The Lost Son: The Life and Travails of the 'Piano Man'

For four and a half months, the identity of the "Piano Man" remained a mystery to the world. He was found on a beach in England and spent months in the hospital. Now, the details are emerging: Andreas Grassl was a young man who desperately wanted to flee his suffocatingly provincial home town in the Bavarian forest. He was also trying to escape life as his family lived it.

Farmer's son Andreas Glassl: Original, sometimes brilliant, difficult, sometimes petulant.
DPA

Farmer's son Andreas Glassl: Original, sometimes brilliant, difficult, sometimes petulant.

In summer 2000, the newspaper of Robert Schumann High School -- in the Bavarian town of Cham -- started a new column: "Burn - the List of My Enemies." The author, who called himself "Scatman," wrote about his efforts to make it big in television. And with nothing coming of his suggestion for a TV show, the list grew rapidly. "In 1995," he wrote, "I was unfortunately pushed away by (the German public station) ZDF." Even the photo competition in the local newspaper, Straubinger Tagblatts, proved not to be a stepping stone to fame. "Ice cold rejection," was his verdict on that occasion. And so the column went year for year: funny, biting, ironic. Until the series of articles which Scatman wrote the year before leaving school, which suddenly breaks off with the inexplicable sentence: "Please tell me, what am I supposed to conjure up as a grandiose finale for the end of this five-year series?"

Scatman never did write his grandiose finale. But his wish to escape his provincial surroundings and hit the big time became dramatically true last week: Scatman is the "Piano Man," the most enigmatic famous person in the world. Picked up on a beach in Sheerness, England, he had no papers, was soaking wet and was wearing a suit which had all the labels cut out. He then spent four-and-a-half months in various English clinics, without saying one word. Instead he just played the piano. Until, that is, the Friday before last, when he suddenly offered his name and where he was from: a farm in the Bavarian woods, a few kilometers from the Czech border.

For some 130 days, the "Piano Man" served up a riddle to the world. It became a story which offered something for everyone: romantic dreams of genius, innocence, and solitude. Now, though the mystery has been solved, the release of his name, age (20), and his parent's hometown (Waldmünchen in Bavaria), do little more than create more questions about the Grassl.

More questions than answers

Why, for example, did he make his way to a small English island and why did he not speak for so long? The answers, however, may never come to light -- while Grassl may now be talking, he is only doing so through his lawyers. The young man, they say, is suffering from a psychological shock and depression and he can't remember much of what happened. The English press, on the other hand, have accused him of faking it.

But there is much more to the story than that which has so far appeared in the press -- the story of a young man who wanted to see the world, but got lost on the way. It's not an uncommon story. Millions of parents have lost their children by trying to force them into lives like their own. The only thing unique this time around is the result.

French holiday resort Pornic has been one of several stations in the life of Andreas Grassl.
AFP

French holiday resort Pornic has been one of several stations in the life of Andreas Grassl.

Grassl was born on October 25, 1984 and grew up near the town of Waldmünchen. It's a town with just 7,200 residents and the kind of place where a hotel room costs just €28 and parking on the central square is still free. It's also the kind of place where not much of interest happens when you're just 20 years old. It has two local papers and a supermarket. The itsy-bitsy village of Prosdorf, though, is Andreas Grassl's real home -- a small collection of farm houses and just 71 residents. His father, who owns a dairy complete with 53 milk cows and a bit of land to grow hay, is one of them.

The world here is an orderly one and life is simple. Grow up working on the farm, get married, take over the family business, have children, pass the farm on, age and die. It is exactly this sort of family Grassl was born into: In addition to farming, his father also volunteers at the fire department and his mother, religious according to the neighbors, is a regular visitor to the St. Stephen Church in Waldmünchen every Sunday. She's often even seen at weekday mass.

God, in other words, is a major presence in the Grassl family house. But the family itself tries to draw as little attention to itself as possible. "They always lived that way, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible," says a local in the town pub. "The mother was always afraid of standing out."

The older he got, the more Grassl started to feel suffocated by the provincial world around him. But he kept up good appearances. He joined his sisters in doing chores around the farm and was seen in the village as a good, obedient son. His father Josef tore the house down and built another -- a brand-new steel building. He built and built -- for himself, his family and the person who would succeed him in running the farm. It wouldn't, however, be his son; Andreas knew early on he didn't want to take over the farm. There was no way someone like him could stay here without a heavy dose of self-denial.

Looking for an escape

His path to the outside world began at the high school in Cham. There, he wasn't the kind of student who just occupies a desk and after 13 years, picks up his diploma. He was engaged. His yearbook says he "spent about 98 percent of his time -- free-time included -- at school." It became a sort of second home for him.

As a student, Grassl was a total original -- sometimes brilliant, but also difficult and sometimes even downright petulant. When teachers would ask him a question, he would occasionally answer: "That question doesn't interest me." Then, of course, there was the scene in math class, when Grassl walked up to the chalkboard to prove to his teacher that he had just miscalculated. One classmate said his confidence came across like snobbishness.

But Grassl was able to get away with it. At the start of 12th grade, he translated a magazine into Latin -- the music charts, the ads, everything -- just for fun. Or he would do all three homework exercises in German class, even though he only had to pick one, and be the first one to turn it in even after having had a glass of red wine to calm down beforehand.

His major fields of study were a breeze for him because they were also his hobbies -- French and German. After all, France was the country he often travelled to in his daydreams when he thought of the future. He spoke the language fluently and other students said he always got near-perfect grades in French. His teacher, Brigitta Hirtreiter, recalled a report he did on French slang, Argot -- it was excellent. His French conversation was also excellent. Indeed, Andreas was never the type to remain silent.

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