David Mitchell’s “Utopia Avenue” is a rags-to-riches rock ‘n’ roll story that begins in London, 1967, and ends in tragedy in San Francisco a little more than a year later. It examines the lives of the quartet that make up Utopia Avenue — troubled guitarist Jasper de Zoet, bassist Dean Moss, keyboardist and singer Elf Holloway, and drummer Peter ‘Griff’ Griffin — as it charts the development of their three albums, and their burgeoning success and fame.
“Utopia Avenue” is a crowd-pleaser. It is zesty entertainment, despite its overwhelming familiarity, the destination of its arc visible from its opening pages (and its blurb). This is the story of a band that made it big, embellished with connections to Mitchell’s earlier work, which will add delicious texture for some readers, and befuddle others. It’s all part of the ‘Mitchell Experience.’ But his name has clout. It is laden with expectation. I expect Mitchell to enliven. I expect him to subvert. And he doesn’t here to the extent I wanted him to.
“Utopia Avenue” ticks all the boxes of the archetypal ‘rise to the top’ tale of a rock band, replete with ego clashes, confrontations over creative differences, drug problems, a host of parasitic record-label personalities, and a flood of cameos by stars of the period (including Bowie, Jagger and Zappa). It is saturated in 1960s counterculture, and the racism and sexism of the time. And it’s depicted vividly and lovingly. Overstuffed at times, sure; but written so assuredly and with such verve, sprinkled with a slight dusting of the fantastical, you’ll forgive its similitude. What it lacks in sparkling ingenuity it more than makes up for in spellbinding storytelling.