The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Musicby Steve Lopez
"When Steve Lopez sees Nathaniel Ayers playing his heart out on a two-string violin on Los Angeles' Skid Row, he finds it impossible to walk away. At first, he is drawn by the opportunity to crank out another column for the Los Angeles Times, just one more item on an ever-growing to-do list: "Violin Man." But what Lopez begins to unearth about the mysterious… See more details below
"When Steve Lopez sees Nathaniel Ayers playing his heart out on a two-string violin on Los Angeles' Skid Row, he finds it impossible to walk away. At first, he is drawn by the opportunity to crank out another column for the Los Angeles Times, just one more item on an ever-growing to-do list: "Violin Man." But what Lopez begins to unearth about the mysterious street musician leaves an indelible impression." "More than thirty years earlier, Ayers had been a promising classical bass student at Juilliard - ambitious, charming, and one of the few African-Americans - until he gradually lost his ability to function, overcome by a mental breakdown. When Lopez finds him, Ayers is alone, suspicious of everyone, and deeply troubled, but glimmers of that brilliance are still there." From an impromptu concert of Beethoven's Eighth in the Second Street tunnel to a performance of Bach's Unaccompanied Cello Suites on Skid Row, the two men learn to communicate through Ayers's music. Lopez collects donated violins, a cello, even a stand-up bass and a piano with the hope that Ayers can be swayed to move off the streets, where every day his well-being is threatened. Their bond takes torturous turns as Lopez imagines he can change Ayers's life - finding him lodging, reconnecting him with his family, taking him to Disney Concert Hall to meet a former Juilliard classmate. For each triumph, there is a crashing disappointment, yet neither man gives up. And though it's Ayers he initially sets out to save, Lopez finds that his own life is profoundly changed. By turns gripping, moving, and inspiring, The Soloist is a story about unwavering commitment, artistic devotion, and the transformative magic ofmusic.
The Washington Post
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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.]
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Read an Excerpt
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."
What People are saying about this
-Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind
"A heartbreaking, yet ultimately hopeful, read."
"An utterly compelling tale."
-Pete Earley, author of Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness
"With self-effacing humor, fast-paced yet elegant prose, and unsparing honesty, Lopez tells an inspiring story of heartbreak and hope."
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Compelling and gruffly tender...Lopez deserves congratulations for being the one person who did not avert his eyes and walk past the grubby man with the violin."
-Edward Humes, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist writing for the Los Angeles Times
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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BRAVO!! Beautifully orchestrated....thank you for sharing your compassion and perserverance in bringing 'The Solist' to light. I 'felt' so much as I turned each page. Thank you for reminding us all of the pain and anguish of mental illness and social neglect.
The Soloist by Steve Lopez was a smooth and graceful read. In this story, a successful column writer for the LA Times tries to help a schizophrenic, ex- Julliard violinist get off of the streets and back into recital halls. The still talented violinist, Nathaniel, learns to overpower his illness through friendship and classical music. Steve Lopez did a wonderful job with explaining the bond between him and Nathaniel, but I felt as though Steve Lopez would get off topic and rabble about his own life. He specified his career too much and I didn’t see a lot of point to this information. For example in chapter 6, he forces the subject of the changing newspaper industry. He talks amount his colleges, bosses, and profit, which truthfully put me to sleep. He did not summarize that part of his life as well. Other than a couple of off topic chapters, Steve Lopez portrayed his relationship with Nathaniel extremely well. He writes about the ups and downs he had while boosting Nathaniel’s confidence. Steve also reunited the mother son relationship between Nathaniel and his mother. That part was my favorite. Overall, Steve Lopez writes a heart- warming story about the importance of friendship. This is a wonderful family read. Hope you enjoy it.
Rarely does a book possess the power to change one’s view of the world. The Soloist, by Steve Lopez, opened my eyes to the social tragedy of homelessness, and after reading it, I will never look at a person sleeping on the sidewalk the same way again. In simple and direct journalistic diction, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez provides frightening insight into homelessness and mental illness. As a columnist, Lopez constantly searches for his next story. He encounters “vagrant violinist,” Nathaniel Ayers on Skid Row playing Beethoven on a beat up, two-stringed violin and discovers that the promising classical musician studied at New York’s prestigious Julliard School until paranoid schizophrenia assaulted his mind. What started as an attempt to get a few columns worth of material turns into a friendship, as Lopez makes it his personal mission to get Ayers off the street. His poignant columns about Ayers in the Times result in donations of musical instruments and financial aid, but Lopez learns that despite help from others, the mentally ill must first learn to trust. After slowly building a friendship, Lopez establishes communication with Ayers’ estranged sister and seeks professional help for the mentally ill musician in an effort to get him off the dangerous streets of Los Angeles. Every step Ayers takes toward shelter, care, and safety leads to two steps back to Skid Row. In the process, Ayers teaches Lopez not only about music, but also about himself. The Soloist poignantly articulates the themes of lost dreams, friendship, and one man’s power to make a difference.
