Other segments from the episode on April 24, 2009
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The Real Story Behind 'The Soloist'
DAVE DAVIES, host:
From WHYY in Philadelphia, this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
Iâm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
Nathaniel Ayers was a homeless man, playing a violin with two strings when Los
Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez first encountered him. Turned out Ayers was
a student at the Julliard school years ago, before schizophrenia wrecked his
promising music career.
Lopez wrote about Ayers in his column and in his book, âThe Soloist,â which has
been adapted into a new film starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. It
On todayâs FRESH AIR, we talk with Steve Lopez about his life-changing
friendship with Ayers and his efforts to understand his illness and get him off
the streets and into treatment, and film critic David Edelstein reviews
âTyson,â the new documentary about former world boxing champ Mike Tyson by
James Toback. Thatâs all coming up on FRESH AIR. First the news.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia
Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross.
The film, âThe Soloist,â starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx opens today.
Itâs based on a book by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez about his
relationship with Nathaniel Ayers, a man whose schizophrenia cost him a
promising music career and left him homeless for years.
Lopezâ encounter with Ayers on a Los Angeles street, led not just to a column,
but a life-changing friendship as Lopez struggled to understand Ayersâ mental
illness and get him into treatment and off the streets.
In this scene from the film, Lopez, played by Robert Downey Jr., is arguing
with a social worker, played by Nelsan Ellis, about how to help Nathaniel
(Soundbite of film, âThe Soloistâ)
Mr.Â ROBERT DOWNEY JR. (Actor): (As Steve Lopez) I want you to help him because
heâs sick, and he needs medication, and you have a team of doctors here. Tell
him to sit down with them. Isnât that what youâre supposed to do?
Mr.Â NELSAN ELLIS (Actor): (As David) Look, even if I did want to co-horse
Nathaniel into psychiatryâ¦
Mr.Â DOWNEY: Coerce.
Mr.Â ELLIS: Whatever.
Mr.Â DOWNEY: Coerce.
Mr.Â ELLIS: If I wanted to do that, which I donât, I couldnât force him to take
medication. The law is the law. Unless heâs an imminent danger to himself or
Mr.Â DOWNEY: What if someone said he was? What if someone dialed 911, saying
that (unintelligible), theyâd put him in a psychiatric hospital?
Mr.Â ELLIS: I know youâre not thinking aboutâ¦
Mr.Â DOWNEY: Wouldnât they? And then he would be in a 14-day psychiatric hold.
Theyâd put him on meds, straightaway. What if thatâs all it took for him to be
well? What if two weeks of meds, a two-week window into what his life could be,
changed his life, saved his life? Why wouldnât you want to be part of that?
Mr.Â ELLIS: Nathaniel has one thing going for him right now, a friend. If you
betray that friendship, you destroy the only thing he has in this world.
Mr.Â DOWNEY: I donât want to be his only thing.
DAVIES: Steve Lopez has written three novels and award-winning pieces for four
newspapers and several national magazines. In his Points West column in the LA
Times, Lopez regularly eviscerates politicians, tells stories of ordinary Los
Angelinos and illuminates trends and issues in Southern California.
I spoke to Steve Lopez last April, when the book âThe Soloistâ was first
published and while the movie, which opens today, was still in production.
So Steve Lopez, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, as a columnist in Los
Angeles, I mean, Iâm sure youâve met lots of homeless people. What made
Nathaniel Ayers particularly interesting to you?
Mr.Â STEVE LOPEZ (Columnist, Los Angeles Times): I was walking through downtown
Los Angeles, actually looking for something else, and spotted this gentleman,
you know, a little over 50 years old, playing a violin. And itâs the violin,
first of all, that made me turn my head. And then I noticed that he was wearing
rags, and there was a shopping cart next to him.
And as I got closer, I realized a couple of things. First of all, that the
music was really pretty good and suggested there had been some formal training.
And the other thing I noticed is that the violin had only two strings.
So the natural first question is: Hey, Mister, that sounds pretty good, but are
you aware that a violin has four strings? And I had to wait for him to break.
He was very much involved in the piece that he was playing. Iâm not sure what
it was, and I knew very little about classical music. But what I heard I
thought was quite beautiful - a little scratchy and maybe a little bit broken
up - but the whole thing was just intriguing, and I wanted to know more, and I
was thinking maybe thereâs a column in this guyâs story, whatever it might be.
So thatâs how it began. And I waited for that break, and I introduced myself,
and I said it sounded pretty good. And he jumped back, frightened, and I tried
to calm him a bit, but he was very skeptical - and what were my motives, and he
didnât want to talk too much.
And I just told him in that first encounter, that I thought it sounded good,
and maybe Iâd come back and talk to him about it another time. It was clear
that he was not comfortable with me.
So I left, and I went back, and I kept it in mind as a possible column to
return to - but that was the first contact.
DAVIES: And at some point, you went, and you noticed some names he had scrawled
on the pavement next to where he was standing. And thatâs a fascinating little
nugget, isnât it? Donât(ph) tell us the names, and what they meant.
