- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
This is the true story of journalist Steve Lopez's discovery of Nathaniel Ayers, a former classical bass student at Julliard, playing his heart out on a two-string violin on Los Angeles' Skid Row. Deeply affected by the beauty of Ayers's music, Lopez took it...
This is the true story of journalist Steve Lopez's discovery of Nathaniel Ayers, a former classical bass student at Julliard, playing his heart out on a two-string violin on Los Angeles' Skid Row. Deeply affected by the beauty of Ayers's music, Lopez took it upon himself to change the prodigy's life-only to find that their relationship has had a profound change on his own life.
By turns harrowing, winsome, and inspiring, this work by novelist (In the Clear) and Los Angeles Times columnist Lopez relates the first two years of his friendship with Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. A budding string genius at Juilliard in the early 1970s, Ayers succumbed to paranoid schizophrenia and became homeless, yet he continued to play the violin as a way to keep the demons at bay. With the help of Lopez and others who responded to his columns, Ayers took steps to recovery, residing in a group facility, making trips to Disney Hall for concerts, and achieving the dream of having his own music studio. The tangle of mental health policies and government priorities comes in for a thorough drubbing, as does the callous disregard for students' personal situations at many elite institutions, at least at the time Ayers was enrolled. Lopez's newspaper experience serves him well, and both he and his subject come across as fully developed individuals. A deeply moving story; highly recommended for all collections and of special interest to those dealing with the intersections of music and psychology or therapy. [See Prepub Alert, LJ12/07; The Soloist is being made into a DreamWorks film starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.-Ed.]
I'm on foot in downtown Los Angeles, hustling back to the office with another deadline looming. That's when I see him. He's dressed in rags on a busy downtown street corner, playing Beethoven on a battered violin that looks like it's been pulled from a dumpster.
"That sounded pretty good," I say when he finishes.
He jumps back three steps, eyeing me with suspicion. I see the name Stevie Wonder carved into the face of the violin, along with felt–pen doodles.
"Oh, thank you very much," he says, obviously flattered. "Are you serious?"
"I'm not a musician," I answer. "But yes. It sounded good to me."
He is black, just beyond fifty, with butterscotch eyes that warm to the compliment. He is standing next to a shopping cart heaped over with all his belongings, and yet despite grubby, soiled clothing, there's a rumpled elegance about him. He speaks with a slight regional accent I can't place. Maybe he's from the Midwest or up near the Great Lakes, and he seems to have been told to always stand up straight, enunciate, carry himself with pride and respect others.
"I'm trying to get back in shape," he says. "But I'm going to get back in there, playing better. I just need to keep practicing."
"So you like Stevie Wonder?" I ask.
"Oh, yes, certainly. 'You Are the Sunshine of My Life.' 'My Cherie Amour.' I guess I shouldn't have written his name on my violin, though."
I write a column for the Los Angeles Times. The job is a little like fishing. You go out and drop a line, cast a net. I'm figuring this vagrant violinist is a column. Has to be.
"I'm in a hurry at the moment," I tell him, "but I'd like to come back and hear you play again."
"Oh, all right," he says, smiling appreciatively but with trepidation. He looks like a man who has learned to trust no one.
"Do you always play in this spot?" I ask.
"Yes," he says, pointing across the street with his bow to Per–shing Square, in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. "I like to be near the Beethoven statue for inspiration."
This guy could turn out to be a rare find in a city of undiscovered gems, fiddling away in the company of Beethoven. I would drop everything if I could, and spend a few hours pulling the story out of him, but that will have to wait for another day. I've got another column lined up and not much time to shape it. The deadlines come at you without mercy, even in your dreams.
"I'll be back," I say.
He nods indifferently.
Back at the office I sweat out another column, scan the mail and clear the answering machine. I make a note on the yellow legal pad where I keep a list of possibilities.
It's got potential. Who knows where it will go?
