- 23 Jul 20
Diary Of A Rock'n'Roll Star
The move from what could be called speculative fiction (isn’t all fiction speculative?) into imagined rock n’ roll biography might seem an odd step for Mitchell. The man is usually more at home in the realm of the fantastical – he’s perhaps best known for the brilliantly brain pummelling Cloud Atlas, which is really only part of some class of uber novel involving recurring characters that he's been building since his first book, 1999's Ghostwritten, and he's currently co-writing the fourth instalment of The Matrix - but he carries off this chronicle of the late sixties adventures of the titular band, Utopia Avenue, with admirable aplomb.
If, like me, you have read far more rock biographies than are good for you, or even the odd music magazine, then you will recognise, and may well predict, a lot of what transpires here as the band stumble through early blunders and work their way towards pop's golden dream. Most, if not all, of the rock clichés in the book turn up in this book – good gigs, bad gigs, groupies, festivals, drugs, hassle from the man - but, rather than taking away from the reader's enjoyment, they offer a chance to get the cards out for a spot of rock n’ roll bingo.
When we first meet bass player Dean Moss, he's down on his luck; he gets conned in the street, fired from his job, and kicked out of his digs all in the space of a few pages. Erstwhile manager Levon Frankland comes to his rescue and pulls some strokes in order to pair him up with laddish jazzy drummer Peter 'Griff' Griffin and space cadet guitarist Jasper de Zoet. The last piece of the puzzle is folk singer/piano player Elf Holloway who's already had one of her songs turned into a hit, and had her Antipodean bastard of a boyfriend Bruce rip her off.
If the book has an individual hero, it's Dean who is morphed by experience from someone you wouldn’t trust to mind your bike to a man who displays both personal strength - in an Italian Jail - and a genuine concern for others - his abusive father (the bonfire will break every muso’s heart), a possible offspring, and his band mates. Jasper might prove the more fascinating character, depending on your familiarity with Mitchell's previous works, as he descends further and further into apparent schizophrenia. The cause of his troubles – who or what is Knock, Knock? - may also come from somewhere else entirely, with his surname, for those who have spent time with Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, offering a clue.
Seasoned rock n' roll readers should also be able to pinpoint the real life heroes that Mitchell used as templates for his motley crew, and the author adds to the fun by having the likes of Bowie, Jagger, Lennon, a very deep Syd Barrett, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Sandy Denny, and a host of others interact with the band to drive the narrative along. A special mention must go to Francis Bacon, a man who really knows how to have a good time - was that Samuel Beckett in the casino? - and claims the book’s best line with “grief is the bill of love, fallen due”. It’s not just a star parade though, there’s real heart in the band’s ups and downs, and Mitchell achieves the near impossible by at least coming close to capturing music’s power - at concerts, at a cremation, even at U.S. Customs - in prose.