Mr.Â LOPEZ: Okay, well this was maybe the fourth, fifth, sixth visit, I canât
remember. He had moved to another location. Another thing that intrigued me
about that first location, though, I asked him, when he warmed up a bit, why do
you practice right here, and he pointed across the street, and he said because
of that - because of the Beethoven statue.
And I didnât â I had never recognized the Beethoven statue in the middle of
Pershing Square, which is a little park in the center of downtown Los Angeles.
And I said thatâs Beethoven. And he said yes. Somebody put it here. I donât
know who did, but it was brilliant. It was inspired. And I come here to play
near him so that I can keep an eye on him for inspiration.
So then I spot him, I donât know if itâs a couple weeks later, maybe three
weeks later, playing a few blocks from there. And by this time, he was not
startled when I arrived on the scene. And he was down on his knees, scrawling
names on the sidewalk, I had noticed. And I asked, who are these names? Itâs
you know, Betty, and John, and Sally, and Robert - whatever the names were, and
he said, oh those were my classmates at Julliard.
It just stopped me. And I said Julliard, you mean The Julliard School for the
Performing Arts in New York City? And he said, yeah, in a very nonchalant way.
And I said, you were a student there? And he said, oh yeah, that was a long
And I asked him a little bit about it, and he was, you know, quite modest about
it, and it didnât seem like it was such a big deal to him. To me it was. I ran
back to my office, and I got on the phone to call Julliard and see if indeed
this guy playing a two-stringed violin in downtown Los Angeles had been a
And I got a call from Julliard the next day, saying they did have a Nathaniel
Anthony Ayers as a student at Julliard in the late â60s and early â70s.
DAVIES: Maybe to give us a little bit more of a sense of what Nathaniel Ayers
was like, because hereâs a guy who clearly had enormous musical talent and had
been at the Julliard School, and had gone on a long, difficult journey since,
and obviously was lucid in some respectsâ¦
Thereâs a moment at which you describe some of the monologues that he would,
you know, he would deliver. Could you â maybe you could read a little bit of
that for us.
Mr.Â LOPEZ: Sure, and to give you a picture, Nathaniel, you know, his clothes
are kind of soiled and rumpled, but thereâs some order to it - as if heâs
conscious of his appearance and is concerned about it. He would comb his hair
and part it neatly.
So he was trying to maintain some dignity, it seemed. And you know, I didnât
know what to make of what was going on in his head, but every once in a while,
he would say something that Iâd just stand back and say, oh wow - and you know,
hereâs one of the passages that might help illustrate that.
Los Angeles is sloped downhill like a valley. Santa Monica Mountains, downtown
Los Angeles, Honolulu. I havenât seen the ocean in Los Angeles. Thereâs
supposed to be an ocean, the Pacific, but this is not ocean terrain in the
You donât see the military statues like you have in Cleveland, where those are
the leaders of the city, and they have their army all over town, with lots of
Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Rams - those are armies, too, military
regimentation, experimentation. With Mr.Â Roman Gabriel, the quarterback, Roman,
Romans, Roman Empire, Colonel Sanders - Mr.Â Roman Gabriel designing a play in
Look, there go all the wide receivers, down the street. This little guy here is
the quarterback of the orchestra. This violin, which I purchased some years
back at Motterâs Music in Cleveland, Ohio. A cello can back this guy up with
the same moves, but the cello is not the concert master.
Itâs this youngster here that leads the way - Itzhak Perlman, Jascha Heifetz.
Theyâre like gods to me. I wish I had that talent. But if I practice for the
next 10,000 years, I could never be that good. In Cleveland, you cannot play
music in winter because of the snow and ice, and thatâs why I prefer Los
Angeles, the Beethoven city, where you have this sunshine, and if it rains, you
can go into the tunnel and play to your heartâs content.
I am absolutely flabbergasted by that statue. It knocks me out that someone as
great as Beethoven is the leader of Los Angeles. Do you have any idea who put
DAVIES: So thereâs a little bit of a sense of what Nathaniel Ayers, the man who
played the violin on two strings, sounded like at moments.
So you wrote this column and got enormous reader reaction. Now, youâve gotten
enormous reader reaction before, and it could have been a story that ended
there. Why didnât it?
Mr.Â LOPEZ: Along with the reaction, I had the donation of instruments. I
believe there were six violins donated after the first column. There was a
cello donated. Later came another cello donation. A woman donated a piano, and
I eagerly rushed out the street to deliver some of them to Nathaniel, who could
not believe this.
Iâm not sure that he really understood what was up. I mean, he connects in some
ways and in other ways isnât sure whatâs going on. So Iâm delivering these
instruments to him, and he is gladly taking them off my hands, and I am struck
by the problem I have created for myself.
Hereâs a guy who lives on the streets of downtown Los Angeles, and as far as I
could gather at that point, wandered over several blocks at night to sleep on
Skid Row, which is an unbelievable place where a few thousand people, at that
time, bedded down on the pavement every night. And there were some sick people,
and some scared people, and some predators - and I was now handing over three
violins and a cello to this guy.
