The Soloist (Movie Tie-In): A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music

The Soloist (Movie Tie-In): A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music

4.1 58
by Steve Lopez
     
 

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Now a major motion picture-"An intimate portrait of mental illness, of atrocious social neglect, and the struggle to resurrect a fallen prodigy." (Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down)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… See more details below

Overview

Now a major motion picture-"An intimate portrait of mental illness, of atrocious social neglect, and the struggle to resurrect a fallen prodigy." (Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down)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.

Editorial Reviews

Buzz Bissinger
Written with elegant spareness, there are no punches pulled in this portrait of Nathaniel Ayers, but God do you root and hope and pray for him. Many books claim to be about redemption and the affirmation of the human spirit, but they are false gospels. The Soloist is singularly and unforgettably true in all respects. (Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights)
Daniel J. Levitin
Lopez is a natural storyteller, giving us a close-up view of the improbable intersection of musicianship, schizophrenia, homelessness and dignity. The result is a surprisingly lively page-turner, propelled by the close friendship developing between these two men and filled with eloquent passages…The Soloist goes a long way toward explaining the workings of the musical mind, albeit one tragically touched by madness. It doesn't shy away from exploring the failures of governmental programs and mental health services for the needy, but it does so without preaching and finger-pointing. It doesn't editorialize; like good music, it just is.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Perhaps the fact that William Hughes is an accomplished musician and a political science professor allows him to slip so easily into both the voice of free-associating, schizophrenic, homeless musical prodigy Nathaniel Ayers, and the more professional voice of LA Times columnist Lopez. Lopez stumbles across Ayers playing his violin on the street a few blocks from his downtown office and writes a column about him that piques the public's interest. This begins an inspiring tale of a friendship rife with triumphs, disappointments, and human kindness. Hughes reads Lopez's narration with the casual authority of one telling his own story. When the dialogue is Ayers', Hughes makes a subtle but effective vocal shift to make him sound more loose and free, but also more anxious. A Putnam hardcover (Reviews, Feb. 18).
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

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.]
—Barry Zaslow

Kirkus Reviews
Los Angeles Times columnist Lopez (In The Clear, 2001, etc.) brings empathy, intelligence and humor to his poignant portrait of a homeless man who once studied at Juilliard. The author first encountered Nathaniel Ayers, a longtime resident of Los Angeles's Skid Row, while en route to work. A Cleveland native who was among a handful of blacks enrolled in Juilliard in the early 1970s, Ayers developed schizophrenia while at the school. After unsuccessful treatment in psychiatric facilities, he landed on the streets of L.A. where, drawn by a statue of Beethoven in a local park, he began to play classical music on a battered violin. Lopez wrote a series of newspaper articles about Ayers that highlighted the plight of the homeless and brought the mentally unstable man donations of numerous violins, a cello and a string bass. Bedraggled and often spewing invectives, Ayers stored the instruments in a shopping cart that he wheeled through town. At night, he fended off sewer rats that scurried across the litter-strewn sidewalk on which he'd slept for years. Outraged, Lopez helped Ayers secure housing in a facility for the homeless and arranged for him to attend concerts at Disney Hall. By the book's end, Ayers has met cellist Yo-Yo Ma, a former classmate at Juilliard. But this is not a feel-good memoir. Determined to understand the evolution of Ayers's illness, Lopez probes his family history, revisits his painful past at Juilliard and seeks advice from mental-health professionals. He also details the myriad complications of forging a bond with a gifted musician whose schizophrenia continues to rage. Energetic prose delivers powerful insights on homelessness and mental illness. Agent: DavidBlack/David Black Literary Agency. Film rights to DreamWorks
From the Publisher
"Lopez is a terrific reporter. The Soloist is poignant, wise, and funny."
-Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind

"A heartbreaking, yet ultimately hopeful, read."
-Essence

"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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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781440638275
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
04/17/2008
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
138,852
File size:
0 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Preface

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.

Violin Man.

It's got potential. Who knows where it will go?

Part One

1

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."

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

"Lopez is a terrific reporter. The Soloist is poignant, wise, and funny."
-Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind

"A heartbreaking, yet ultimately hopeful, read."
-Essence

"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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