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.

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.

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.

NEXT PAGE: The unromantic truth

When his studies were completed, his guidance counsellor issued him a certificate that would allow him to go to a French university without having to take a language test. As he graduated, he told Hirnreiter he wanted to continue studying French. She thought that was exactly what he had been doing when she learned last Wednesday that the "Piano Man" was her Andreas.

But as well as Grassl knew French, he also liked to show off. He would often switch back and forth between German and French -- an eccentricity that didn't please everyone. Especially for a boy who -- with his part down the middle of his hair, pimples on his face and poor grades in physical education -- was hardly in the inner circle of popularity. Some considered him to be a weirdo, others thought he was vain and arrogant.

But Grassl didn't care what others thought about him and he became more and more of a loner. His contributions to the school newspaper and the youth section of his town newspaper, the Bayerwald Echo were biting and sassy. Between November 2000 and October 2002, 76 of his articles were published -- he wrote about everyone from Britney Spears to Kelly Osbourne, and the stories were filled with sarcasm and caustic wit. In a piece titled "Chameleon," he made fun of two teachers as if they belonged to a world he wanted to leave behind. But he had clearly made that decision long before. In a letter to the producers of a national television show called "Dreams Come True," he asked for help getting an internship at Viva, a German music television channel that has since been taken over by MTV. But nothing came of it. He also failed in a casting for the TV show "QuizShow."

Coming out of the closet

Then he applied for a student internship at a Bavarian radio station and his application got accepted. Soon afterwards, he landed a 20-second role in a German-Czech radio play. He also tried out for a writing gig at the national Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper's youth pages, Jetzt. The editors made him an offer to write for their Web site, but he wrote he felt it was beneath him.

It wasn't just his penchant for punk music that drove him away from Waldmünchen or his soft spot for subversive sarcasm. Grassl had known for a long time that he wasn't like the other boys. When one classmate asked him which girl in class he liked most, he apparently responded: "I don't like the girls." And Dano Shano, who was in a clique together with Grassl until the 11th grade, claims that he was out -- at least amongst his friends. "He told his closest friends that he is gay," says Shano.

But who else could have understood that in Waldmünchen? And how would his parents have reacted? Their only son gay? The heir to the farm a homosexual? He even had his own Internet address, cache-cache@web.de. Cache-cache is the French word for hide-and-seek.

Shano said she has no idea whether his parent knew he was gay. "The small town just wasn't his world," she says. His attorneys are only saying that Grassl has no plans to speak about the issue.

The city of Saarbrücken -- some 500 kilometers away from Waldmünchen -- became the escape. Grassl found himself a position there as part of his required civilian volunteer service -- for conscientious objectors who decline mandatory military service. His job was to help care for 36 physically and mentally disabled living in an aid home. His colleagues at the home -- where he began work in summer of 2004 -- found Grassl to be open, social and friendly. He often went out with them to music pubs in the evenings or to the disco, and also went to public readings. It seemed, in other words, as though he wanted to absorb what big-city atmosphere there was to absorb in this small, regional capital.

Spreading his wings in the city

Finally, Grassl had found himself a life far away from Waldmünchen where he could satisfy his curiosity about the world -- but also a life where he could openly admit his homosexuality without having to look over his shoulder to see who might be listening. "Andreas told us immediately that he's homosexual," one of his co-workers at the home remembers. Not that anybody particularly cared. Nobody cared in the apartment house where he lived either. With 150 inhabitants coming and going, who's going to get worked up about one neighbor's sexual preferences? It was just the anonymity Grassl was looking for.

His room was nothing special. Just 23 square meters (250 square feet) with a small kitchenette and bathroom for €260 per month. But it was enough -- enough to enjoy that which he had written in as his motto for his high school year book: "freedom." And in any case it was only the first step. He was looking forward to heading to France a few months later to work -- a place where people might get more worked up about the German bourgeoisie than German homosexuals.