Nowadays homeless people are ubiquitous within society, there reasons for becoming homeless unknown. Nathaniel Ayers was once at the height of musical genius, when a corruptive disease took over him. Steve Lopez comes upon this violin virtuoso on Los Angeles skid row, by accident and sees his newest story. But this is not the only thing that will come of these two; an unlikely friendship will begin to bloom. And the two will make each other¿s lives turn for the better. This book has one major theme that friendship is the only gift that can feed the soul. This story makes all question what they stand for and what they really want from life. The greatest friendship is one in which a great beginning and ending is inevitable. For any musician anywhere this is a book of pure genius. Ayers became what every musician desires, to make something of his music. This book is a personal favorite for me, due to the ties and understandings of the concepts that the book addresses. This book stands among itself due to the exceptional writing in which the author uses, due to his experience in writing to entertain a reader. The reporter does tend to have an overly biased opinion. Being Ayers biggest supporter, and never looking at the glass half empty. This situation is a bit heavy and the writer needed to address the situation more head on and less diverted. Homelessness is a major problem of society nowadays. I would recommend this book for all musicians, more specifically orchestral instrument players. However I believe if you don¿t play instruments this book would be a bit confusing but still a good book. You should read this book if you enjoy books in which pursue the ideas that anyone can redeem themselves. No matter the lengths or boundaries that stand in the way. Although I thoroughly enjoyed myself reading this non- fiction book. I would recommend fiction any day of the week. So make sure you have lots of interest in non - fiction books before picking this book up.
I enjoyed this book and would suggest it to others.
This book used all my emotions. What more can I say?
The Soloist is an excellent novel for those who suffer from mental illness. It is enlightening, poignant, heartfelt, and inspiring too. Nathaniel Ayers is a troubled artist who is dicovered by a blue-collar journalist on the streets of Los Angeles. The two form an intense friendship which leads Steve Lopez into the heart of madness. The story is told in various colours. You become empathic towards the former Julliard student from the eyes of the narrator. This movie demonstrates a need for all of us to understand the tortured mind of a paranoid schizophrenic. We all can contribute towards comprehending how this disease overrides our perception of reality. Nathaniel Ayers finds out that recovery is not a simple road to follow. His new friend Steve Lopez believes he can be rehabilitated through psychotherapy & medication. If only schizophrenia was such a uncomplicated disease. I speak from experience. I was highly affected by the experiences of Nathaniel Ayers on Skid Row. Steve Lopez becomes a true, loyal friend despite the anger and hatred Nathaniel spews out his troubled mind. We all should try to educate ourselves concerning these human characters. Our humanity depends on how we all should relate to each other no matter if we are black, white, prejudiced, apathetic, or just sympathetic. Music is univeral. The sounds of Nathaniel's cello that reverberate is quite stirring and beautiful. He is a natural expressionist. The music flows from his mind, through the body, into his fingers. It is important that this novel be recognised for its mercy as well as its humility. Anyhow, the Soloist takes us down a rather unappealing, dark journal of a man plagued his demons. There is darkness that surrounds the novel. There is beauty and grace which appear randomly throughout this book. The quality of Nathaniel life is diminished but with Steve Lopez's encouragement, there is always hope in the most bleakest moments. I want everyone to read this book. Be open to the power and mystery of how mental illness affects us. As Neruda once exclaimed, "the journey is concerned with the walking but not the destination". Walk on brothers & sisters.
The Soloist follows Steve Lopez's journey as he tries to help a former Juilliard student, Nathaniel Ayers, who is now homeless and diagnosed with mental illness. What is so compelling is the honest, close-up view of those whom are mentally ill and the abandonment that has left them with nowhere else to go but the streets. Lopez hails the often unseen mental health workers and volunteers that have dedicated their lives to turning this tragedy into something made of hope. His struggles with the differing viewpoints on treatment and his own impatience bring to life the reality of trying to save the world or even just one person. As I was reading, I felt like I was taking this journey with Lopez. That I was learning just as he was learning. Lopez makes it clear that important life lessons can be learned in the most unsuspecting of places. It is an eye-opening and heartbreaking look at the unpredictability of life and how in an instant everything we know as real can be challenged or even worse - for some - taken away completely.
This story was so very touching. Though I am a fan of most types of music, there were points where it flowed slowly or I was lost with the lingo of composers, numbers and scales. But overall it doesn't detract from the point. True friendship, love and a journey toward healing. I was moved by the struggle of both the main characters and inspired by their bravery. Stunningly descriptive, you really have the picture of poverty and illness put out there in stark truth. I rooted for them all the way. For Mr. Ayers to get better and for he and Mr. Lopez's friendship to endure. There were many special break throughs, heartbreaking setbacks, and best of all I think the magic of them helping each other find themselves. It also makes me feel uplifted to know how many good people are in this world as they rallied the journey of this pair.
The Author Steve Lopez digs deep into the life of Anthony Ayers, the cello, violin, piano genius and his mental illness. The majority of this book made me feel sad for Mr. Ayers, but it also opened my eyes to Americas homless population and mental illness. I loved how Mr. Lopez not only took Mr. Ayers as a topic for a stoy, but he took him into his life as a friend and supporter. I do wish however, that the end of the book had a bit of a epiloge regarding Mr. Ayers and how he is doing with his music and current health status.