The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music

The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music

by Steve Lopez

Hardcover(Large Print Edition)

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The New York Times bestselling, "unforgettable tale of hope, heart and humanity" (People)

The true story of journalist Steve Lopez's discovery of Nathanial 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 music, Lopez took it upon himself to change the prodigy's life-only to find that their relationship would have a profound change on his own life.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781410408761
Publisher: Gale Cengage Learning
Publication date: 08/20/2008
Edition description: Large Print Edition
Pages: 399
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Steve Lopez is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where he first wrote a series of enormously popular columns about Nathaniel Ayers.

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.

Violin Man.

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

Part One


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

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."

"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

Customer Reviews

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Soloist 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 51 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Clif on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A syndicated columnists writes about a homeless man who is a good musician and former Juilliard student. Suddenly the homeless man is famous, and there are many people who want to help him. There's just one problem. This man has schizophrenia and is suspicious of everyone. But glimmers of musical brilliance are still there and donations of numerous musical instruments start arriving. The readers expect the columnist to make sure this man is safe and no longer homeless. In this book Steve Lopez tells of story of his efforts at helping this homeless person. He weaves into the book's narrative a discussion of problems related to treatment of mental illness and caring for the homeless. The book explores the question of whether people who have mental illness should be forced to get treatment. He also touches of numerous facets of being a columnist including wondering about the future of newspaper journalism.Frankly, this book covers a subject I wish didn't exist. How should we respond to homeless people encountered on the street who ask for money? If a friend has mental illness and doesn't want treatment, should we do something about it?
hardlyhardy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"The Soloist," the 2009 movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, was based on the 2008 memoir of the same title by Steve Lopez, a Los Angeles Times columnist. The film is quite good, but the book gives much more of the story.When Lopez found a middle-aged homeless black man playing a two-string violin surprisingly well on the street in the worst part of Los Angeles, he thought it might make a good column. When he learned the man, Nathaniel Ayers, had once attended Julliard, he knew he had a great column.Ayers grew up in Cleveland. In his early teens, he discovered a great love and talent for music. He won a scholarship to Ohio University, then soon was accepted to Julliard. He did well there, but the intense pressure to succeed triggered a mental breakdown that eventually led him to the streets of L.A.Lopez sees Ayers first as a good story, then as a burden and finally as a friend. Ayers, it turns out, is not the only soloist in this tale. Lopez is one person who comes to the aid of another, rather than just counting on professional and volunteer agencies to do the job. And he discovers that Ayers is not the only one who benefits from this unlikely friendship.
danawl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story of a newspaper editor who befriends a street musician who dropped out of Julliard due to his mental illness.
artistlibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I ended up reading this for my book club. Even though it is the One Book, One City selection for Philadelphia, I didn't have much interest in it as I do not have a strong passion for music. Lopez is a columnist for the LA Times and his style shows throughout the text. It reads very much like a drawn-out column with quick sentences and very carefully chosen descriptives. This makes it an easy read, but also a bit soft. It is hard to get a good vision of his subject: Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless schizophrenic who was once a student at Julliard. Lopez only generally touches on all of these subjects (homelessness, mental illness, and classical music) and so the overall feeling is one of a nice but empty story. Ironically, what reading this book has done is made me want to see the movie.
justpeachy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When L.A. Times columnist, Steve Lopez, discovers a musically-talented homeless man playing the violin on a street corner, he decides to write a column about the man. But one column turns into several and the more Lopez delves in Nathaniel Ayers' life, the more he realizes he can't just put this man in the spotlight and then walk away. Lopez learns that 30 years earlier, Ayers dropped out of Julliard when schizophrenia made it impossible for him to handle the pressures of school. He eventually ended up in LA, living on the street and playing his violin in a noisy tunnel every day. Lopez not only writes about Ayers in his columns, he befriends him, and struggles through the ups and downs of trying to help a mentally ill homeless man. This is an inspiring book about music and friendship, a story that has been made into a soon-to-be released movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx.
stevetempo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A nice inspiring true story of a very positive encounter between a journalist and a homeless musician. It's enlightening/informative book regarding mental illness and a had wonderful references to the classical music world.
justmelissa on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Soloist is one of those books that I want to give to everyone I know (and maybe even those I don't) just so we can talk about it later. On his way to work one day LA Times journalist Steve Lopez meets Nathaniel Ayers, a Julliard-trained homeless paranoid schizophrenic playing a broken and battered violin. The book chronicles their resulting relationship through all its complexities, challenges, and rewards. Though the title might lead you to believe that music redeems Ayers, I think it might ultimately be Lopez who finds redemption.The Soloist challenges what most of us believe about the homeless, the mentally ill, and what's "best" for them. For example, finding Ayers a place to live is the easy part - getting him to want to live there is a complex dance of trust, safety, and shared responsibility. Lopez gives Ayers assistance, time, money, friendship, family, and access to countless resources, but ultimately the friendship is defined by what Ayers is able to accept more than by what Lopez is willing to give. In the end, this is an amazing story of about humanism, commitment, community, courage, love, and acceptance.
ImBookingIt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Maybe even 4.5 stars.This is a wonderful story, very effectively written.I was afraid the book would sugar coat the difficulties that people with serious mental illness face-- that it would wrap up to easily and happily.It doesn't. Neither is it a bleak, depressing book.The book gave me insight into what life is like for the homeless. It showed me the power that music can have. It let me see a friendship that changed the lives of two people, but also of many others around them.
debs4jc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A close encounter with the problems faced by the mentally ill and homeless changed Steve Lopez's life--and it may inspire you to change as well. Steve Lopez was scouting for a topics for his newspaper column when he spotted a homeless man playing a 2 stringed violin in a nearby park. Doing the opposite of most passers by, Steve decided to get to know this man. What he found out amazed him--the man, Nathaniel Ayers, was once a student at Julliard--where he was known as a bass player with an amazing talent. Lopez continues to delve into Nathaniel's story it evolves into a larger story about the way mentally ill people are treated and the challenges faced by those who want to help them.This story stimulated my thoughts as I pondered Nathaniels plight and wished desperately with Steve that he could find relief from his illness and a nice, stable place to rest his head. I appreciated Lopez letting us in on his own inner struggles and frustrations as he tries to help Nathaniel as I could readily identify with his feelings. If the recent movie based on this book has you wondering whether you should read it, definitely do!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An intensely personal true story of the powerful connection between two vastly different human beings. One dedicated to telling a story, and the other dedicated to living music in spite of a horrendous disorder. The writer came upon this homeless musician in a tunnel in L.A. and this encounter was life changing for both and also for those who read the columns. A courageous, humane, inspiring read. I will not forget them. Don’t just see the movie inspired by this true account; read the book. Thank you, Mr. Lopez and thank you, Mr. Ayers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
So much better than the movie. A real page-turner, I couldn't put it down.
60143pbr More than 1 year ago
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."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I play violin
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
SMeeker More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
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