Why, then -- in March after his civilian volunteer service stint -- did he end up in the small town of Pornic on the Atlantic coast instead of in Paris? The holiday village, especially during the off season, isn't much better than his home town of Waldmünchen -- and its residents were just as susceptible to that village-like tendency of spying on, and passing judgement on, their neighbors.

"There are hardly any homosexuals here," says the operator of the small restaurant called Le Grilladin. "And when one of them dies or moves away, nobody here is particularly sad if you know what I mean." The restaurateur didn't, however, take notice of Grassl, even though he lived just two doors down in a small apartment complex. Charles Henri Soulard, however -- the apartment manager -- did notice. One of the apartment owners told him that he rented an apartment to a young man from southern Germany at the beginning of the year. Later, the youth's parents called: "They were looking for him," Soulard explains, "But I didn't know where he was."

Never reported missing

Grassl had lost his job, the family's lawyer, Christian Baumann, explains, and it may have been enough to derail him. In other words, Pornic may have been the beginning of Grassl's illness.

At this point, it would have made sense were the family to have reported their son missing. They did not. Apparently, they didn't want to attract attention to themselves. What would people say if they found out that their son had disappeared? How were they to know that just five months later, their house would be besieged by camera teams from Japan, reporters from Sweden and at least a dozen correspondents from English papers and that they would make headlines around the world? Instead, the family decided to ask a policeman friend of theirs if he would discreetly inquire about their son's whereabouts with his French colleagues. The French police, however, refused to search for the Grassl's son, says Baumann. After all, Andreas was legally an adult.

At some point at the beginning of April, Grassl hopped on a ferry across the channel to England. Was he alone, or was he traveling with someone else? Nobody knows, but his lawyer maintains that he no longer knew what he was doing. Soon afterwards, on April 7, he was found dripping wet and confused on the beach of Sheerness. Many have said he wanted to commit suicide, but he isn't even sure of that anymore.

The rest of the story is legend anyway -- a mixture of truth and wishful thinking. He was said to be a piano virtuoso, a stranded concert pianist maybe from the Czech Republic, maybe from Norway. The truth was much less romantic: He came from a small farming town and had managed to teach himself a few notes on an electric keyboard -- barely enough for the "Moonlight Sonata" and "Für Elise."

Even the picture -- printed in newspapers around the world and showing a shy young man oozing the soul of an artist -- is nothing more than a manipulated photo according to the family's lawyers. Grassl's acne was nowhere to be seen and his hair was completely different -- blonde and mussed instead of dark and parted down the middle. But then, maybe the lawyers are merely trying to answer all those who simply can't believe that Grassl's parents never saw their own son staring up at them from the pages of the newspaper. And it's also a riddle why none of his classmates, none of his former teachers and none of the people in Waldmünchen recognized Grassl.

Back home

Worst of all, though, is that Grassl now has to live with many doubting his story; well-respected doctors have indicated that he could possibly have faked his entire illness. Dieter Naber for example, professor of psychiatry at the university clinic in Hamburg, knows of no other case where the patient remained silent for so long. It could be, Naber says, that Grassl had long felt the need to start talking again, but only actually did so when the pressure of silence became too great.

His lawyers, of course, contest that view. Grassl, they say, wasn't acting. He didn't, it is true, ever completely lose his memory but he felt completely separated from his surroundings. Helmfried Klein, a professor of psychiatry from the southern German town of Regensburg considers such an explanation plausible. "The young man was helpless in the face of his illness, likely a form of schizophrenia," Klein says. "He couldn't speak any more, he couldn't think logically and thus, he couldn't help himself." The idea that he was acting the whole time is, for Klein, completely absurd.

But what in this case is so absurd that it couldn't, in the end, turn out to be true? It is true, for example, that for Grassl, leaving home was a form of escape; but it is an absurdity that his escape has ended in exactly the same small village where it started: Waldmünchen. And now that the camera teams have taken off, Grassl is left behind in the suffocating, provincial atmosphere of his childhood home. And that is as absurd as it's unfortunately also true.

JÜRGEN DAHLKAMP, GERALD DRISSNER, GUNTHER LATSCH, ROMAN PLETTER, ANDREAS ULRICH

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