I can't get the image out of my head, this odd picture of grubby refinement. But when I go back to look for the violinist in Per–shing Square, I come up empty. His disappearance only makes the mystery more provocative.
Who was he? Where did he go? What is his story?
Three weeks later, he's back, reappearing in the same spot, and I watch from across the street for a while before approaching. His playing is a little scratchy and tentative, but just like before, it's clear this is no beginner. There'd been some serious training in there, somewhere along the way. He doesn't appear to be playing for money, which seems strange for a homeless guy. He plays as if he's a student, oblivious to everyone around him, and this is a practice session.
Strange place to practice. The ground shakes when buses roar by, and his strings are barely audible in the orchestra of horns, trucks and sirens. I gaze at the tops of buildings adorned with gargoyles and grand cornices. Men and women move about, duty–bound, –ignoring him for the most part as they disappear around corners and into entryways. The man plays on, a lone fiddler. He throws his head back, closes his eyes, drifts. A portrait of tortured bliss.
When he pauses, I move in.
"Hello," I say.
He jumps back, startled just as before.
"Do you remember me?" I ask.
"I remember your voice."
He's still suspicious of me, suspicious of everything around him, it seems. He says he was trying to remember a Tchaikovsky piece he once knew quite well, but now it is as elusive as the meaning of a dream. It's obvious that he's troubled in some way, like so many others who wander the streets as if they inhabit a different planet than the rest of us, wrapped in many–layered outfits to keep from coming unraveled. He's wearing a ratty blue sweater with a light brown T–shirt over it and the collar of a shirt spilling out over the top of it all. Wrapped around his neck, like a scarf, is a yellow terry–cloth towel. His pants hang low on his waist, fitted for a man three sizes bigger, and his grimy white sneakers have no laces.
He tells me his name is Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. From Cleveland. He's going to keep practicing until he's proud of what he hears, he says, and I tell him I might like to write about him for the L.A. Times.
"Seriously?" he asks. "You'd really want to write about me?"
"Why not?" I ask.
He's a handsome guy, lean and fit–looking, with a strong jaw and clean white teeth. He reminds me a little of Miles Davis. I ask where he lives and he says at the Midnight Mission, one of the biggest rescue operations on nearby Skid Row. Not inside, he specifies. But on the street, though he showers and takes some meals inside.
"Why not sleep inside?"
"Oh, no," he says. "I wouldn't want to do that."
I wonder how safe it can be for a man trying to reconnect with Tchaikovsky as drug dealers, prostitutes and hustlers work streets teeming with the lame and the afflicted. Skid Row is a dumping ground for inmates released from the nearby county jail, and it's a place where the sirens never stop screaming.
"Maybe I'll come by and visit you at the mission," I tell him.
He nods, but I can see he doesn't trust me. He tucks the violin back under his chin, eager to get back to his music, and I know that if this one ever pans out, it's going to take some time. I'll have to check back with him now and again until he's comfortable enough to open up. Maybe I could go on his rounds with him over the course of a day or so, see if anyone can help fill in the blanks in his story or explain his condition. As he begins to play, I wave good–bye, and he responds with a suspicious glance in my general direction.
Two weeks later, I go looking for him once more and he's disappeared again. I stroll over to the mission at Fourth and Los Angeles streets, where I see street people by the dozens, some of them drug–ravaged, some of them raving mad, some of them lying so still on the pavement it's hard to tell whether they're napping or waiting for a ride to the morgue.
I check with Orlando Ward, the public information man at the Midnight. He tells me he's seen the violinist around, but doesn't know the backstory. And he hasn't seen him lately.
Now I'm worried that I've lost the column.
Weeks go by and I get distracted by other things, shoveling whatever I can find into that empty space on the page. And then one day while driving to work from my home in Silver Lake, a neighborhood five miles northwest of downtown, I cut through the Second Street tunnel and there he is, putting on a one–man concert in a location even noisier than the last one.
He remembers me this time.
