Utopia Avenue (2020) – David Mitchell

Title:Utopia Avenue
Author:David Mitchell
Publisher:Sceptre/Jonathan Ball Publishers
Date of publication:2020
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Jonathan Ball Publishers South Africa kindly send me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review

The 1960’s, and its music, have been an endless source of inspiration for novelists and biographers. It wasn’t simply the fundamentals of the music that was so fascinating, but rather the culture that created that music, and the music that created that culture that proved the most ‘word-worthy’. This is not to say that music from that era is without merit. In this humble writer’s opinion Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones never fail to awaken something deep within my soul, but… would the ‘summer of love’ have even mattered if it was just rock and roll, without the sex and the drugs?

In 1967, Elf Holloway, Dean Moss, Jasper de Zoet and Griff Griffin have all been living completely different lives in and around London. The only real thing they seem to have in common is that they are incredibly talented musicians. Elf, the only woman, can sing and play the piano like a dream, and has been touring around with her narcissistic boyfriend for a number of years. Dean, from a working class environment, and a man who spends a lot of time dodging his rent, is an incredible bassist and writes songs that are mostly inspired by the difficult relationship with his father. Griff, the quiet one, and also from a working class home, is a drummer and despite being the only character whose point of view is not represented (Utopia Avenue’s chapters are all from the perspectives of either Elf, Dean or Jasper), he is often the voice of reason. Finally Jasper, who is a master guitarist with a trust fund, a complicated family history and a crippling form of schizophrenia that he wishes to remain hidden, has a point of view that reads more often than not like a drug-induced fever dream.

In what is usually considered a ‘twist of fate’ Levon Frankland, a manager at Moonwhale Music will bring together not only four very different types of musicians, but four of the most unlikely people to ever form a band. With Elf’s folk style, Dean’s bluesy vibes, Griff’s jazz background and Jasper’s undefined genius, Utopia Avenue is born, and their first album Paradise is the Road to Paradise is an actual hit. Though not an overnight success (the band spends their fair share of time performing at weddings and colleges), they eventually end up on Top of the Pops and sign a record contract. Almost secondary to their tumultuous lives under the spotlight, and within their own private lives, are the consequences and perks of fame that, despite being rather overwhelming, never seem to alter the overall loyalty they have for one another, and their determination to remain a band in control of their music – they all contribute to writing every song and maintain their unique sound.

As their fame escalates the band have encounters with David Bowie, John Lennon, Mama Cass, a very young Jackson Browne, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, and Gerry Garcia in recording studios, parties, backstage at concerts and in bathrooms at high end hotels. The drugs and alcohol flow, and in the midst of the haze, the Vietnam War is becoming a very real political issue. Everyone seems to have their own opinions regarding this new sexual revolution, and even though Stuff of Life, their second album does even better than the first, it is Utopia Avenue’s individual members who are more endearing to the public (and to the reader) then the group as a whole. That being said David Mitchell’s intricate (and intimate) knowledge regarding music and the music industry, is both informative and necessary (though a little tedious at times if you are unfamiliar with the science of music as I unfortunately am).

To encompass an entire generation of artists whose music is still very influential today is no small feat. Mitchell tackles politics, class, race, mental health and sexual orientation with a grace that would not be remiss in today’s discussions of the same topics. Unlike contemporary fiction, Utopia Avenue is essentially historical fiction, and the novel’s characters are clearly a product of their own time. Within the psychedelic drug haze that permeates this entire culture lies a love of philosophy and an extraordinary need to right the wrongs of the past – perhaps not so unique to our own contemporary issues.

Though some of the encounters with real musicians were a little ‘on the nose’ for me, I, for the most part, thoroughly enjoyed ‘meeting’ Bowie and having drinks with Joplin, and doing an exorbitant amount of drugs with Brian Jones. It felt like a deliciously decadent invitation to a secret society where the members are all famous and talented and just a little bit crazy, and that all seems rather appealing if you grew up wishing you had been born just the right number of years before the “Summer of Love’ to have enjoyed it.

Utopia Avenue is a trip. A wild trip through the winding roads taken by tour buses filled with rock stars, and wannabe rock stars, and the music that started rebellions and almost ended wars. Sometimes though the lives of those that made up this little band whose journey from obscurity to fame, are worth more than the sum of their parts, and without those lives there would be no songs. And what is life without music?

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