Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Music will still do to people what it does to us now

"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."
Here's a novel that's mostly fun, if a little long (what is it with men shamelessly throwing hundreds upon hundreds of pages of their excess verbosity upon you?). Utopia Avenue, by David Mitchell, is the name of a fictitious British band in the late 1960s, fusion folk psychedelic rock 'n' roll, their struggles and adventures.
"Songs like dandelion seeds, billowing across space and time. Who knows where they'll land? Or what they'll bring?" [...] "Where will these song-seeds land? It's the Parable of the Sower. Often, usually, they'd land on barren soil and not 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. An invitation to slip you into somebody else's skin for a little while. If a song plants an idea or a feeling in a mind, it has already changed the world."
We get to know three of the band members quite intimately, while the drummer remains aloof. Each of them standouts in their fields, the manager brought them together with the goal of forming a genre-spanning supergroup. So it was a little less than organic, but on the whole, they're hardworking, decent people who make respectably good music; they pay some dues but find some level of success. And they at times succumb to the lifestyle excesses that come with the job.

The guitarist's story thread veers off into the paranormal. This makes me roll my eyes a little, even if I can't turn the pages fast enough; it's also classic Mitchell territory and fodder for late-night weed-fueled conversations about life, the universe, and everything.

The characters do not get equal airtime, and this felt unbalanced to me. The manager also stars in a story a two, but it's impossible to ignore the cameos. David Bowie, Brian Jones, Leonard Cohen, Syd Barrett, Janis Joplin, and others. Gimmicky to the point of tiresome. It irked me that Cohen mentions Toronto but not Montreal. 
"Once, I took the elevator up there." Leonard nods at the Empire State Building. "I looked over Manhattan and was seized by an absurd desire to take it. To own it. Do we write songs as a substitute for possession?" 

"I write songs to discover what I want to say," says Elf. 

"I write 'em 'cause I just bloody love it," says Dean. 

"Maybe you're the purest artist here," remarks Lenny.
Cue music. It just feels a little cheap.

Although, I thoroughly enjoyed the extended scenes with Francis Bacon, one of a few non-musicians on the London scene at the time to make their way into this novel, but likely I responded to that only because he's been a topic of conversation around here lately, his art grim and eerie and visceral. His art is not on stage here, only his lifestyle.

These walk-on parts add nothing to the story. But in a sense, they are the story. This is Mitchell's love letter to a bygone era of music that I can only assume played a significant role in shaping him.
"In fifty years," said Jasper, "or five hundred, or five thousand, music will still do to people what it does to us now. That's my prediction."
So, what does it do to us now? Music is our balm, our panacea. It can encircle you with your people, it can shut out the entire world. I think it is used more often as a distraction than as a connection. It blares everywhere, but who really listens? 
Hundreds of people pass by. Reality erases itself as it rerecords itself, Elf thinks. Time is the Great Forgetter. She gets her notebook from her handbag and writes, Memories are unreliable . . . Art is memory made public. Time wins in the long run. Books turn to dust, negatives decay, records get worn out, civilisations burn. But as long as the art endures, a song or a view or a thought or a feeling someone once thought worth keeping is saved and stays shareable. Others can say, "I feel that too."
It transcends language and creates an illusion of oneness; one person responds to a beat, another to a melody, another to the story the lyrics tell, but it taps a harmony of being. It's much more complex than a shared feeling.

Utopia Avenue is not about music, it's about its creators. It explores the inspiration for the music — love, loss, drugs, schizophrenia, otherworldly experience. Sometime the art comes about because it's a better option than not trying to make art. Sometimes it pays the rent. Art can come equally from hard work or divine luck or happenstance.  

Super entertaining and full of flavor (though some not always to my taste), but a little short on substance. It took me to some unexpected places, dramatically speaking, and it was not a terrible way to spend midsummer evenings on my balcony. Even if I can reel off better band names in my sleep.

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