And I thought, he is going to get killed. So thatâs what got me beyond the
first column, thinking, Iâve got to not just write about this guy, Iâve got to
try to solve his problem. Iâve got to get him off the streets or heâs going to
be beaten up for these instruments.
So I tried to negotiate a deal in which I kept the instruments and delivered to
him by day so that he could play with them, and he just was not happy with
that. And very early on, I got hold of a mental-health agency, and they had
come out, and they took a look at him, and they said itâs hard to talk somebody
in whoâs resistant and has been out there this long.
And I said, well how about if you guys keep the instruments, and Iâll tell him
that if he wants to play the cello or the violin, heâs got to go over to LAMP
Community on Skid Row, and maybe thatâll be a way to make the connection that
gets him started going there, and maybe he can get the help that he needs.
DAVIES: And he eventually showed up and played them there, but I gather managed
to sneak away with them and then take them back with him to his life on the
Mr.Â LOPEZ: I thought he would never go, and I was just so frustrated, and I
thought well, maybe Iâve done all I can do for this guy. And then I got a call
one day from somebody at lamp, saying guess what? Guess whoâs giving a free
concert in the courtyard at LAMP Community on San Julian Street.
And I said oh my God, is he still there? I have to see this. And I raced over,
and indeed there he was, and he had a little audience, and he was playing. And
it just felt so good to see that he was in a safe place where there were
professionals who might give him some help. And I watched, and then I left.
And I heard back later, that when he left, he tried to steal the instruments.
He tried to walk away with them and somebody caught him. And the next time he
went back, he pulled it off. He went, he played the instruments, and when
nobody was looking, he left with - I think it was a violin and a cello. And now
I really had a problem.
I had a guy out on Skid Row with a brand new violin and a brand new cello, and
this is a place where the sirens never stop. Itâs one of the highest crime
areas in the city of Los Angeles, and there are some desperate people, and
there are some sick people, and I was just worried sick.
When my phone rang at night at home, I thought surely it was the police calling
or the hospital, saying thereâs some guy here whoâs beaten up pretty badly, and
he says he knows you.
DAVIES: LA Times columnist Steve Lopez. Weâll hear more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: My guest is LA Times columnist Steve Lopez. His friendship with
Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic street musician, is told in his book, âThe
Soloist,â which is now a movie, opening today.
One of the interesting things that you did was to go and spend a night with him
where he slept, which is not the tunnel where he played. Describe that
Mr.Â LOPEZ: Yes, in the evening, he moved off of sort of the business district
of downtown Los Angeles to Skid Row, and he stayed at a place that was very
near a shelter, where if you needed to use the bathroom or get a meal, he could
go in there.
And I thought, you know, I know him in a safe place by day, and I wonder what
his life is like at night, and I need to spend a night with him. He thought
this was the strangest thing that heâd ever heard, that this guy, this
columnist, wanted to go and spend a night on the pavement with him.
And what I saw that night was extraordinary. He first of all cleared a space on
a street that had, as I recall, a few dozen people were going to camp out there
for the night.
And one of the interesting things that I was writing about here, as I did
follow-up columns, is that this is about three blocks from city hall in Los
Angeles. Itâs about four or five blocks from a glittering skyline that looks
like a profit chart, and here are all of these people, as if theyâve been
shoved off into this human landfill like a modern-day leper colony or
something. And here I go to spend the night with him, and he begins by going to
his spot. You know, some people with schizophrenia can be creatures of habit,
and this was his spot, and this was his world, and he was sticking with it. And
he would begin by crunching with his heel, all of the cockroaches, and
scattering them, kicking them off into the curb.
And then he would go through his shopping cart, which was just packed with all
of these things, including the instruments. And I would often try to help him,
either load or unload the basket, and he would always tell me - please donât, I
know where everything goes.
I later learned - because I consulted with a psychiatrist by the name of Mark
Regan(ph) throughout this entire thing - that a schizophrenic canât control
much. Theyâre bombarded, constantly, with images - audio and visual. They
control what they can, and a shopping cart is something he could control.
He can compartmentalize his life. And thatâs what he had, everything set up the
way he wanted, with him in control on that cart. So he takes out the cardboard.
He puts it down on the pavement. He brings out the blankets, the pillows, and
is setting up his bedding; and gets his violin case, puts a blanket over that,
thatâs going to be his pillow; and stands up on the curb and begins reciting
I had never heard this from him before, although with every visit, I was
surprised all over again by this man. Heâs reciting the Hamlet soliloquy.
DAVIES: And how did his fellow Skid Row residents react?
Mr.Â LOPEZ: They looked and, you know, you see a little bit of everything on
Skid Row, and they kind of shrugged it off, and gee, he must be crazy. And it
was this perfect â it sounded like Richard Burton had gotten up from this
cardboard bed and is standing there with a great Shakespearean accent and then
gets back down on his bedding and looks up in the window and says Mr.Â Lopez, do
you think about writers the way I think about musicians?
And I said I do, Nathaniel. I do think about writers. I donât think that Iâm as
good a writer as you are a musician, and I like hearing you talk about it. And
he looks up into a window and sees people living in these nearby buildings, and
he said, you know, Beethoven was up in a window like that and Mozart - they
lived and breathed as we do. And he said Iâm just inspired to know that they
created what they did. Do you find inspiration in that?
