THE SOLOIST: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music

Book by Steve Lopez


Music brings order out of chaos, light from darkness,  hope from despair. It is a mountain top experience of timelessness and infinite space, removed from quotidian instruments of measurement like clocks and speedometers. Music entrains the rhythms of the body, the mind, and the soul in miraculous synchronicity. It is also a powerful force in connecting one human being to another.

There are two real-life heroes in the book The Soloist: Nathaniel Ayers,  the homeless ex-Juilliard musician with untreated schizophrenia and his best friend LA Times columnist Steve Lopez, who took the time in his busy life of deadlines to listen, to learn, and to persist in what became a truly beautiful life-changing friendship that transformed them both. If “the child is father of the man” as Wordsworth knew, then the same role reversal can occur between teacher and student, doctor and patient, the sane and the mentally disturbed.

The Soloist is not a “feel good” book (and recently released movie), despite it’s subtitle. But despite a painful dose of reality it is a story that fills us with a visceral sense of hope. It does not console or cajole, praise or criticize, teach or preach, outline problems or pose solutions. It chronicles the intensely personal and unique relationship between two very different human beings, but it begs other broader questions that are disturbing on many levels. It raises the specter of homelessness and our discomfort in acknowledging it, much less our lack of insight and will to tackle it. It causes us to reflect on mental illness, raising the question of what kind of treatments work, how and why “experts” disagree, and at what point does well-intentioned “humane” treatment violate the freedom and dignity of the individual and backfire on both the care giver and the patient. The book leaves us puzzling over the disturbing but fundamental issue of mental illness from a causal perspective. What causes the onset of mental disease in a young man with as much promise and talent, creativity and intellect, as Nathaniel Anthony Ayers?  It only hints at race and stress as contributing factors, but leaves us puzzled as to what truly triggers the chemical dissolution of a healthy human brain into the chaos of schizophrenia? This moving story puts a human face on mental illness, and on the rollercoaster of hope and despair that both the patient and family endure in trying to answer questions that so far seem to baffle even the mental health professionals.  Steve Lopez asks some of the basic reporter questions of Who, What, When, Where, and Why, but he is left as confused as we all are. Yet there is tremendous hope in the power of their gut-wrenching friendship and in the mysterious  power of music to sometimes transform us, often uplift our spirits, and in the meantime to help us endure “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”  The pain seems to go away while the music plays. As Nathaniel poignantly expresses it, while listening to Sibelius’s 2nd Symphony in the car with his friend Steve, “I wish the concert would never end.”

Meet Nathaniel Ayers and Steve Lopez in this recent 60 Minutes video clip.

See and hear the 46 musical works Steve Lopez mentions in The Soloist, with brief descriptions and music video examples.

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