Back in September 1964, Jascha Heifetz, the formidable fiddler, was attempting an ill-advised comeback recital at Carnegie Hall. The crowd out front was enormous, and it naturally included many people with long faces hoping for a turned-back ticket to this sold-out event. I was covering it as a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune of lamented memory. At that time, there was a violinist, 20 or so, nice Jewish boy, reasonably talented, who played in a regular spot in front of Carnegie on most concert nights, with his violin case open to receive coins. I had the idea that this guy would make a pretty good story for my paper, and what better time than after I had taken him to this night of nights? I proffered him my extra ticket; he looked at me the way Little Orphan Annie must have first looked at Daddy Warbucks.
Come concert time, the seat next to me was fully occupied, not by my grateful minstrel but by a corpulent heavy-breather who had bought my extra ticket, at a fairly inflated price, from the street fiddler. When I came out at intermission, that guy was still sawing away at his sidewalk station. I’ve never trusted one of those street players since.
Until, that is, Mr. Nathaniel Ayers began to restore my faith, with help from Steve Lopez. The slice-of-life columnist for the Los Angeles Times comes into the picture where I might have, if that klutz in New York hadn’t sold my ticket. Lopez’s splendid new book, fashioned from his columns, is called The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music. Lopez discovers Ayers first, a lone fiddler playing astonishingly well, on a downtown street corner. They meet, some bullshit is exchanged for better or worse, they part, they meet again. “…[Nathaniel] plays for a while, we talk for a while, an experience that’s like dropping in on a dream,” writes Lopez.
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 …
“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 …”
The encounter becomes a column, and then a series. A used-instrument dealer named Al Rich (not this one) donates intact instruments; so do others. Lopez digs deeper: Yes, a Nathaniel Ayers attended Juilliard some years back, showed great promise, dropped out, dropped off the planet. Former teachers remember him with passion; long to contact him. There’s a sister, a father still working in Vegas. Meanwhile the present-day Ayers becomes, for our dedicated journalist, something of a career, something of a handful.
Lopez turns impresario, virtuoso. With help from the Philharmonic's press department, he invites Ayers to a rehearsal: Beethoven’s “Eroica” no less. Ayers sneaks his own instrument onto the emptied stage and plays some notes, hence qualifying as “soloist.” Against considerable and vociferous opposition, the middle-aged, cantankerous Ayers is force-fed into the city’s welfare system. A room is procured at one or another downtown Skid Row settlements; just as often, Ayers would prefer to plop his pillow in the Second Street Tunnel, usually out of the perfectly understandable need to stand watch over his possessions.
“The flapping of pigeon wings,” he explains, “comes down to me as applause.”
Obsessions battle: Ayers’, with maintaining his toehold in a Cloud Cuckoo Land where Beethoven calls the shots from above all rooftops; Lopez’s, to guide this tragically terminated, halfway-educated mooncalf back into loving, professorial arms and, perhaps, get him a decent job with a symphony orchestra or some such, thereby possibly harnessing his soaring spirit forever. You might ask yourself whether the world has to be so small that a reasonably amiable schizophrenic can’t sleep in a traffic tunnel and play on a two-stringed violin now and then.
The Soloist is a sweet and moving story, and there are some authentic tearjerks along the way: Ayers’ old cello prof in Cleveland first getting word that his favorite pupil is alive; Ayers and his sister reunited after all those years. (There is also a film on the way from DreamWorks, and don’t say you’re surprised! Jamie Foxx is Nathaniel Ayers, Robert Downey Jr. is Steve Lopez, and Esa-Pekka Salonen plays guess-who.) I would, however, raise an eyebrow, draw a line, or whatever the current expression has it, concerning the subtitle. Believe me, there is no “redemptive power” in music, I am most happy to report after some 60 years. It’ll knock you out, drag you down; it has sandpapered some of Nathaniel’s more interesting edges, as Lopez carefully points out on almost every page. Thank God, it hasn’t redeemed him.
THE SOLOIST: A LOST DREAM, AN UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIP, AND THE REDEMPTIVE POWER OF MUSIC | BY STEVE LOPEZ | G.P. Putnam’s Sons | 273 pages | $26 hardcover