MItchell’s ‘Utopia Av­enue’ chan­nels magic of ’60s mu­sic

New novel drops the fan­tas­ti­cal to fo­cus on the clas­sic combo of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - Don Olden­burg

Half­way through David Mitchell’s eighth novel, “Utopia Av­enue” (Ran­dom House, 592 pp., ★★★★), which fol­lows the adventures of an emerg­ing ‘60s Bri­tish rock band, one bloke pokes the band’s bummed-out drum­mer Griff: “Star­dom’s get­ting stress­ful, is it?”

Seems so. A few pages later, Griff, re­cov­er­ing from a fa­tal au­to­mo­bile ac­ci­dent, is con­tem­plat­ing quit­ting the band — just as it’s go­ing big time.

And so it goes, one cap­ti­vat­ing page af­ter an­other, two steps for­ward and one back­ward, in this deep and tex­tured clas­sic-rock tale writ­ten by the imag­i­na­tive (he has been called a “post-mod­ern vi­sion­ary”), best-sell­ing English au­thor whose ac­claimed nov­els in­clude the Booker Prize-short­listed “Cloud At­las” and “num­ber9­dream.”

This novel is more grounded than

Mitchell’s most fan­tas­ti­cal work: The fic­tional band Utopia Av­enue gets its shaky start in Lon­don’s rough-and-rowdy club circuit just as rock mu­sic is ex­plod­ing with orig­i­nal­ity and cre­ativ­ity.

It’s 1967. The Bea­tles are the Bri­tish gold stan­dard and soon will re­lease the coun­ter­cul­ture-defin­ing “Sgt. Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The Rolling Stones are em­brac­ing bad-boy fame. Across the pond, the Sum­mer of Love is break­ing out. And bands like Utopia Av­enue are vy­ing to score record deals and be­come the Next New Thing.

Up­start man­ager Levon Fran­k­land scours Brit clubs for tal­ent and pulls to­gether the mak­ings of a folksy-bluesy-psy­che­delic su­per­group. Dean Moss, a down-in-luck bass player and song­writer, es­caped an im­pov­er­ished, abu­sive child­hood play­ing the blues. Singerkey­boardist Elf Hol­loway’s song­writ­ing fu­els the group though her in­ti­ma­cies, spark­ing in­fight­ing and soul search­ing. Af­fa­ble, tor­tured-artist Jasper de Zoet is the lead guitarist whose riffs blow other mu­si­cians’ minds. York­shire jazz drum­mer Griff Grif­fin stead­ies the band.

From ’67 Soho to ’68 San Fran­cisco, this epic plot spans the band’s tri­umphs, tra­vails and demise. It’s an an­tic­i­pated jour­ney, for sure, with full doses of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But Mitchell mar­velously brings it all to life by fo­cus­ing his most en­gag­ing sto­ry­telling on each band mem­ber’s own evo­lu­tion, along with some ex­per­i­men­tal nar­ra­tive and ex­cep­tional in-con­cert scenes. Each song-ti­tled chap­ter con­tin­ues the per­sonal tra­jec­tory of one band mem­ber; song lyrics pro­vide fur­ther in­sight.

Adding to the magic is a prodi­gious sup­port­ing cast of real-life rock stars. Cameos from (then still young) David Bowie, Brian Jones, John Len­non, Ja­nis Jo­plin and more make for ad­dic­tive read­ing. Mitchell gives some of them voices: Gene Clark, who quit The Byrds, chats with Jas­par about fame and re­grets; Jimi Hen­drix asks Griff about record­ing-stu­dio tech­ni­cal­i­ties; at New York’s Chelsea Ho­tel, Leonard Co­hen asks Elf, “So are you a new in­mate at the asy­lum…?” In the Haight, Jerry Gar­cia, Dean and Jas­par talk good times and bad.

For read­ers too young (like the au­thor him­self ) to know first­hand, and for those old enough to re­mem­ber or for­get, Mitchell mas­ter­fully cap­tures the spirit of the times and the tenor of its mu­sic. “Utopia Av­enue” is a fun and ful­fill­ing read — a 592-page rock ‘n’ roll road trip whose char­ac­ters and nar­ra­tive be­come the song that gets stuck in your head.

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