And we’re up and running with the first book of 2021 – Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell. I actually finished this last weekend but have only just gotten around to writing.
Like last year, I’ve no plan for what I’m going to read this year, I haven’t even decided on a challenge, I guess I’ll figure that out at some point.
Anyway, Utopia Avenue is for anyone who ever dreamed about being in band (me) or just loves music (also me).
I should point out I’ve never read anything else by David Mitchell; so, ALL the references (I’ve since learnt there’s quite a few) to his other works went completely over my head. It also meant I came to this with no expectations whatsoever, I was just interested in a story about a fictional band.
Utopia Avenue are folksinger Elf Holloway, blues bassist Dean Moss, guitar virtuoso Jasper de Zoet and jazz drummer Griff Griffin – they’re brought together by manager Levon Frankland and create a unique sound, in fact “they might be the most curious British band you’ve never heard of”.
Dean is seen as the heartthrob, he’s a bit of a playboy, finds himself in trouble and is from a large working-class family (how his accent is written does get annoying as the book goes on). He’s still dealing with trauma from his childhood.
Elf is from a traditional middle-class background, she’s had her heart broken by her gobby Australian boyfriend, who she happened to be in an act with. She’s also experimenting with her sexuality and what it is to be a woman in an age where on the one hand you’re told there’s more opportunity while at the same time being reminded by older generations that there are still certain expectations.
Jasper is a guitar genius, he’s autistic, though that’s not said explicitly, he often doesn’t know what’s required of him in social situations and struggles to work out how people feel and how to react to that. He also suffers from aural hallucinations, something he’s called ‘knock knock’. It’s a kind of psychosis he’s dealt with since a teenager, as ‘knock knock’ threatens to return, Mitchell takes us in to Jasper’s mind and some bizarre, imagined worlds.
Griff is the only band member who isn’t dealing with a back catalogue of issues, he’s from Hull, blunt and steady.
The book’s set out in three parts – each an album – with each chapter told from the perspective of one of the characters, usually Dean, Elf and Jasper, perhaps that’s a comment on how drummers are (criminally) usually forgotten, what with being sat at the back of stage and all.
The story charts their rise from seedy Soho clubs and ballrooms in Brighton to appearances on Top of the Pops and eventually America.
There’s cameos littered throughout, there’s David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Mama Cass, Syd Barret and John Lennon. I know some people absolutely hated them, accused them of being lazy and clumsy, they made me smile as did the characters reactions to these meetings; let’s call a spade a spade, if I’d been plucked from obscurity and suddenly found myself at a party with David Bowie I too would say, “fucking hell, you’re David Bowie”.
It’s a period in time that I find interesting, the idea that there was so much change happening across world, music played a role in that. It was a time when younger generations were trying to break free from what was expected and, in the case of Utopia Avenue, were chasing their dreams despite being told constantly “to get a real job”.
I’m also a realist and know that the ‘swinging sixties’ were not a reality for everyone and there’s hints of this throughout. We’re reminded of the old fashioned and bigoted attitudes, from Elf’s father reminding her that the bank he works at won’t employ married women to the sign Dean’s landlady, having turfed him out on to the street, props in the window a sign that reads “BLACKS & IRISH NEED NOT APPLY”.
The relatively fast rise of Utopia Avenue and their modest success doesn’t automatically bring happiness, they still have to deal with the same things as the rest of us, family problems, love, loss and grief.
Throughout it all there’s one thing that keeps the characters together, their enduring love of and desire to make music. What it means to them and what it means to fans, how music has the power inspire and move us.
“’In fifty years,’ said Jasper, ‘or five hundred, or five thousand, music will still do to people what it does now’”. David Mitchell.
It’s a great story, it kept me entertained, it kept me on edge waiting for the inevitable downfall – the book’s blurb gives us a clear idea that the wheels are going to come off – I didn’t see how that would happen until it became clear and I was gutted.
Is the greatest novel I’ve read about music? No, as I’ve said many, many times, you’ll have to do a lot to take that title from High Fidelity, but nevertheless it was fun. I enjoyed reading about the exploits of Utopia Avenue, I liked the characters and the era it was set in. All in all a strong start to 2021’s reading list.
And a great cover too.
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm