Let me just say up front that I loved all four main characters in Utopia Avenue and didn’t want anything bad to happen to them ever. It’s a good thing I wasn’t in charge, then, as that would have made for a dull novel. David Mitchell not only had the skill to create people who would tug so effectively at my heart-strings, but also the temerity to put them through bad things and the forbearance to let them make bad choices.
Mitchell first introduces Dean Moss, bassist, late of Battleship Potemkin though the band threw him out for “revisionism.” It’s mid-1960s London, and Dean is chasing his musical dreams. Unfortunately, he has a bad day. He’s pickpocketed between the bank and paying his rent. His landlady throws him out on the spot (“Take your ‘gear’ with you … Anything still in your room at two o’clock will be in the Salvation Army store at three.” (p. 7)) and keeps his deposit. Dean tries to get his employer to advance him some pay, seeing as how he isn’t working between that day and payday anyway. The employer fires him on the spot and keep five days’ wages just because he can. Within a dozen pages, Mitchell has Dean well and truly down and out. He even loses what is probably his last sixpence in a gutter.
But his luck has already turned, though he does not yet realize it. The stranger whose question startled Dean enough to turn a coin toss into a coin loss is Levon Frankland, a talent manager currently looking for a new band, following “artistic differences” with an outfit called Great Apes. Levon says he wants Dean to see a band and give him his opinion about their potential. He’ll give Dean a place to crash for the weekend.
The band is Archie Kinnock’s Blues Cadillac. “Within moments, Dean can see that not one but two of the Blues Cadillac’s wheels are coming loose. Archie Kinnock is drunk, stoned or both. … [The bassist, meanwhile, is lagging behind the beat. His backing vocals … are off-key, not in a good way. He barks at the drummer, ‘Too bleedin’ slow!’ in mid-song. The drummer scowls.” (p. 15) But those are not the two Levon has brought Dean to see. “The second [lead guitar] solo impresses Dean even more than the first. People crane their necks to watch the guitarist’s fingers fly, pick, clamp, pull, slide and hammer up and down the fretboard. How’s he even doing that?” (pp. 15–16)
During the break, Levon asks Dean’s opinion.
“Yer brought me here to see the guitarist, didn’t you?”
“He’s pretty good.”
Levon makes an is-that-all? face.
“He’s bloody amazing. Who is he?”
“His name’s Jasper de Zoet.”
“Christ. Where I’m from yer’d get lynched for less.”
“Dutch father, English mother. He’s only been in England six weeks, so he’s still finding his feet. Care for a splash of bourbon in that Coke?”
Dean holds out his bottle and receives a good glug. “Cheers. He’s pissing his talent away on Archie Kinnock.”
“He’s like you in Battleship Potemkin.”
“Who’s the drummer? He’s good too.”
“Peter Griffin. ‘Griff’. From Yorkshire. He salted his burns on the northern jazz circuit, playing in the Wally Whitby ensemble.”
“Wally Whitby the jazz trumpet player?”
“The very same.” Levon swigs from his hip flask.
“Does Jasper de Thingy write as well as play?” asks Dean.
“Apparently. But Archie won’t let him play his own material.”
Dean feels a throb of jealousy. “He’s really got something.”
Levon dabs his glazed brow with a spotted handkerchief. “Agreed. But he’s also got a problem. He’s too much his own man to slot into a pre-existing act like Archie Kinnock’s, but he’s not a solo act either. He needs a hand-picked gang of bandmates as gifted as he is, who’ll spur him on and who’ll be spurred on by him.”
“Which band do yer have in mind?”
“It doesn’t exist yet. But I believe I’m looking at its bassist.” (pp. 16–17)
Dean, Jasper and Griff make three out of four, even if they don’t know it yet. And Levon shows his managerial acumen by getting them on stage together that same night, for more money than any of them had been making before.
“Where are we going?” asks Dean.
“I hear knocking. Don’t you?”
“Knocking? What’s knocking?”
