Updated: Jun 10, 2021
" 'I hear knocking. Don't you?' 'Knocking? What's knocking?' 'Opportunity.' ”
You'll smell the patchouli and the rain.
I should say upfront that it probably helps if you have a keen interest in music, and 1960s music at that, to get the most from this story. As well as enjoying the vibe, fashion and thoughts of that period. But how could you not?! If that’s your thing, you’re off to a flying start. And if you’re not, this will make you a new devotee.
This novel is sectioned into three parts, which are three albums, with each chapter being a song title. It’s a clever setup. The chapters are vignettes, which tell the story of one of the four musician’s lives. Via flashbacks which segue to current time, we find out how four strangers become the new über group Utopia Avenue.
“The musical chemistry was good, for four strangers.”
“It’s a whole album of goddamn masterpieces.”
This isn’t just a story about an unknown band who went from playing in uni bars to drunken students to rabid fans in sold out music venues in Italy and New York. It goes deeper. We learn about Elf, Dean, Jasper and Griff as individuals. What makes them tick. Their hopes and dreams. And we meet their families too, which goes a long way to forming the people they are.
Of course this book features the A-Z of fabulousness from the late 1960s. Cameos from real life musicians and people in music and show biz abound. It’s like a “who’s who” of amazement. I had an absolute blast reading about them all, and loved how they were incorporated into the story.
David Bowie (already fabulous), Brian Jones ”appears in a cape, beads and gold.”, Syd Barrett (off the planet), Keith Moon (not far behind), John Lennon (looking for his mind under a table), “Lenny” Cohen (oh you smooth operator!), Janis Joplin (telling it like it is sister)…sigggghhhh (Patsy and Eddy would be beside themselves).
We see them in their brilliant otherness. At parties, revealing utter truths, while talking in riddles. Wine, champagne and a smorgasbord of chemical and herbal substances help the party along. Even royalty is spotted ”Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon pass by…” I revelled in these snippets, as they were just so gloriously over the top and fabulous. Just like the times they were set in.
Even the infamous "people don’t die in" Chelsea Hotel gets a look in.
” ‘Syd’s here? There’s too many famous people at this party. It’s bloody ridiculous. Just bumped in Hendrix coming out o’ the bog.’ ”
The excesses, the obsequious nature of “making it”, the rip-offs, the drink, the drugs, the groupies, the sex. It’s all here.
Let’s meet the band.
“Question: What do you get if you cross an Angry Young Bassist, a folk-scene doyenne, a Stratocaster demigod and a jazz drummer? Answer: Utopia Avenue, a band like no other.”
ELF Elizabeth Frances Holloway (keyboardist, folksinger, backing vocalist)
The token female in the group. Struggling to have her musicianship and opinions taken seriously. She's a folk singer in her own right. Elf has an off again/on again relationship outside of the group, and is trying to figure out her sexuality and how to define herself as a modern woman in a changing world. Having equal value and voice to the men in the band. To make her mark musically, and be accepted as a musician in her own right. You have to remember this was a time when once a woman was married, she gave up work.
"Watch. Watch how everyone reacts to one of my ideas, compared to an idea from a guy. Watch and learn.”
"Phobias are irrational...that’s the point.”
"But you should know: patriarchy is a stitch-up."
"’If I had three wishes’, says Elf, ‘I’d let you have one.’"
DEAN Dean Moss/Moffatt (vocals, the bass player)
Dean is my favourite character. I had a soft spot for him, as his chapters ripped my heart to shreds. The honest rawness. Living in the shadow of an alcoholic father, his upbringing was tough. His chapters impacted me the most. Dean carries around a chip on his shoulder, and has an inner sadness, which he hides under a front of bravado. Despite it all, he’s a gem.
“Yer should always look a gift horse in its mouth. They’re never gifts.”
“Time’s a fire-extinguisher...”
"Yer can’t wish your life away. Can yer?’"
JASPER Jasper de Zoet (guitar god and prodigy)
Jasper is undoubtedly a complex character. And a very troubled one. He is fabulously and naturally artistic. He doesn’t view the world the same way that the ‘normals’ do. But as my good friend Collin (who I buddy read this with) observed ”Genius is only inches away from madness.”. That is so true. And describes the plight of Jasper’s being perfectly. He suffers. His mental battles are such a major part of the story. They were as equally fascinating to read as they were painful and harrowing. I loved the esoteric questions thrown up around Jasper’s character, that went off to another realm. All of the imponderable “What ifs…”.
“ ‘I don’t know if it’s demonic possession or madness or a brain tumour,’ said Jasper, ‘but this is killing me.’ ”
“Why do you want to destroy me?’”
I loved seeing the world through Jasper’s eyes. Hands down, the best observations about society, life and art come from him. He has a keen eye, a razor sharp mind and an unfailing inability to tell anything other than what is on his mind. This is one deep thinker who feels too much.
“A person is a thing who leaves.”
“Generations pass. Aesthetiques evolve.Why is this fact a threat?”
“Why stick labels on the moon? It's Art."
“The reality isn't at all like the fantasy.”
