By: Greg Mitchell
Since last summer, this former rock ‘n’ roll editor/writer has become obsessed with Beethoven — the real “Piano Man,” not to mention the first “new wave” hero and “heavy metal” thunderer.
It’s reached the point where the classical reviews are virtually the first thing I read in The New York Times. Forget Dana Priest — give me Tim Page at The Washington Post! In mid-February, I attended a concert in upstate New York featuring Emanuel Ax playing a pair of Beethoven piano sonatas and learned, in passing, that his son, Joseph, is a reporter at the The Record in Bergen County, N.J.
Now I see that Steve Lopez, the longtime Los Angeles Times columnist, has a book coming out soon — movie rights already sold to Dreamworks — about a homeless man/trained musician, in which a statue of Beethoven plays a part.
Filming has already begun in L.A., with a hot director at the helm: Joe Wright, who guided “Atonement.” Jamie Foxx plays the street musician, with Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez. (Downey might be getting typecast: He played impassioned San Francisco reporter Paul Avery in last year’s “Zodiac.”) Wright, according to the press, has used real “street people” as extras, and commented that this was “a great balance to all the Oscar hoopla surrounding ‘Atonement.'” Lopez’s ex-wife in the movie is portrayed by Catherine Keener.
Titled “The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music,” the Lopez book will be published by Putnam on April 17. According to a Kirkus review, the Skid Row denizen in question is Nathaniel Ayers, a native of Cleveland who was one of the few blacks enrolled at the prestigious Juilliard music school back in the 1970s. He developed schizophrenia, and after unrewarding stints in psychiatric hospitals he ended up on the streets in Los Angeles. There, “drawn by a statue of Beethoven in a local park,” the review continues, he began to play classical music on a battered violin.
Lopez wrote a number of columns about Ayers with the aim of getting him — and others among the homeless — help. This inspired donations of, among other things, secondhand violins, a cello, and a bass, which Ayers took to wheeling around town in a shopping cart, “often spewing invectives.” Kirkus explains: “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.”
Eventually, Ayers even got to meet the famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma — a former classmate at Juilliard. Talk about divergent life and career paths! The writer probed Ayers’ past, talked to professionals, and explored his own relationship with the man whose mental illness remains unresolved. There was no happy ending, the review reveals, but Lopez’s life has changed forever.
Lopez recently told a writer for Publishers Weekly that his interest in Ayers originally did not go beyond knocking out a single column. “Over time, though, I realized that Nathaniel’s story was capable of speaking for lots of people on the pavement,” he said. “He helped humanize the destitute and de-stigmatize mental illness. I hope his story will make it harder for people to cross the street to avoid a homeless person and that the homeless will draw more compassion than contempt.”
Of Ayers, he commented: “I was his only friend. But being with someone like Nathan can burn through your patience, and you have to keep digging for more. Yes, it’s frustrating, maddening, exhausting. But for all that, it felt good to try to help someone in need, and he showed his appreciation in ways sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle.
“I think of redemption, in this sense, not as atonement” — there’s that word again — “but as deliverance. Nathaniel was in some ways destroyed, his career halted and his dreams snuffed. But also, music saved and sustained him, as if it were a spiritual, healing force. I’d have to admit, as well, that I had never adopted a cause in my life. One of Nathaniel’s many gifts to me was to get me outside of my own head, so I could experience the humility that comes from trying to help someone.”
And what was the larger lesson for Lopez? “He took an impatient man and taught him patience. He helped me appreciate, and feel inspired by, a kind of music I knew nothing about. His passion for his mission rekindled my passion for my own. My life is much busier now, richer, more challenging, more rewarding. And I picked up a guitar I had long ago abandoned.”