Monday, August 31, 2020

Review of Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

Review By Greg Gilbert

                 Utopia Avenue is a 574 page fiction that centers on a British band in 1967 London. The psychedelic times, the political and spiritual movements, the people, the stars, and, most important, the music and the life of a band are delivered as only a writer of David Mitchell’s genius can. The band members are interesting and well drawn as the reader becomes intimate with their artistries, personal conflicts, and ambitions. Central to the story is how they shape their calls to artistry to the world in which they live, what Brian Eno refers to as ‘The Scenius,’ ‘The genius of the scene.’ “Art’s made by artists, but artists are enabled by a scene—non-artistic factors. Buyers, sellers, materials, patrons, technology, places to mingle and swap ideas. You see the fruits of scenius in Medici Florence. The Dutch Golden Age. New York in the twenties. Hollywood. Right now, the scenius of London, and Soho, is pretty perfect. We’ve the venues, studios with multitrack recorders, the radio stations, the music papers and magazines…even cafés where session players hang out.” And today we see it in the writing of David Mitchell.

                 The music of the times is a character in the novel as well, including discussions between band members as well as vignettes within the narration. The narration at one point alludes to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”: “The last track, `A Day in the Life,’ was a miniature of the whole album, like the way that the Book of Psalms is a miniature of the whole Bible. Lennon’s ‘found’ lyrics contrasted with McCartney’s kitchen-sink lines. Together they glowed. The song’s closer was an orchestral daymare finale spiraling upward to a final chord, slammed on dozens of pianos. The engineer raised the recording levels as the note fell away. Jasper thought of the end of a dream when the real world seeps in. It ended with backward laughing gibberish.  The stylus lifted off and the arm clunked home.”

                At times we witness individual creative and discovery processes at work: “The right hand played overlapping minims: C to C an octave below; F to F, the same; B flat to B flat; E to E. The left hand played jazz like sixths; blue jazz, not red jazz. It ended. Elf wanted to hear it again. The pianist obliged. This time Elf paid attention to the right-hand thirds: E and G; D and F; C and E; then a yo-yo back up to A and G, where the hand opened wider; a thumb on F and pinkie on B flat…” Questions of composition are instructive. G…D…E minor? Dean tries picking instead of strumming. Better. Better. Try an F minor instead of the G. No, F. One spoon of Dylan makes a gallon of meanings. Why don’t I try to write lyrics like this?”

                The band’s music is a fusion of audience, the times, and the traditions that have brought them to their shared moment. “Griff started with a tom-tom and came in with a minute’s solo in the style of Cozy Cole. Then he grabbed his sticks and played a solo, heavy on backbeats and rim shots, with a snare interlude. Elf watched his hands with a faraway smile on her face. Griff showed off an Art Blakey press-roll; a skipping run of ostinato; an Elvin Jones rolling triplet pulse; some swing-era cymbal-playing; and a glorious free-form crescendo.”

                Politics and its generational call-and-response play a role as well. A father watches news of the French police storming the barricades in the Latin Quarter and wonders if the present generation thinks stone throwing can lead to a better world. “If I had my way,” says Elf’s dad, iI’d give ’em a country of their own. Belgium, for example. I’d tell ’em, ‘It’s all yours. You sort out food for millions, organize sewage, banking, law and order, schools. You keep them safe in their beds at night. All the boring, nitty-gritty stuff. Hearing aids. Nails. Potatoes.’”

                Many subjects relevant to the time get their due, each theme exploring its own “Scenius” existence, themes that are specific to the 60’s, many that are universal and timeless. When an interviewer asks one band member if music can change the world, his answer is one for all artists. “Songs do not change the world,’ declares Jasper. ‘People do. People pass laws, riot, hear God, and act accordingly. People invent, kill, make babies, start wars.’ Jasper lights a Marlboro. ‘Which raises a question. Who or what influences the minds of the people who change the world?’ My answer is Ideas and feelings. Which begs a question. Where do ideas and feelings originate? My answer is, Others. One’s heart and mind. The press. The arts. Stories. Last, but not least, songs. Songs. Songs, like dandelion seeds, billowing across space and time. Who knows where they’ll land? Or what they’ll bring?”

                I’m not suggesting that this is a didactic, feel good book, but it did touch the heart of this old teenager. Where another book dealing with band life back in the day, Daisy Jones & the Six, focuses on the small soap operas within a band, Utopia Avenue captures the dynamics of an entire epic epoch.

                With all of its good, it is not a perfect book, but close enough. It presents some of the era’s stars in idealized conversations; it postures and contrives at times, and romanticizes the enduring mythology of the summer of love. Utopia Avenue is not a newsreel account, and rightfully so. The story lifts away from the earth at times and into realms of magical realism. The drugs and sex and rock-n-roll offer a compelling flashback for my gen-gen-generation.

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Greg Gilbert is the author of Afflatus.

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