He would say things to me like this, that I â my jaw would drop, and the grace
of this man and the humility. And one of the things that struck me was that
there was never any expression of any regret.
This was a man whose career was ascendant. He was 20, 21, and through no fault
of his own was struck down by this unlucky blow, and his career went off a
cliff. And here he was, happy each day to find some time to play, and content
to be out here, bedding down where he could look up into the windows and
imagine a Beethoven symphony as he was falling asleep.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things that I know that you did was you managed to
introduce him to some musicians from the Los Angeles Symphony. I mean,
initially at a rehearsal, right? Was that a critical step for him?
Mr.Â LOPEZ: It was indeed. You know, I had â people were rooting for Nathaniel,
and they were rooting for me to be able to help him and to figure out what I
needed to do. And through this series of columns, people were staying, you
know, on top of the story, and Iâd hear from them: Whatâs the latest?
Well, the latest was that somebody up at Disney Hall, the big concert hall in
downtown Los Angeles, said why donât you bring him to a concert? But I donât
know about this. I donât know about bringing him, in his condition, into a
concert hall. I still am not sure what Iâm going to get when Iâm with him and
what kind of behavior we can expect.
So when I went to get Nathaniel on the big day, I thought maybe if I work
through the music, thatâs the way to get to his mind and his soul. Thatâs his
So on the day when I went to get him on Skid Row, my heart fell. He was in a
foul mood. He was arguing and bickering. He was foul and belligerent, and he
said he didnât want to go.
And at this point, weâre six months into this, and to be honest, Iâm pretty
tired, and the ups and downs are endless. And I said, Nathaniel, I think this
is a great opportunity, but if you donât want to do it for yourself, will you
do me a favor? Iâve invested a lot of time. Will you do this for me?
And he looked at me, and he said okay, letâs go. On the way up the hill to
Disney Hall - this is a trip of about 10 or 12 blocks - when Disney Hall comes
into view, he begins to calm down. And I said you know, now that youâve gotten
me interest in classical music, and youâve been giving me an education, Iâm
going to be going in a couple weeks to see Itzhak Perlman with the National
And he says oh my God, Itzhak Perlman. Heâs molten lava on violin. And this is
the man who, 10 minutes earlier, had been talking about cockroaches and
greyhounds and using slurs and belligerent language, and now heâs calming down.
And we get up to Disney Hall, and he runs his hand across the performance
board, and he looks at names like Beethoven and Mozart, and he looks like heâs
just in awe.
And we go in and meet Adam Crane, the publicist, and I still donât know what to
expect. And Mr.Â Ayers, when he stepped into that hall, he said he probably
hadnât been in a music hall for 10,000 years, but it felt good to be back in
And he immediately struck up a conversation with Adam about composers, about
conductors, about music. It was all way over my head, and I just kind of stood
back like a proud parent. And Mr.Â Crane, the publicist, introduced him to a
couple of musicians.
One was a cellist by the name of Peter Snyder. Another was a cellist named Ben
Hong. And Mr.Â Ayers spoke to them about music and about common acquaintances,
and things going all the way back to his days at Julliard. And they were just
delighted by this man, and they thought heâs so charming, and heâs so witty,
and look at him. I mean, he clearly was a man of the streets.
He said he had injured his right hand in a fight, and it was wrapped in a rag.
And so here was this raggedy guy who brought such refinement up to the hall,
and they were all fascinated by him. And when they were done with the
rehearsal, I realized that Nathaniel had had his violin with him the whole
time, and it was so common that I didnât even take notice.
And when the orchestra left the stage, Mr.Â Ayers opened the violin, and we
walked up there behind the performance area, and he pulled it out, and he
started to play.
That moment, that moment was just one of the great moments of my career, of my
life, to see this man who was back home.
DAVIES: Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. Heâll be back in the second
half of the show. âThe Soloist,â the film based on his book about Nathaniel
Ayers, opens today. Iâm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
Weâre listening to my interview recorded last year with Los Angeles Times
columnist Steve Lopez. His book âThe Soloistâ about his friendship with a
street musician suffering from schizophrenia is now a film, starring Robert
Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. The film opens today. Moving this - the story
forward a bit, I mean you, his re-acquaintance with music through your
introducing him to musicians progressed, and eventually he saw a full concert
and you introduced him to Yo-Yo Ma.
And he had the thrill of being among musicians again. And you managed to get an
apartment for him at this facility - the Lamp Community. But he wouldnât stay
there for a long time, right?
Mr. LOPEZ: Well he was willing to. It was hard to get him in there and again I
used little tricks. Peter Snyder, that cellist from the orchestra, agreed to
give him lessons. And I said Nathaniel thus weâve got Mr. Snyder who wants to
give you lessons. Here is a great opportunity. And by this point, LAMP
Communityâs mental health folks thought that he was advanced enough that he
could move into an apartment. And this is an apartment in whatâs called
permanent supportive housing.
