Ever wondered how it would feel to be in a rock band during the summer of love in swinging London? Well, for those of us not around at the time, reading David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue is probably as close as we can get without having to get teleported back to Soho’s music scene in the late 1960s.
As one might expect, the novel deals extensively – yet not exclusively – with topics such as sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll (increasingly so, in this order). However, it builds and extends upon these classic themes, touching upon issues such as gender equality, (hetero)sexuality, emotional dyslexia, mental illness, perception and hallucination, the process of songwriting, as well as the inner workings of music business.
In his latest novel, Mitchell recounts the birth and rise to fame of a fictional four-piece psychedelic-folk-rock band called Utopia Avenue. As the story unfolds, the reader follows the band from their beginnings in Soho, London to their first – and final – tour of America (“an endless, world-class distraction, if nothing else”), with eventful detours in Rome and Amsterdam in between. While getting to know the the band members (and their manager), the reader stumbles upon several famous musicians and artists who interact with the band at various points throughout the book, such as Brian Jones, David Bowie, Syd Barrett, Francis Bacon, Sandy Denny, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Jerry Garcia.
Although the focus is primary musical and cultural, the novel also taps into the politics and activism of the late 1960s. Referencing anti-war demonstrations and debates about the Vietnam War, Mitchell also discusses the nature of radicalism, the demise of hippie culture, and the subsequent commercialization of anti-commercialism.
Still, Utopia Avenue is largely a novel about the mystifying power of music and its ability to enrich, transform and make sense of one’s life. To quote Jasper, the band’s troubled yet supremely gifted guitarist: “How music works is learnable. Why it works, God only knows. Maybe not even God.” While playing in Paradiso, Amsterdam’s hallowed venue, Jasper comes to a realization: “Worship still happens here, worship of music itself. Music frees the soul from the cage of the body. Music transforms the Many to a One.”
So can music actually change the world? The answer, once more, is given by Jasper: “Songs, like dandelion seeds, billowing across space and time. Who knows where they’ll land? Or what they’ll bring? […] Often, usually, they land on barren soil and don’t take root. But sometimes, they land in a mind that is ready. Is fertile. What happens then? Feelings and ideas happen. Joy, solace, sympathy. Assurance. Cathartic sorrow. The idea that life could be, should be, better than this.”
From cover to cover, Utopia Avenue is an immense joy to read. Its pages are sure to captivate music enthusiasts, as well as anyone with even a passing interest in the cultural and social upheaval of the late 1960s. An ideal companion would be Joe Boyd’s memoir White Bicycles, which Mitchell also cites as an inspiration. And while you’re at it, you might also want to check out this cool playlist inspired by the novel. Enjoy the ride!