“Opportunity.” (p. 20)
Mitchell also gives Elf Holloway a bad day. The third day after her boyfriend and other half of the folk duo Fletcher & Holloway moved out, to be exact. He turns up when he thought she would be out; he only wants to gather some belongings and leave. He’s already living with another woman. He delivers the news that there won’t be a record album — the single didn’t meet expectations — and the label has dropped them. Then he leaves.
“The flat was silent. Record label: gone. The duo: gone. Bruce: gone. Elf fled to her bed — hers, no longer ours — curled up under her blanket and in that stuffy womb sobbed her heart out. All over again.” (p. 27)
Somehow she gets through the days that follow: he older sister’s announcement that she’s engaged to a banker (and since Elf hasn’t admitted the breakup to her family yet, the request that Fletcher and Holloway play at the wedding), needling from her younger sister who’s an aspiring actor and all about creating drama. Years ago, the younger sister also provided the nickname: “It’s the ‘El’ of ‘Elizabeth’ and the ‘F’ of ‘Frances’. My sister Bea started it when she was little, and it’s stuck.” (p. 41)
Elf has gigs lined up, but doesn’t know if she can go on alone, go back to how she sang before joining up with Bruce as a duo.
Elf could just go home to her flat, curl up under her blanket and …
What? Sob yourself to sleep? Again? Do nothing until the last of the [hit song she wrote] money is gone, then crawl back to Mum and Dad, penniless and career-less, contract-less? If I don’t show up at Les Cousins tonight, Bruce wins. The doubters will win. …
Bugger that, thinks Elf. (p. 35)
But starting the gig and finishing the gig are two entirely different things. She starts with humor and one of her best songs, but soon she’s singing another one and realizes halfway through that without Bruce’s parts it’s falling flat. The applause is polite. She starts another and gets distracted mid-song. She stops playing, belated realizing that she’s dropped her lucky plectrum. “She thinks, This is how careers die.” (p. 38)
Only several someones come to her rescue. A guy about her age hands her her plectrum. Someone to his left supplies the next line in the song: “If you do not go with me, I’ll surely find another.”
Elf addresses the audience. “I thought I’d revise this bit —” she starts to finger-pick “— to reflect the wreckage I call my love-life …” She counts herself in and sings: “Even if you go with me, I’ll still sleep with another …” she switches to an Australian accent “… ’cause my name if Brucie Fletcher, and I’ll even do your mother…”
Shrieks of glee slosh around the club. Elf finishes the song with no further revisions, and the applause is buoyant.
The man with the plectrum was Dean. The man with the song line was Jasper. Griff, true to form, stayed quiet and took it all in. After the show, Levon gives her the pitch.
“I feel like I’m being invited to run away with the circus,” says Elf. “To be clear, you’re not a folk group?”
“Correct,” says Levon. “You’d be bringing the folk spirit to the picnic. Dean’s got a bluesy sensibility. Griff’s from jazz, and Jasper’s …” They look at him
“So if you’re not a folk band, what kind are you?” [asked Elf.]
“Pavonine,” says Jasper. “Magpie-minded. Subterranean.”
“He ate a dictionary when he was little,” explains Dean.
Elf tries again. “Okay — who do you want to sound like”
The three musicians reply in unison, “Us.” (p. 43)
With that Elvis moment, Utopia Avenue are joined up and on their way. None of it is easy for the characters, but the book carries readers like an irresistible hook tied to a relentless chord progression. It’s full of lovely flourishes, like meeting David Bowie in a stairwell outside Levon’s offices, the band headed down and Bowie making a courtesy call. The encounter ends after a brief conversation about art, dreams and Germany: “In a whirl of trench coat and hair, David Bowie resumes his climb to the top.” (p. 69)
Utopia Avenue is set up in six parts, each part an album side, each chapter a song. It adds up to three albums, although the back cover of the book tells readers that the band only released two. You have to go all the way to the end to find out why. For all that it’s a fairly long journey — about 550 pages — it went by like a tightly composed album. Their practice sessions give way to early gigs that switch from electrifying to disastrous. Personalities clash, characters make poor choices — Elf takes Bruce back, for example — and the public proves both fickle and volatile. But Utopia Avenue catch some breaks, work hard, and nurture their talents. For a while, they catch lightning.