All of the services you needed there - psychiatric counseling and job training,
and you get hooked up with your social security and all of that. And Nathaniel
was resisting, didnât want a place to stay. And I said well, hereâs the deal.
Mr. Snyder needs a quiet place to conduct this lesson. And thereâs no room up
at Disney Hall for him to do this. And heâs asked if we could do this in your
apartment. And he said I donât have an apartment. And I said yes, you have â
you have this space that theyâre holding for you.
So that was how we got him in there, finally. And we held the â we held the
first lesson there. And Mr. Snyder was great, and he looked at him and heard
him play, and said, oh my God, this guy - he said I know of musicians who â who
- who play that well but not without years of training. And Nathaniel, when he
was done with the lesson, said okay thatâs great, but Iâm not staying in here.
I prefer being in the tunnels. And Mr. Snyder said well, why donât you think of
this as your new tunnel.
And Nathaniel just wasnât buying it. So it was still quite a while after that,
and we got to where I was really concerned about - his behavior seemed to be a
problem, and he was taunting people and I was worried that he was going to get
into some trouble out there. And one night I couldnât find him in his regular
spot on the street. And I was desperate. I went out and drove around, looking
all over downtown for him, and had a fitful night sleep and woke up the next
day, and called LAMP to see if anybody had seen or heard from him.
And Stewart Robinson - one of the directors there - said yeah, heâs right here.
And I said, oh my God what a relief. Do you know â do you happen to know where
he spent a night because he was not out on the street? And he said yeah, I do
know. He slept in the apartment. And I went down to see him and he said yeah,
it was â it was fine. He said, you know, I really worried when I spent my first
night there, that I wouldnât be able to hear any noise. But he said, you know,
I could hear the sirens all the night. I could hear the helicopters and the
faucet was dripping. It was great.
DAVIES: And that was comforting to him, yeah. At one point one of the other
residents in this LAMP Community, people who had, you know, many of them
schizophrenia and many of them who had been homeless, came to you and said in a
very tough and challenging way, when are you going to tell the real story? When
are you going to write the real story about your friend Nathaniel? What did he
Mr. LOPEZ: What he meant was that Nathaniel was not always, as I â as I have
said, the refined genteel man of music and poetry. Thereâs â there was always,
lurking just beneath the surface, this other guy who lives inside of him. And
itâs an angry, resentful, paranoid guy who thinks that people are stealing
things from him; and who thinks that theyâre out to get him; and that heâs got
to defend himself. And it can be very intimidating.
DAVIES: And you had one terrible experience with him yourself, and this was
when, you know, you got to know his family a bit. His sister, you â you
connected with, and there came to be a legal issue, right, where you wanted to
have her have some legal authority. And he regarded this with the sort of
paranoid rage that you had seen in others. And you had this really disturbing
exchange, if you could describe that?
Mr. LOPEZ: His sister, Jennifer, from Atlanta, was coming to Los Angeles for a
court hearing, at which she was going to be named his conservator, to handle
his, his financial matters. And I had to notify him that there was a court
appearance scheduled, and he said okay. And the next time I went to see him, to
tell him that Jennifer was about ready to arrive in Los Angeles. I went to the
courtyard, the very place where he first played music, and Nathaniel ignored me
when I got there. And I called out to him. He was playing a trumpet, Iâd bought
him a trumpet that I bought on Craigslist.
He told me he needed to try out the horn. And he started to walk down those
stairs, and he looked at me â we were maybe 20 feet away - and he shook the
trumpet at me and it came up in him again, this rage. And he started screaming
at me, saying that he wasnât going to court, nobody was going to make him go to
court, and he was not going to be locked up again. And I said you donât have to
go to court, nobody is going to lock you up, this is not about that. But heâs
being locked up. He has been in, he has been in handcuffs.
He has been in jail. He has had a shock treatment. And part of the resistance
to medical attention now, is that he fears that he is being duped and thatâs
what weâre going to do with him. Weâre going to put him in a straight jacket
and, you know, put the - do the shock therapy again or whatever, or zap him
with Thorazine. And I said no, no, itâs not like that Mr. Ayers, we are not
going to force you to do anything. Sheâs just coming to town to help out. Sheâs
coming so that you donât have to worry about looking at contracts or any of
these other stuffs. She is going to manager her affairs.
And he wasnât, he wasnât buying it. He thought that this whole thing had been a
plot for me to get him arrested and dragged off to a hospital or a jail. And he
shook that trumpet at me and threatened me. He threatened my life. He said that
if he ever saw me again that I would be reduced to a pool of blood. He screamed
at me, he told me to please leave. He yelled as I walked away and he told me
that he never wanted to see me again. That was about the worst that it ever
was. We have had a few of these, that was the worst.
DAVIES: You looked in Nathaniel Ayers background and he grew up in Cleveland
and was obviously a gifted musician. He came from a broken home, but his
psychotic break when he made it to New York to study at Juilliard. As best you
can tell, what happened?
Mr. LOPEZ: In his second year in Juilliard. He began to have trouble focusing.