"Where have you been?" I ask.
He says he's been around, here and there. Nowhere special.
A car whooshes by and his mind reels.
"Blue car, green car, white car," he says. "There goes a police car, and God is on the other side of that wall."
I nod, not knowing what to say. Maybe he's a little more unreachable than I realized. Do I take notes for a column, or do I make a few calls to see if someone can come and help him?
"There goes Jacqueline du Pré," Nathaniel says, pointing at a woman a block away. "She's really amazing."
I tell him I doubt that it's the late cellist, who died in 1987.
Nathaniel says he isn't so sure.
"I don't know how God works," he tells me sincerely, with an expression that says anything is possible.
I scribble that down in my notebook, and I also copy what he's written on his shopping cart with a Magic Marker:
"Little Walt Disney Concert Hall—Beethoven."
I ask Nathaniel if he has moved to this location to be near the concert hall and he says no, he isn't even sure where Disney Hall is, exactly.
"Is it around here?" he asks.
"Right up the hill. The great big silvery building that looks like a schooner."
"Oh, that's it?"
He says he moved to this spot because he could see the Los Angeles Times Building two blocks away.
"Don't you work there?" he asks.
Having lived in Cleveland, New York and Los Angeles, –Nathaniel tells me, it's reassuring to be able to look up at the L.A. Times Building and know where he is.
He plays for a while; we talk for a while, an experience that's like dropping in on a dream. Nathaniel takes nonsensical flights, doing figure eights through unrelated topics. God, the Cleveland Browns, the mysteries of air travel and the glory of Beethoven. He keeps coming back to music. His life's purpose, it seems, is to arrange the notes that lie scattered in his head.
I notice for the first time that his violin, caked with grime and a white chalky substance that looks like a fungus, is missing an important component or two.
"Your violin has only two strings," I say. "You're missing the other two."
Yes, he says. He's well aware.
"All I want to do is play music, and the crisis I'm having is right here. This one's gone," he says of the missing top string, "that one's gone, and this little guy's almost out of commission."
His goal in life, Nathaniel tells me, is to figure out how to replace the strings. But he got used to playing imperfect instruments while taking music classes in Cleveland's public schools, and there's a lot you can do, he assures me, with just two strings.
I notice while talking to him that someone has scrawled names on the pavement where we're standing. Nathaniel says he did it with a rock. The list includes Babe Ruth, Susan, Nancy, Kevin and Craig.
"Whose names are those?" I ask.
Oh, those people, he says.
"Those were my classmates at Juilliard."
Posted February 18, 2013
The Soloist by Steve Lopez is an exceptionally written novel about the relationship between Nathaniel, a schizophrenic homeless man,
and Steve, a journalist for the LA times. One day, as Steve is strolling along the streets of downtown LA, he hears someone playing the
violin beautifully- exactly like the records he has heard of Beethoven. He looks around and discovers that this serenade came from
Nathaniel playing a two stringed violin. As Nathaniel begins to explain his life story, Steve becomes intrigued with this wash up prodigy.
He follows Nathaniel around, interviews him, and even obtains a new cello and violin for him. Throughout this novel, Steve tries to help
Nathaniel’s sickness, buys him an apartment, and even gets the cellist from the LA Philharmonic to give him free music classes.
This novel has a touching ending in which Steve gifts Nathaniel his very own studio after he arranges for him to meet the world famous
cellist, Yo Yo Ma.
