If you like rock and roll, you owe it to yourself to read Utopia Avenue.
Because the entire reading experience means you are thinking about music, pondering the lives of musicians, and along the way you’ll get a happy hankering to go crank some tunes from the late 1960’s and there’s never anything wrong with that. Music thrives on every page. And David Mitchell lets various rock stars like Brian Jones and David Bowie wander onto the page to offer advice or tell showbiz stories and comingle with the four musicians who make up the band, Utopia Avenue. There are lesser luminaries, too, such as Sandy Denny and John Martyn, and a raft of other actors and celebs from the time. It’s a cool feature of Utopia Avenue and it makes perfect sense that the up-and-coming band would bump into a variety of their contemporaries on various shows and stages. But that’s just a tease, a bit to pull us along.
Yes, Utopia Avenue is long. I could imagine a version that’s a hundred pages shorter, but once you get sucked up into the energy of this novel you’ll soon be along for the ride, pulling for the band, and eager to see where this energetic novel is headed. Yeah, energetic. Okay, you’re thinking—what about those long, repetitive sections where Jasper de Zoet is wrestling with Knock Knock, the evil 19th Century Japanese monk who tortures Jasper’s internal headspace? You don’t think that could have been pared down? Yes, sure, but I also found it fascinating and I’ve never felt so inside a character who was struggling with mental equilibrium and stability.
Jasper de Zoet and Knock Knock connect back to other Mitchell novels and there’s plenty to ponder (if you’ve read them all, I have not) about cyclical stories and rebirth and echoes across the centuries and all that good stuff. Mitchell is weaving a giant fictional tapestry. He’s playing with time and memory on a giant canvas. Do we need side trips, through Jasper’s firing synapses, to the Boer War and Nagaski and beyond? In a book about a band? Maybe not. I was impatient at first and then drawn into Jacob’s detours. And you have to admire how “real” the band scenes feel while Jasper’s head is truly fanciful and ungrounded. It’s a great contrast.
Because Jasper is a member of Utopia Avenue (he’s the quirky lead guitarist), we care. We care about Elf Holloway (keyboards and vocals), Dean Moss (bass), and Peter Griffin (drums), too. And I think we’re invested in Utopia Avenue because Mitchell lets us see the band get cobbled together, slowly, as we meet each of the foursome as they come together in their jazz-folk-psychedelic band and, well, the odds are stacked against them but who knows if hard work and good songwriting might pay off? Mitchell rotates points of view, letting us triangulate on our own the band as a whole.
I loved Mitchell’s dialogue. In fact, this is one of the most dialogue-driven books I think I’ve read (George V. Higgins The Friends of Eddy Coyle is right up there, too.). There’s exposition, sure, but conversations run for pages with barely a hiccup. We are in the moment from the get-go, when Dean Moss gets kicked out of his old band (Battleship Potemkin; ha!), gets scammed out of some cash, and thrown out of his London flat. Speaking of flat, it’s flat-out fun and you can almost hear Mitchell smirking as he brings the Utopia Avenue crew together under the interesting management stylings of their colorful fifth wheel, Levon Frankland.
We’re in thriving London in the late 1960’s and Mitchell doesn’t miss an opportunity to immerse us in the culture—sex, drugs, groupies, wild parties, fashion, the music press. We get starter gigs and we get Top of the Pops, too. There is hope of a big U.S. tour. There are creative differences. And there are real-life situations that come to weigh on the band—family issues and family tragedies, too. Nostalgic? Not even a whiff of the stuff. The book is all “now.” Nobody knew then, for instance, that the Stones would still be slogging (er, rocking) along fifty-plus years later.
Clearly, David Mitchell is having a blast. There’s fun on every page. The book is divided into sections—two sections for each album that Utopia Avenue produce. The first album is “Paradise Is The Road To Paradise,” for instance, and that section includes chapters titled (songs titled) “Abandon Hope,” “A Raft And A River,” “Darkroom,” “Smithereens,” and, finally, “Mona Lisa Sings the Blues.” Believe, me you will get to know these songs and you kind of wish some band out there would try to recreate Utopia Avenue and go on tour so you could hear them. (How meta would that be?) Utopia Avenue puts you on stage with the band—you’re in on the inside jokes and all the creative differences, too.
It’s hard to choose a sample of representative prose but, well, here’s one (from Dean’s perspective):
“Dean looks over, and as he expected, Jasper keeps his eyes on his Strat’s fret board to signal that he wants another round. Most people have never heard a wah-wah pedal played live, and Jasper’s mastery of the gadget is stupendous. I’ll take credit for the song, mind thank yer very much. A couple of practices ago, Elf suggested changing the lyrics from “all dreams end as smithereens” to “smithereens are seeds of dreams.” Dean tried it and the song’s gone from being a downer to an upper. Jasper suggested Elf sing harmony on that one “seeds of dreams” line: and everyone in the room, Pavel Z included, groaned with pleasure. Toward the end of his time in Battleship Potemkin, Dean gave up sharing his songs; that band always made the songs worse. Utopia Avenue is the opposite. The band is a song-refining machine.
“Jasper’s come down from his solo; Dean looks at Griff who nods; four bars to go … three bars to go … two … one … and an Okay look from Elf … and Jasper pauses—they all count off a shared clock—one, two, three, four—and smash the ending into drummed, ground pounded, plucked, twanged molecules…”
Utopia Avenue rocks.
Fabulous review, sir! A bit too much inside baseball, er, rock ‘n’ roll? Nothing wrong with that. I can hear it all in my head…
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