" 'Overnight success,' says Jasper, 'takes a few years.' ”
GRIFF Peter Griffin (the drummer)
Griff’s a northern lad who’s a rough diamond. What you see is what you get. No pretensions here. Just good solid drumming. And no bullsh*t friendship. He calls it as he sees it.
“Groupies are groupies. They want a pop star. They don't want me.”
"The musician's life isn't what it's cracked up to be from the outside. ”
"We've all got a sob story, but we don't all act like bolshy pricks."
There are references made to the cultural and civic unrest in the late 1960s, such as the Vietnam war, the air of change with demonstrations and peace protests. The Summer of Love slowly grinding to a halt. It’s an interesting mix of how music fed off cultural events, and how creativity was fuelled by world events.
I had a few niggles that I couldn't let go through to the keeper, so am shaving off half a star. There were some sexual comments and jokes which just fell flat for me. And there was a throwaway line about Nick Drake which annoyed me.
But other than that *WOW*.
The ending left me devastated. Even as I was reading it, as though in slow motion, my mind was crying out “Nooooooo”. I could see what was happening, but didn't want it to. It left me feeling quite wrung out and emotional. Not how I imagined it would end at all. I thought it would be the atypical crash and burn hot mess of stardom. But this took me for a six. Could it have ended any other way? I don’t know. Another book with a - dare I say it - perfect ending.
Overall this book is mind blowing. It is an absolute mega universe. It’s huge, a veritable tome. But you won’t notice the amount of pages at all. The story is as busy and dynamic as the psychedelic cover. It captures a moment. David Mitchell hits the brief by bottling the essence of a specific brief, burning time, that will never occur again.
4.5⭐full to bursting stars. It would be totes amazeballs to read this while listening to an accompanying soundtrack, incense burning, under the light of a lava lamp.
“If we could read the script of the future, we'd never turn the page.”
If you grew up loving live music. If you grew up, not being able to sleep a week before your favourite band were playing at your city. If you grew up collecting albums and the artwork on the sleeves. In short if you grew up in a world of music that has now followed the dinosaur into extinction you will probably love this novel.
This novel is set in the 60’s, a golden era for music. The age of the super band. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Hendrix. It is set in a world where bands worked their fingers to the bone playing gig after gig trying to get noticed by an agent and get that elusive contract which may just catapult them into the world of the superstars.
Utopia Avenue are one of those bands. A group comprised of four completely different individuals, who when brought together as a band, can create magic.
On the drums we have Griff. A Yorkshireman and the least fleshed out character of the four. On guitar we have Jasper de Zoet. Yes, I did say de Zoet, a name that will be familiar with Mitchell fans. Jasper is a bit of a virtuoso with a guitar. On piano we have a folk singer Elf Holloway. And on lead vocals and bass, Dean Moss.
All the characters, with the exception of Griff, have wonderful back stories, and told through the writing of an author like Mitchell they are a joy to read. Mitchell also takes us behind the scenes and unveils just how difficult it was for a band in this era. The constant travel and gigs, playing for little money, trying to get noticed by an agent and get airplay on the radio. It is a delight to travel around with Utopia Avenue as they struggle to “make it big”.
Along the way the band meet many of the famous names of the era. Hendrix, Lennon, Joplin. The first meeting with Bowie is just brilliant.
The book is indeed about the band Utopia Avenue, but as I said before each of the characters have their own narratives, and each of them, again apart from poor old Griff, could make a wonderful novel on its own.
The strength of the novel lies within Jacob de Zoet’s narrative, and readers who have read “Thousand Autumns” will immediately be at home. Jacob is plagued by mental problems. Mental problems in the form of a spirit called “Knock Knock” that resides within his mind and never lets Jacob forget that he will eventually kill Jacob and take control.
Using the characters, Mitchell also explores different themes. Elf is questioning her sexuality in a world whose tolerance is not what we have reached today. Dean is still tormented by the abuse he received at the hands of his father. Jasper is plagued with mental illness and I do believe is autistic.
Like his other books this book fits in with the other seven novels Mitchell has written. I would almost go as far as saying that to fully enjoy and appreciate reading this book, you should have read “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet” and “The Bone Clocks”. If you have not the ending will not have the same impact it is supposed to have, and the reader may even feel a little lost with Jacob de Zoet’s narrative, which, again in my opinion is easily the strongest and most interesting.
However, if you have read both novels, you will marvel at what Mitchell has done with Jacob’s story and how he has twisted and twined three completely different novels into his world again.
A warning for readers who did not enjoy “The Bone Clocks”. There is a high chance that if you did not enjoy the magical realism or narrative of “The Bone Clocks” then you will probably not like this novel either. I cannot say more without spoilers, but “The Bone Clocks” plays an integral role in this novel, more so than many have realised.
For fans of David Mitchell, this novel is a goldmine waiting to be explored. You find one nugget, then another, until you realise that you want to go back and revisit the other books as well. I believe that what Mitchell has done with his eight novels is close to genius. 4.5 Stars.
Well for me this novel was worth every minute of the lengthy wait and Nat, what a brilliant review, loved it too, with both of us scoring it 4.5 stars.
That gives Utopia Avenue a total score of 9/10.