As a fellow musician, I had a vast appreciation for this book. Nathaniel really connected with me because I know, firsthand,
how hard it is to become a good musician; I have been through his struggle. After 7 years of playing the violin and classical training, I
have experienced what kind of practice and dedication it takes. I really enjoyed this book’s writing style. Steve Lopez wrote The Soloist
as if he was telling a story to an old friend which made the book very intriguing. There are no “down- spots” in this whole book because
you never know what Nathaniel’s schizophrenia will urge him to do next or what Steve will do for Nathaniel. The only down side to this
book is that although it has a touching ending, it isn’t a very uplifting book. Steve opens many doors for Nathaniel, but his sickness is
never cured and he sometimes relapses into states where he insists on living or playing on the streets. A few key messages in this
book are the power of helping others, second chances, and appreciation of music. These messages are incredibly valuable because
most people don’t realize them without this book opening their eyes up to these values. In this day and age, it is extremely important to
assist those in need around us. Many people are keeping to themselves and losing communication skills. Some extremely important
people are living in poverty. These people, like Nathaniel, have incredible talents, but for one reason or another, aren’t utilizing them to
their fullest capabilities. Second chances give these individuals the opportunity to shine like the star they are meant to be. Many people
don’t appreciate classical music anymore, and when Lopez wrote this book about a homeless cellist/ violinist, it altered society’s
viewpoint of this type of music. If you liked this book, I would recommend Tuesdays with Morrie because it has a similar theme of the
power of helping others. Overall, I give this book a 4.5 out of 5 stars.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 10, 2008
I first saw the trailer to the movie and only caught the end but was already so intrigued. I come from an area where there are so many homeless people that I decided to read the story to get another side of an unfortunate circumstance. I really felt for Nathaniel. At times I thought he was ungrateful, but that was just my spoiled self speaking before thinking. I realize that Nathaniel went through so much more than I ever have and it's so unfortunate that his dreams suffered from his condition. I recommend this story highly, and i wish Nathaniel the best. I'm sure the movie won't be as good because let's face it, they hardly ever are. I think this puts such a great light on the people who end up homeless out of uncontrollable events in their life. I have a new respect for music and mental disabilities.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 14, 2014
Posted January 21, 2014
Since this was a bookclub suggestion I read it. The story takes place in today's world of the homeless. It is an ongoing story in general and the day in and day out ofe a particular individual. In spite of his talents the protagonist remains better off yet not settled. The story speaks of what one person can do and how our communities can help. Definitely a good read and in, spite of the topic, not a "downer."Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 13, 2013
Posted May 9, 2013
Posted April 10, 2010
Posted March 27, 2010
I'm three quarters of the way through reading THE SOLOIST, but I already know I love this story. Steve Lopez has masterfuly investigated his reporting on a human interest piece of journalism that stirs my heart.
I am with Steve all the way through the roller coaster ride of trying to help a homeless street person with a mental illness. I feel what he feels: the conflict of trying to balance his efforts to help Nathaniel with the rest of his life. And, all the while, he's learning how to accept this person by granting him respect as rightful owner of his chosen lifestyle.
Great credit is due Lopez as he deeply studies Nathaniel, going extraordinary miles to discover what lies in the background of the life of Nathaniel Ayers. The riviting situation of this brilliant, musically trained genius (Nathaniel Ayers) and his struggle with mental illness keeps Steve Lopez intrigued throughout the story.
In studying Nathaniel, Lopez studies many others who live in another world, whether it be mental illness or another anomaly of those who live outside the norm.
Who could NOT connect with this story?
