records,” and as Joey The Lips comes to realize that “Maybe soul isn’t right for Ireland. So I’m not right.” Their music, in its wrongness, is inherently profane, monstrous. But it also attains, in passing, in rehearsal, a kind of nascent greatness:
By now, The Commitments had about a quarter of an hour’s worth of songs that they could struggle through without making too many mistakes. They could sound dreadful sometimes but not many of them knew this. They were happy.
Though they’re unable to hear themselves, to “know” themselves for what they are – even when “[t]hey taped themselves and listened” – they still embrace the rough misprisions and imperfect “Dubliny” slippages and derive a happiness, a profane joy, in the struggle to connect with each other. The agonof music making, the profane and profaning effort to play together, forms a contingent community within that difficult nascence: “There were mistakes, rows, a certain amount of absenteeism but things were going well.” If the point seems to be not to put too much weight on the inevitable failure of their awful, unruly, “racialist” appropriations, neither is it to overlook or sanitize their offenses. Rather, we’re meant to bear witness to the possibility of creative coexistence, of producing a shared, poorly-recorded, mistake-ridden music that manages still, in its noisy and troubling way, to enact a poetry.