As I looked back it is transcripts, he did best in classes where he was
expected to perform. In other words in the orchestra class he got As and his
judges said that he was, you know, a promising, brilliant young musician. If he
had to sit and listen to something about music theory, the grades went from Bs
to Cs to Ds to incompletes. And nobody knew at the time, what was going on, and
he just struggled a bit. And when he went back for the start of his third year
at Juilliard it all just came apart.
He was hearing voices. He was having more difficulty getting by in class.
Amazingly, he still performed extremely well when he had the instrument in his
hands. But one night he was in the apartment of a colleague, another student,
and began taking his clothes off. And the student said - the classmate said
what are you doing? And Nathaniel didnât have a coherent answer and didnât seem
to know what he was doing. His classmate called #911 and they took him away to
DAVIES: Itâs the public hospital in New York.
Mr. LOPEZ: Yes, he snapped, and he was soon thereafter diagnosed with, with
schizophrenia and dropped out of school, went back home, spent many years in
treatment. He lived with his mother who was the real saint in this story. She
took him and dealt with all of the difficult times, kept taking him back in,
even when he would get aggressive and violent. And she had him seeing a doctor.
Heâs had some treatment. He was in shock therapy, he was on medication. He
always, though, fell off and would end up wandering. And when she died he moved
to Los Angeles.
He got on a bus and he came west, knowing that his father had lived here.
Unfortunately, when he got here, his father was already gone - had moved to Las
Vegas. So Nathaniel stayed with a relative a while and then began wondering the
streets. Sometime, Iâm not sure, I canât tell - 2001-2002 somewhere around
there - and had been pretty much hanging out on the streets of downtown L.A.
until that day I met him.
DAVIES: L.A. Times columnist, Steve Lopez. Weâll hear more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: My guest is L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez. His friendship with
Nathaniel Ayers â the street musician suffering from schizophrenia - is told in
his book âThe Soloist,â which is now a movie, opening today. I spoke to Lopez
last April when the book had just been published and the film âThe Soloistâ was
in production. As â as you finished the book, Nathaniel Ayers was still
refusing medication and wouldnât really see doctors about his schizophrenia. Is
that where he is still? Do you ever see him seeking treatment for his â his
Mr. LOPEZ: I hope. I have hopes that he will. There are still these signs of
slow steady progress. Recovery, as I learned, is not linear. Youâve good days
and bad. But he does have a little music studio, and he likes to go in there
and play music. He called me this morning. Itâs â itâs the 7 a.m. call that I
get. And he said that, you know, Mr. Lopez, Mr. Crane up at the L.A.
Philharmonic said that maybe we could do a recording session. Heâs got Robert
Gupta, a violinist, and the orchestra is a friend of his.
And a pianist thought that may be they could play together. And, you know,
these are - we go to ball games, we got a concerts and he goes to his music
studio. And his goal, he says, is to be a music therapist, to use music to help
other folks. Heâs not there yet. Heâs got ways to go. I do â I do have this
hope, this dream, that one day he gets well enough to give medication a try. I
do know, however, thatâs not â thatâs no panacea - that itâs difficult to find
the right medication and even if you do, with this new generation of anti-
psychotic meds, itâs â itâs not necessarily the answer.
He might get so well that he says hey, Iâm feeling fine, I donât need these.
And youâre right back where you started. I â the thing that I tell myself
though is that he has â he is in better shape than he was when I met him and so
am I. I was so inspired by him and by the work thatâs being done on skid row,
that I thought about getting out of my dying newspaper business and trying to
start a second career. He inspired that. Just because of his courage, because
of his â his patience, I thought Iâm going to do this. I â I was prepared to â
to take another job. What I decided in the end, is that one of the many gifts
Iâve gotten from Nathaniel - and this has always been a two-way street â itâs
not just me doing for him. You know, thereâs this humility â thereâs this good
feeling I have from â from giving something. I was never the big brother type.
And now, here I am with this relationship where Iâve really meant something to
him, and he has to me. And thinking about his passion made me realize that it
was that music that got him through all of these troubles, you know, the world
is always spinning wildly for him but the music has not moved. The notes are in
the same place on the page. Theyâve been there for â for two centuries.
And he loves that music. He loves that how it balances him, and I thought for
me the passion is words. The passion is the privilege of writing about people
like him. And he has re-sparked my interest in what I do for a living. I cannot
leave this. Thatâs one of Nathanielâs gifts to me. Iâm recommitted to what I do
for a living, and I might be the last one out of the building even as the, you
know, the whole thing is going under.
DAVIES: You mentioned a moment ago that he called you at 7:00 a.m. Does he call
Mr. LOPEZ: Most days I get a 7:00 a.m. call and I get a 6:00 p.m. call. And
itâs begins good morning Mr. Lopez, how is Alison, Mrs. Lopez? How are Jeffrey
and Andrew Lopez? How is Caroline Lopez? I had a breakthrough last night Mr.
Lopez. You are not going to believe what happened on the Elgar Cello Concerto.
I donât know how it came to me. There must have been a spirit in the room. I
was practicing and all of a sudden the music made sense and Jacqueline Du Pre,
and Janos Starker, and even Yo-Yo Ma are going to have to step aside.