Posted February 23, 2010
The Soloist is a heartrending story of mental illness, perseverance and true friendship. Steve Lopez does a wonderful job of describing the hell of skid row, the frustration of being mentally ill and working with the mentally ill. This is a real eye opener and should be required reading for high school and college students.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 20, 2010
The Soloist is a story of a newspaper reporter who comes across a homeless musician that he can't get out of his mind. It is the story of how he spends the next year developing a relationship with this man and helping him as much as he is able. It shows the struggles all of us face helping people with mental illness. It is a heart warming story, well told.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 13, 2010
Posted November 11, 2009
The beginning and middle were very addictive type reading. You want to keep reading, the writing sytle flows easily and brings you through the story. Then toward the last third of the book I was a little bored as the story became predictable. Still, overall a good read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 14, 2009
A very real look at mental illness told from the perspective of a journalist who befriends a man who is a Julliard-trained musician and schizophrenic. Our book club had in-depth discussions about who decides what is best for the mentally ill.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 29, 2009
The Soloist was a bittersweet, raw and unforgetful insight into the lives of two men who, against all odds, became good friends. What started as a news story turned out to be a lesson in life for the reporter and a friend in the midst of what was sometimes sheer madness for Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, Jr It is a book that will be with you when you go to sleep and when you awake the next morning. It is inspirational and lets the reader go deep inside the mind of a person who is both a musical genius and a schizophrenic. For me, it affirmed that genius and mental illness are only a breath away from each other.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 21, 2009
A face has been given to a disease that 25% of the population suffers from . . . mental health illness. A compelling read. Would recommend this as a must read for everyone.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 23, 2009
A very inspirational story - heartbreaking in some ways. A disturbing reminder of the power and debilitating nature of mental illness, but also of the resiliency and strength of human beings.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
For those of us who avert our eyes from the homeless who cross our path, Steve Lopez allows us to see the face of one of those faceless people who populate the statistics. What could have been merely depressing becomes an uplifting recognition of human potential even for someone whose great musical potential was lost to mental illness. The skill with which Steve Lopez presents Nathaniel Ayers' dignity and absorbing love of making music helps the reading journey to be worth taking. Few writers manage to ennoble without becoming cloying, but Steve Lopez does. His very "failures" in dealing with Mr. Ayers and his willingness to discuss them, show that the final act of respect for human dignity is to recognize that we can't change anyone, nor should we. Mr. Lopez and we learn that helping and being a friend, is all we can and should do.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 19, 2009
Steve Lopez entered the life of Nathanial Ayers in pursuit of a newspaper column. He found far more than he every could have dreamed of finding. He found a man whose dreams had been sidetracked by mental illness. He found a man who, in spite of his losses, retained his inspirations and grew them under harsh circumstances. He found a man whose genius allowed him to demonstrate mastery of his instruments even when they were down to two strings.
The story is about Nathanial Ayers and how he struggled to maintain music in his life. It is about the coexistence of the gifts of music and genius and his determination to preserve that gift and its expression against his schizophrenia in its varying intensity and expression from day to day. It is about Mr. Ayers and how he changed for the moment, at least, as he moved inside and was able to continue his life and give expression to his life with multiple instruments.
The story is about Steve Lopez who developed expectations about how he could help Mr. Ayers as his articles seemed to catch the imagination of his LA readers and to inspire them to contribute intact instruments. Steve Lopez had to revise his expectations about how he could help and about what the limits of how much he could see Mr. Ayers change would be. The outcomes Steve Lopez hoped for were not to be. He discovered that the amount and quality of change had to be within the framework that Mr.Ayers could handle. He wanted it all and had to come to accept what Mr. Ayers, given the mental illness that modulated his genius, would allow.
The story is about and for all of us. It shows how purposeful acts in which we engage to help others are limited in their effects by the amount of change the other can or will accept. We can not make another well or "whole." Steve Lopez shows us that we can engage others, interact with them, encourage them, and act to do things we believe are in their best interests. Steve Lopez struggled with the question of whether Nathanial Ayers' life could be taken over by him and the health and social systems to force the outcomes that he, Steve Lopez, envisioned. When any of us engage another to help them, do the ends that we envision for them justify us taking their lives and their freedom from them? If we intervene in the lives and freedom of others, are we certain that our interventions will produce the outcomes we envision? Do we act in the lives of others unilaterally or do we dance with them and accept the outcomes that they can accept and that they can contribute to?
As I read The Solist, I was captured by the stories of Nathanial Ayers and Steve Lopez. The book is thought provoking, frustrating, and inspiring.
Posted May 16, 2009
As much a story about the author's learning to be a friend as it was about the journey of the subject's decent into mental illness and the slow, painful process of letting him be who he is without destroying himself.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 17, 2009