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David Mitchell: Utopia Avenue
While I am, of course, reviewing this novel because it is by David Mitchell, I am also reviewing it because my late brother-in-law was, like Dean Moss, one of the the protagonists of this novel, a bassist in a rock group and had some success (but not very much) in his rock career before his premature death. Moreover, I used to be and still am to a certain degree a keen devotee of this era of music and had an encyclopedic knowledge of many of the performers. Given that Mitchell uses many real characters in this book, I found it that much more interesting.
We meet Dean Moss when things are not going well for him. He has been kicked out of his group, fired from his job, been scammed out of £50 (a lot of money in January 1967 when this book opens) and thrown out of his flat, as he cannot pay his rent. Fortunately, he meets Levon Frankland, one of those Svengali-like music impresarios (think: Andrew Loog Oldham, Peter Grant or Mickie Most).
A new group is formed with Dean, along with two members of a band which is now defunct thanks to the the manoeuvring of Levon Frankland (Jasper de Zoet, his real name, lead guitarist, and Griff Griffin, drummer), and Elf Holloway, lead singer and keyboardist, formerly in a duo (both musical and romantic), with an Australian, Bruce Fletcher, who has unceremoniously dumped her, both musically and romantically.
We follow their careers, from the disastrous first gig, to a record deal, Top of the Pops, US tour and the like, while also following their personal lives, which are inevitably a bit messy. We go through the fairly standard issues including, but not limited to, sex, groupies, band dynamics, relationship with manager and with the record company, drugs, including planting of drugs (with references to the Rolling Stones’ experience on this issue), family issues, family tragedies, publicity, touring the US, wild parties with people (specifically Keith Moon and Brian Jones falling into the swimming pool fully clothed), fascination with UFOs, the press, both the musical press and the national press and spending money. Did I mention sex and drugs, the downfall of many a good band?
There is one issue which is not too standard. Jasper, since he was boy, has continually heard a knock-knock sound when there is clearly no-one there. He has decided it is a person (or ghost-like person). He spends a lot of time trying to deal with it. Not for the first time in this book, it refers back to a previous novel by Mitchell, The Bone Clocks, and specifically to the condition he calls psychosoterica. This will play a major role in Jasper’s life (and, as a result a role in the band’s life) and is the one area where Mitchell, as he has in his previous novels, moves away from conventional reality
While Mitchell himself was born after the start of events in this book, he clearly also has an encyclopedic knowledge of them. However, many readers, I feel, will not. There are numerous real characters, not all of whom will be well-known to anyone but aficionados. For example, in the opening part we have a few examples. While most readers will undoubtedly have heard of Pink Floyd and David Bowie, who both appear, fewer will have heard of Sandy Denny and fewer still of John Martyn (both now sadly deceased). Part of the joy of this novel is recognising these characters and if you do not, as many readers will not, part of the charm may well be lost.
As regards the fictitious characters, they are undoubtedly composites and not based on any one individual. Nevertheless, it was interesting to speculate who they might be partially based on. Elf, for example, was in a male/female folk duo, where the two were both musical and romantic partners. This is, I suspect, less common now but was quite common then. Famous examples would include John Martyn and Beverley Martyn and Richard Thompson and Linda Thompson. In both cases, like Elf and Bruce, the couples collaborated musically and romantically and then broke up musically and romantically.
Jasper de Zoet, the lead guitarist, has a German girlfriend. Quite a few musicians of that era had German girlfriends, including Stuart Sutcliffe, Keith Richards, Elton John and, when he was living in London, Jimi Hendrix. This does not mean to say that de Zoet is based on any of these people but doubtless Mitchell was aware of the German girlfriend meme.
I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Mitchell, as always, tells a first-class story. While some is predictable, much is not, particularly the ending. For me, remembering my brother-in-law and his travails and the travails of his group was brought back. It was also fascinating digging out my old CDs to play some of the songs Mitchell references and also to get his take on some of the real characters. Even if you are not a 60s aficionado, you can still appreciate a good story about the rise of a 60s band and what follows.
First published 2020 by Random House