FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Downtown Los Angeles is a series of micro-neighborhoods. One minute you're by the glamorous, historic Biltmore Hotel. A few blocks away, there's a tent city set up on Skid Row. Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez was strolling through downtown when he saw a homeless man playing classical violin.
His name, Lopez discovered, is Nathaniel Ayers. And in addition to musical talent, Nathaniel has schizophrenia. Lopez now has a new book about Ayers called "The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music."
Jamie Foxx will play the musician in an upcoming biopic also called "The Soloist." Steve Lopez says he and Nathaniel are good friends now, but Lopez says it took a while for Nathaniel to warm to him.
Mr. STEVE LOPEZ (Journalist, L.A. Times; Author, "The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music"): But I went back several times, and each time that I visited, he was a little warmer, a little more open, a little more talkative, and he said, yes, he knew that a violin as four strings and his whole goal in life was to get another two strings, but he didn't know how that was going to happen because he did not like to accept money for his playing. And I did notice that about him. He didn't seem to be playing with a hat out collecting dollar bills. He was playing as if he was trying to get something just right.
So one day when I visited, he had scrawled some names on the sidewalk. I forget exactly what the names were, but like, Betty and Robert and Tom and Sally and I said, well, who are they? And he said those were my classmates at Julliard. I ran back to my office, called Julliard hoping that it was true, but I knew by this point that he said things sometimes that didn't quite make sense and were somewhat delusional. I knew there was a mental condition of some type. I didn't have enough experience to know what it might be.
And when I got back and called, Julliard said, no, we're sorry. There's no record of him. And I was just crestfallen, and I thought, well, do I even have a column? This guy is so - so bad off that, you know, he's imagining that he went to Julliard. They called back the next day. They had made a mistake. Yes, indeed, Mr. Nathanial Anthony Ayers had been a student for three years at Julliard in the late '60s and early '70s. And I was just thrilled and I ran back out there, and he was just very nonchalant about it. Yeah, of course, I went to Julliard.
CHIDEYA: How much do you feel that you played a role in helping him reconnect with people who could not only give him strings to his instrument but also some kind of sense of belonging to a community of musicians?
Mr. LOPEZ: Well, I didn't know what I was doing, to tell you the truth. I was really just, you know, by the seat of my pants on this thing. I did know, from the very beginning, that when he was playing music, that was his sanctuary. And I did know that maybe I can speak to him through the music by just asking him. And every time we would talk about music, there would be less of the sort of non sequiturs and the gibberish. It would kind of center him. And when I wrote the first column, readers donated instruments. So yes, you know, hearing - seeing me come back out to him that day with all of those violins that people had donated reconnected him with his music, and he really began to trust me at that point. He thought that I was, you know - some angel had come down from heaven to visit him with these gifts. So all of that mellowed him. In that part of our relationship, things were going really well and the music made a big difference.
And as I continued to write about these things, among the developments were an invitation from Disney Hall to go up and see a concert. And I talked to Mr. Ayers about it and he said that he didn't think he wanted to go. And I said, Mr. Ayers, when I first met you, you had written on your shopping cart, "Little Walt Disney Concert Hall." And now here's a chance to go to Big Walt Disney Concert Hall. Why wouldn't you want to do this? And he said, well, you know, I don't think I'd be comfortable and I don't think people would be comfortable around me. And I said, why not? And he said, well, you know, I haven't bathed in I can't even remember how long it's been, and people shouldn't have to pay good money to go to a concert to see great classical music and be distracted by the likes of me.
And I - you know, I said, well, I respect that, but I had another idea. I called Adam Crane, the publicist for the L.A. Philharmonic, and I said, hey, Adam, how about if we came to a rehearsal? Would that be acceptable? And Adam said, well, let me check, and called back and said, sure, why not? So we went to a rehearsal of Beethoven's Third Symphony and that was sort of a breakthrough moment for us. And he reentered the fraternity of musicians for real. On that visit, he had members of the orchestra come and greet him and they were thrilled to meet him and he was even more thrilled to meet them and they had conversations that were so far over my head. So I was there like a proud parent, and I'm just dumbfounded as I stood back and watched. He was home when he got to meet up with these musicians.
CHIDEYA: It sounds like your friendship, and you describe it as a friendship, with Nathaniel Ayers, has transformed not only his life but yours as well.
Mr. LOPEZ: Well, it has. I mean, he - you know, I buy classical music now...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LOPEZ: And I didn't before, and I've developed an appreciation for it. Mr. Ayers on most days calls me. We see each other once or twice a week, but when we don't, he usually calls or I call him. and the other thing that he did that was critical for me was that - I work in what looks to all of us who are in newspapers like a dying industry, and it's tough sometimes to maintain your edge because there's a revolution underway. It's dying and I thought - I'm 54. If I've got 10 years left or maybe 15, do I want to spend it reminiscing about the good old days? Or shouldn't I go out and do something in the field of mental health? Why don't I do something like that? Why don't I do something with the rest of my career in that field?
And Mr. Ayers was one of the people who kind of talked me out of it and he said, you know, music is his passion, but words are mine, and I can't leave that. I've got to stick with that. And I thought, you know, I'm writing the story of my career with Mr. Ayers, the friendship and my reporting on it is fulfilling in so many ways, unlike anything I've ever done. He has re-sparked my own passion in what I do for a living. And I'm going to be the last one out of the building. I'm going down with the ship if it goes down. That's what I do. I tell stories, and the greatest gift I've gotten from Mr. Ayers is that he let me get close enough to tell his story.
CHIDEYA: How's he doing now?
Mr. LOPEZ: OK. He has - it took a year to talk him in off the streets and take an apartment. And he did that and he's been in the apartment for two years, little over two years. And his day is to go and do a little bit of work and then probably play some music and we're in touch about our next adventure and sometimes he really drives me - he drives me a little crazy because of either the demands or he gets angry about things, but most of the time, these outings are just wonderful. And he - he's not in good enough shape, nor is his playing quite there yet, to be in, say, a community orchestra. This was a young man in training who had his fall when he was 21, so he had a little more polishing to do. But he's pushing me to get a recording studio. It's kind of hard for me to tell him right now that I'm not sure that he's ready to put out a CD, but it's wonderful to see a man with these passions and these goals and, you know, he's very happy when he's got music on his mind.
CHIDEYA: Well, Steve, thanks so much.
Mr. LOPEZ: Thank you for having me.
CHIDEYA: Novelist and Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. His new book about Nathaniel Ayers, a musical prodigy who later had a breakdown and developed schizophrenia, is called "The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music."
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