By David Mitchell
Utopia Avenue is a happy book about a happy band. After all, they are called Utopia Avenue. Not that things were always so rosy during their rapid rise along the rocky road to rock’n’roll stardom.
When we first meet Gravesend-bred blues bassist Dean Moss, he gets mugged, loses his bedsit and his job serving behind the counter in a cafe, all within the space of a few hours. He also has ongoing issues with an alcoholic, abusive father. Oh, and he’s just been kicked out of the band he was in, the politically hardline Battleship Potemkin. Home counties folksinger Elf Holloway is going through a bad breakup from her garrulous Australian boyfriend Bruce – who also happens to be the other half of her performing duo. Virtuoso Hendrixesque guitarist Jasper de Zoet is the ‘illegitimate’ scion of a wealthy Dutch family who, in a characteristic call-back to one of Mitchell’s previous novels, 2010’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, suffers from schizophrenia/demonic possession (delete where applicable), and has spent time in a psychiatric institution in Holland, after being hidden away as a boarder at a posh English Public School. Their drummer, gruff Yorkshire man Griff Griffin, a sticksman who learned his trade on the northern jazz circuit, is – as the only non-songwriting member of the ensemble – very much the shadow man of the group, although he does endure a personal tragedy of his own. In addition to the four performers, also integral to the set up is mild-mannered, gay, Canadian manager Levon Frankland, who has the vision to put the band together in the first place. A failed musician, his background is that he is estranged from his Christian evangelical family back home in Toronto because of his sexuality.
Set mostly in and around Soho in 1967/1968, the epicenter of Swinging London, with subsequent sorties to Italy, New York and California, the narrative features walk on appearances by many of the great and good of the time, including, but not limited to (deep breath): Sandy Denny; John Martyn; David Bowie; Marc Bolan; Syd Barrett; Allan Ginsberg; Mick Farren; Brian Jones; Steve Marriott; Jimmy Savile; Francis Bacon; Humphry Lyttleton; Lucian Freud; John Lennon; Jimi Hendrix; Leonard Cohen; Janis Joplin; Frank Zappa; Jerry Garcia and various members of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. This recurring conceit can amuse or annoy in equal measure, depending on one’s attitude, or even one’s patience.
From foundational texts like Don DiLillo’s Great Jones Street, through Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, on to Sway by Zachary Lazar and Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta, right up to more recent essays in the sub-genre like Toby Litt’s I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay, Joseph O’Connor’s The Thrill Of It All, D. J. Taylor’s Rock and Roll Is Life and David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device, the list of novels set in the rock music milieu is already long, and getting alarmingly longer. It is almost coming to seem as though it is a rite of passage for every novelist worth his salt to attempt one. But this is hardly surprising: any band that last any length of time – real or fictional – is a soap opera waiting to happen. What mostly differentiates Mitchell’s foray is the nostalgic aspect occasioned by the fact that all of this happened in a period now firmly fifty years ago. Also, rather than being written from one character’s perspective, as a pseudo-memoir, Mitchell employs multiple points of view. This is facilitated through the cute structure he uses: every chapter is titled after one of the band’s song titles, which are laid out in the order they appeared, Side 1 and Side 2, on each of the band’s three albums; the chapter is written, albeit in the third person, from the viewpoint of whichever member wrote the song. The only exception is a short afterword composed by Elf in the present day.
The novel is very good at hinting at the difficulties of being a woman in an otherwise male group, or indeed of being a female solo artist, in the late ’60s. Similarly, it also alludes to the vicissitudes of being gay when homosexuality was still illegal. It accomplishes all of this without indulging in the smug, retrospective moral superiority so common in historical revisionism. Despite the new-found freedoms of the era, sexism and homophobia were still almost taken for granted, according to Utopia Avenue the novel – but not in Utopia Avenue the band. Remarkably, considering they were mostly manufactured by their manager, the level of camaraderie and cooperation between the players is almost too good to be true. While he does receive one joint songwriting credit, it is difficult to believe that Griff would be happy being a virtual session man in his own group, especially when one considers the huge disparity in income which would ensue between him and the three songwriters of the group. There is also remarkably little ego friction between those three. The incident where Dean, off his face on coke at their showcase gig at L.A.’s famous Troubadour venue, plays badly but is covered for by his bandmates, speaks to the bonding within the group, but might well incur more wrath in a real life scenario.
It is notoriously difficult to capture the thrill of playing music, much less describe the music itself, in prose, but Mitchell succeeds for the most part, although he does rely on quoting lyrics as much as musical expertise to get this point across. Despite the idealisation of the band’s internal workings, this is an enjoyable read for anyone who likes music and is interested in the period. ‘Utopia’ is, after all, ‘no place’, and remains an aspiration even if it is by definition unrealisable in reality.
First published in The Irish Times. The link is below. Slightly longer version above.