These are the kinds of conversations we have. And Mr. Lopez, are we going to
the dodger game this Tuesday or was that next Thursday? Yeah everyday weâre in
contact and see each other a couple of times a week.
DAVIES: Whatâs â whatâs it like to see yourself portrayed by Robert Downey Jr.?
It must be a â it must be weird.
Mr. LOPEZ: Itâs a little bit strange. He â Iâve joked with him that he doesnât
look like a Lopezâ¦
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LOPEZ: â¦since people donât know me I have to explain that my â my parents
are one side Italian and one side Spanish. But heâs a, you know, he is a much
cooler looking columnist than I am. Iâm not that exciting a guy and heâs just
got this presence.
DAVIES: You know, I know your work because you wrote in Philadelphia for many
years before you went to Time Magazine and eventually to Los Angeles. And I
know that columnists like you have, in some respects, an intimate relationship
with the readers. But they know your words and your columns. They donât know
what you look like. Are you little worried that people will see this movie and
think thatâs Steve Lopez? I mean, are you going to have to live up to that
Mr. LOPEZ: Thereâs no way I could be that cool. So itâs just - that part is not
going to happen. But, you know, what concerns me a little bit, you know, that I
really like what these guys have done and they have been very sensitive to the
major themes here and I think theyâre doing a great story. But they had to
change some things. I mean, it is Hollywood, and, for instance, in the movie,
Iâm divorced. This was not an easy development to explain to my wife, the day I
had to go home and say that she didnât have a character in the movie.
DAVIES: Youâre out of it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LOPEZ: Actually, she does. Catherine Keener plays my wife, but weâre
divorced and Catherine Keener is my editor. That would be just hell, let me
tell you, if, you know, you have a spouse - an ex-spouse was your editor, it
just would not work. But it works in the movie. It gave it some dramatic
tension as Joe Wright, the director - this is the guy from âAtonement.â He said
when he made that change along with Susannah Grant, the screenwriter, it just
Thereâs this - it adds this kind of drama and sexual conflict and tension. And
so, you know, that seems to work. But itâs got to be strange, yeah, to, you
know, have people think, well, this is Steve Lopez. And, you know, why is he
wearing a fedora? And we didnât know that he left Alison. Whatâs going on? So
itâs going to take some getting used to.
DAVIES: Your book âThe Soloistâ is now a movie in production, with Jamie Foxx
playing Nathaniel Ayers. Does Mr. Ayers, does he have any role here?
Mr. LOPEZ: Heâs very much aware, and heâs not particularly interested in my
book, although heâs read it. And he said, hey, congratulations. I hope you win
an award for it. But the movie, heâs interested more in the fact that the
people associated with the movie, from Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey to the
crew, are curios about him and like seeing him and like hearing him play. So
for him, this is an opportunity to have a new audience, and heâs been invited
over to play for the crew on occasion, and that part he likes. A couple of
weeks ago, we shot the scene - they shot the scene at Disney Hall, which was
our first visit.
And I said Mr. Ayers, we got to go. Itâs going to be Jamie Foxx and Robert
Downey sitting in the very seats that we sat in. And the LA Philharmonic plays
itself in this movie. And heâs got - you know, he knows half the orchestra now
and has friends there and teachers there. And I thought this would be such a
great day for him to drop by the set of the film, which is almost done, as I
speak. And he said Iâll meet you there. So I get to Disney Hall. He is set up
across the street. Heâs got a brown folding chair. He is sitting on that. Heâs
got his cello out, and heâs playing.
And I go there and I say, Mr. Ayers - we address each other Mr. Lopez and Mr.
Ayers. He once yelled at me for calling him Nathaniel, while always referred to
me as Mr. Lopez. And ever since then, Iâve called him Mr. Ayers. It sounds
strange to people, Mr. Ayers, Mr. Lopez. But I said theyâre doing the scene,
the big scene. Come on, weâve got to go inside and watch this. And he said â
well, you know, and he looked up at the sky, beautiful blue sky, nice day,
sunny. He said I just started playing this thing, and itâs really going well,
and, yeah, I think Iâd rather play. And I said Mr. Ayers, this is the big
This was our breakthrough day. This was - theyâre shooting our first day in
Disney Hall. Donât you want to see that? He said, yeah, well, you know, I do,
but Iâve really got some going here. I think Iâm going to stay and play this
just a little bit longer. So I crossed the street, climbed the stairs of Disney
Hall. I look across, and there he is sawing away, as he calls it. And inside
this building, maybe 300 people, the LA Philharmonic, the cast, the crew are
shooting a film about his life. And I said to the producer, Gary Foster, you
know what, Gary? We picked the right name for this thing, âThe Soloist.â There
DAVIES: Well, Steve Lopez thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. LOPEZ: Thank you for having me.
DAVIES: Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, recorded last April. The movie
based on his book âThe Soloistâ opens across the country today. We asked Steve
for an update on the Nathaniel Ayers. He reports that Nathaniel is still in the
same apartment, has a girlfriend and is doing reasonably well. Heâs been going
to concerts at the Los Angeles Philharmonic on his own. Nathanielâs family flew
in for Mondayâs premiere of the movie, and Nathaniel decided to attend despite
his fear of two-dimensional images.
