Welcome to London, late 1966. Manager Levon Frankland (think Beatles manager Brian Epstein) brings together four musicians of different backgrounds and musical influences. What emerges is the band Utopia Avenue, playing an eclectic blend of folk, jazz, R&B and psychedelia.
What I had anticipated was simply a story of a rock band during a pivotal time in social and musical history. But Utopia Avenue is different. Very different. I hadn’t read any of author David Mitchell’s works, so I was unprepared to enter his literary universe. At its core, the story is extremely engaging. The four members of the band are: Dean Moss, talented songwriter, singer, bass player and a ladies man; Elf Holloway, a talented female folk singer and songwriter who was part of a duet whose boyfriend/musical partner has left her; Jasper De Zoet, a brilliant guitar player and songwriter who has hidden his mental illness and Griff Griffin, a talented drummer. Together they make inventive and appealing music. The book is at its best when the band starts to enjoy early fame. They appear on “Top of the Pops” and hear one of their songs on the radio. Where I was left with my head spinning was at the many references to characters and plots from other Mitchell books including an otherworldly mental breakdown.
There is a lot to like in Utopia Avenue. The London music scene during the period was well presented. How can you not admire a book where an unknown David Bowie makes an appearance as well as the hopefully never forgotten original leader of Pink Floyd, the tragic Syd Barrett and the great Steve Marriott from Small Faces? And the cameos continue. When the band stays at the famed Chelsea Hotel once they arrive in the States, a teenaged Jackson Browne is playing guitar next to Janis Joplin. You could feel the excitement during the band’s performance at the legendary Troubadour followed by a party in Laurel Canyon where Mama Cass Elliot reigned supreme with Frank Zappa providing words of wisdom. As the book approaches its end, we are transported to Haight-Ashbury where Jerry Garcia provides his own take on the times, “Every third or fourth generation is a generation of radicals, of revolutionaries. We, my friends, are the bottle-smashers. We release the genies.” Oftentimes the appearances of these musical luminaries seemed contrived, but I can easily overlook that.
And the book is so much more than these cameos. It’s about four characters. Talented individuals you’ll come to care about. As a novice into the Mitchellverse, there were parts of Utopia Avenue that baffled, confused, and even annoyed me but I’m glad to have gone on the trip.
Rated 3.75 out of 5 stars.
Publication Date: July 14, 2020.
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