- The Good: Alternate history of the London music scene of the late 60s
- The Bad: Character arcs lacking resolution; plot second to atmospheric backdrop
- The Literary: Full to the brim with music and pop culture references
The London music scene of 1967 is a place of revolution. An unclassifiable new psychedelic folk band called Utopia Avenue rises to stardom, from Soho to Top of the Pops to Europe and America. Each member has a story: female folk singer and pianist Elf Holloway, Dutch-born guitar demigod Jasper de Zoet, working-class Londoner blues bassist Dean Moss, and Griff, a versatile, working class jazz drummer from Yorkshire.
Mitchell’s new novel is a love letter to the music scene of the late 1960s. After the band is assembled by their manager, their rocky start smooths out and their playing tightens up. In addition to the rock and roll, they get into the inevitable sex and drugs, and deal with thugs and prison and death, especially the heartthrob Dean. The torrent of the bands’ rise to stardom is quite engaging.
Each band member works through their own personal demons, forming a makeshift family that supports each other unconditionally. Elf and manager Levon struggle with LGBT issues, Jasper with mental illness, Dean with delusions of grandeur and anger management, and Griff with grief and addiction, but together they keep making great music.
More than the typical band trajectory, the music, pop culture, film, history, and celebrity references are everywhere. The change in the air is palpable, as the counter-culture of the hippies and beatniks protest and riot over civil rights, Vietnam, and revolution. Over the course of their fame, they meet David Bowie, Syd Barrett, Allen Ginsberg, and Janis Joplin, just to name a few. Maybe the constant name dropping is a bit cheesy, but I only have warm feelings for this milieu.
For example, at a famous pit stop in the north of England, each band member finds a seat at a table the Beatles favor when on tour. It’s obvious Mitchell is drawing direct parallels’ between his band and the Fab Four, and I’m here for it. Griff is Ringo; Jasper is George; Dean is Paul; Elf is John.
At a certain point in the story, Jasper’s mental illness stretches past the alternate history genre into realms of fantasy, which feels tonally incongruent with the rest of the novel. The magical ways in which his schizophrenia is explained and cured are both silly and abrupt. Actually, many of the closures of the book are abrupt, even random, as the story covers several years before skipping decades forward in the epilogue.
The strength in Utopia Avenue isn’t the plot, but if you love the iconic music of the 60s, this one’s for you.