He doesnât usually watch TV or movies. He didnât want to miss the party,
though, especially since many mentally ill members of LAMP, where he lives, are
in the movie and were at the premiere. Lopez writes that Nathaniel seemed to
enjoy himself for the most part, and once again struck everyone with his
growing ability to accept and developed insights into his condition. Many
challenges remain, Lopez writes, but he gives us hope. One final detail:
Nathaniel is now playing the flute.
Coming up: David Edelstein on the new documentary about Mike Tyson. This is
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Mike Tyson, The Damaged Everyman
DAVE DAVIS, host:
Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson is the subject of a new
documentary by director James Toback. It tells the story of Tysonâs tumultuous
life through his own words. Called âSimply Tyson,â it opens today in New York
and Los Angeles. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: James Tobackâs enthralling documentary, âTyson,â is all Mike
Tyson, all the time. Itâs an 88-minute stream-of-consciousness monologue that
makes you sympathize, wince, cringe, makes you wonder how a man who seemed for
all the world an unrepentant thug, an ear biter, a date rapist, could turn out
to be so gentle and reflective - not a monster, but a damaged everyman. How did
Toback get him to open up? Iâve interviewed the director a couple of times. He
is chummy, expansive, frequently obscene, infamous in earlier times for his
gambling and aggressive pursuit of women. Toback prizes people who take wild
risks and live on the edge, even - or maybe especially - if they end up
So Tyson always beckoned to him. In 1999, Toback put the champ in his
polarizing drama âBlack and White,â where Tyson played himself in an improvised
cocktail party scene. Toback directed Robert Downey, Jr. in the role of a gay
producer to sidle up to Tyson and make a pass at him, and Tyson wasnât in on
the joke and freaked out and knocked Downey down. Good times. Ten years later,
Tyson found in Toback not just a film biographer but also a kind of therapist
he could open up to. At the heart of the film is a contradiction. Tyson, who
grew up in a fractured home in a violent neighborhood, says he spent his life
trusting no one and confiding nothing.
Yet here he is, in close-up, pouring out what he thinks and feels in a high,
gentle, lisping voice. He describes himself as a shy weakling adolescent,
scared of bullies, who spent his free time raising pigeons. The day a
neighborhood tough guy picked up one of his birds and slowly wrung its neck was
the day Tyson won his first fight. After that, he regarded everyone as a
potential pigeon-murderer. Toback mixes new footage of Tyson with bits of old
interviews, but it all flows seamlessly. And Tyson can talk. His narration of
his matches is driving and incantatory.
(Soundbite of movie, âSimply Tysonâ)
Mr. MIKE TYSON (Former Heavyweight Boxing Champion): My mission is to go and
destroy and not to let anything get involved. And you punch and you get hurt. I
refused to being hurt, knocked down and knocked out. I canât lose. I refuse to
Unidentified Man #1: Thatâs a â thatâs his right hand. That should be it.
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
Mr. TYSON: Iâm only trying to aim for the back of my opponentâs head, trying to
find my punch going through him and ending out the back the head. And it sounds
like a brutal sport, but itâs just a technique and itâs just an art. And, you
know, people hear me talking in a particular fashion and think of me as some
brutal monster, but itâs all about the skill, the speed, the accuracy. And that
makes basically what I named my style after.
I didnât (unintelligible) he was in it, somewhat primitive skills, that he just
didnât put his (unintelligible).
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. TYSON: People donât have the slightest idea how hard it is to break
somebodyâs jaw and break somebodyâs eye socket, and they think itâs just the
power, but itâs the accuracy and the power, and every punch is thrown with bad
intention with the speed of the devil.
Actually, he was crying in there, making woman gestures, like oh, oh, oh.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. TYSON: My job was to hurt people. And I love fighting not because I like
hurting people, because I like the after effect of fighting and that I got the
job right. Once the job is done correctly, thatâs my satisfaction of it all.
(Soundbite of music)
EDELSTEIN: The footage behind Tysonâs narration is frightening. Iâve never seen
such hard punches thrown so fast. Whatâs just as scary is what he tells
interviewers at the end of that fight, that his opponent cried like a little
girl. So itâs no small thing that he cries on camera in this movie. He says he
was an animal back then, and when he couldnât be, he stopped boxing. Tyson is
candid, though not detailed or specific about his mistreatment of women. But he
still maintains he was wrongly convicted of rape. Maybe he was, maybe he
wasnât. But I doubt he could even have known back then what a woman wanted or
didnât want. He was so damaged, he had zero capacity for empathy and way too
When his old mentor Cus DâAmato died, Tyson had no one around him who could
say, no. The Tyson today, barely in his 40s, his money largely gone, has a
different energy than the fighter we see in old footage. His face, even adorned
with Maori warrior tattoos, is wide open to the camera. He says heâs looking
forward to seeing his kids go to school and to being a grandfather. At times,
he looks unformed. Tobackâs revelatory movie, though, might be the start of an
amazing second act.
DAVIS: David Edelstein is film critic for Vogue.
You can download Podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.