The lawyer is a skinny man with a string of fat wooden beads around his neck and a wad of Kleenex in his right hand. When standing he is more than six feet tall, but at the moment he is sitting in his office, slumped down so low that only his head is visible above the top of his desk. Then he straightens up, slumps again and coughs damply into his tissue. All the time he’s directing a patter of words at the person sitting across from him, Ron Lopes, a 27-year old man sporting stylishly baggy clothes and corn-rowed hair.
It is early August, 2002. The lawyer’s office is located in the commercial heart of La Ceiba, a port city on the Caribbean coast of Honduras. Ron’s eldest sister died in a car accident south of the city about three months ago. Her name was Lisa, but for the last decade of her three-decade-long life she was also known as “Left Eye”, the most notorious member of TLC, the best selling female pop group of all time. The lawyer did some work for Lisa when she was alive, then did some work for her family after she died. Ron is here to pick up a variety of documents relating to that work, and to clear up some apparent discrepancies in the billing for it.
“Well, you see, those bills, they are like that because there are some other things included there, hidden expenses,” the lawyer is saying, trying to explain some of the seemingly inflated medical charges accrued after Lisa’s accident. “Somebody at the hospital, you know how things work in Honduras, a friend of mine, I had him put some other things into the bills. There’s an airplane ticket, you see, an airplane ticket was included in the hospital bill… it makes it easier, you know, all in one place.”
There are old home videos of Lisa performing in mock interviews, accepting fake awards, luxuriating in imaginary fame. Along with her father’s musical gifts, Lisa inherited his temperament as well. While Ron and Raina were usually cowed into a corner by his rage, Lisa would fight back, shouting with a strength that belied her size, tapping into a deep-seated anger of her own. She was not yet in her teens when she began drinking her father’s beer, sharing, finally, not just his gifts and his rage, but his vices as well.
Eventually, the toxicity of her family life and her dreams of stardom combined to propel her from home. At the age of 18 she drove from Philadelphia to Atlanta, a city she’d never been to before, one she’d heard had a vibrant music scene.
The morning after we arrive in Honduras, Ron and I are in a mudbrick hut at the base of a green mountain. The hut is filled with Lisa’s belongings, belongings that were left behind in the tumult that followed her death and now have to be shipped or carried back to the States. Ron is packing the last keyboard that his sister ever owned into its carrying case. The keyboard is a Novation Supernova II. It retails for more than $2,000, and bears about as much relationship to the toy that she composed her first songs on as a Stradivarius does to a Stratocaster. The Novation Supernova II is an instrument fit for a pop star. Which is, of course, what Lisa became after moving to Georgia.
The story of TLC is rich in nicknames. The Atlanta-based trio composed of Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was originally managed by Perri “Pebbles” Reid, then-wife of Atlanta music impresario Antonio “L.A.” Reid. (Lisa’s nickname stemmed from a former boyfriend’s remark that her left eye was slightly larger than her right one.) In 1991, Pebbles secured them a record deal with her husband’s label, LaFace Records. By blending Watkins’ smoky growl with Thomas’ diva-ish stylings and Lopes’ pixie-voiced raps, the group’s songs created a new and successful blend of R&B, hip hop and funk. Buoyed by a sartorial style that morphed from condom-strewn casual to sexy-cool elegant to space-girl chic, TLC’s three albums generated five Grammies and seven No. 1 singles.
On the day that TLC signed it’s first contract with LaFace, Lisa’s father was shot and killed by his own cousin. While some in her family found the news to be almost a relief, Lisa took it hard. In interviews, she described the day as both the best and worst one of her life, and it proved a grim harbinger for a career that was notable for both lofty highs and subterranean lows.
In 1993, after TLC’s initial success, Lisa’s family followed her to Atlanta. They found that she had changed since Philadelphia. She was developing (and some say relishing) a reputation as the wild child of TLC. The drinking habit that she’d picked up from her father was deepening, her media profile was devolving and her relationship with her bandmates was deteriorating. When the group’s second album, CrazySexyCool, was released, it was no secret who the Crazy in the title referred to.
Perhaps the nadir of her career came one raging, drunken night, when her always volatile relationship with Atlanta Falcons football star Andre Rison turned literally incendiary, and his house burned to the ground. Lisa was charged with arson and sentenced to probation and a month in an alcohol treatment center.
It was very clear to her family and everyone who followed pop culture that Lisa Lopes’ rapid ascent from a Philadelphia garage into the celebrity firmament had not healed whatever wounds she bore, and had perhaps exacerbated them.
Ron closes the keyboard up tight and takes it out of the mudbrick hut, into the sunshine, where the air is filled with the hum of the insects and the lisp of flowing water. He is in the village where Lisa stayed on her last trip to Honduras. Rows of huts identical to the one we’ve just walked out of stretch up in one direction toward the green mountain, in the other toward a narrow two-lane highway.
The mountain is a small one, but the sun is high and the trail is steep and I am tired. It is three days into our trip, and Ron is downtown, checking his email at an internet café. I’ve decided instead to hike one of Lisa favorite hikes. My guide, a middle-aged Honduran man named Ines, is as tired as I am. He pauses frequently, ostensibly to point out some or other detail of the local foliage – a tree with peeling red bark, he tells me, is called an indio desnudo, or “naked Indian” – but he’s using the pauses to catch his breath.
As we move higher, the landscape below us unfurls through the breaks in the trees. Directly at the base of the mountain is the Usha Healing Village, with it’s parallel rows of huts stretching toward the highway. Ines works as landscaper there, cutting acres of grass with a weed whacker every day. He has been working at Usha off and on for years, and first met Lisa four years ago, during her first visit there.
“She was much stronger than us”, says Ines. “Much faster. She would not be sweating like we are.” Usha is named after the daughter of Alfredo Bowman, a 68-year old Honduran herbalist. Bowman, who goes by the name Dr. Sebi, built Usha to be a vehicle for his controversial medical theories. According to Dr. Sebi, all sickness, from cataracts to cancer, stems from an excess of mucus in the human body. He claims that by following a strict diet based around pure strains of fruits, vegetables and herbs, one can cleanse the body of mucus and all its attendant ailments.
For a sliding fee, those who come to Usha live the strict regimens of diet and exercise that Dr. Sebi prescribes for them. On any given day, they might bathe in the sulphurous waters of a nearby hot spring, drink acrid herbal concoctions, or purge their toxins in sweat baths.
They might also climb the mountain that Ines and I are climbing, which is what Lisa did almost every morning during her frequent trips to Honduras. She met Dr. Sebi through a friend in 1998. At the time of her meeting, according to people close to her, she was deeply unhappy, unsatisfied with both her public and private lives. Dr. Sebi promised that he could help her, and she soon became a believer in his ideas, dieting according to his specifications, cutting way down on alcohol, replacing with little fat she had with muscle. Along with body weight, Lisa also seemed to shed much of the stress and rancor that had plagued her since childhood. According to her family, Dr. Sebi’s prescriptions for clean living transformed Lisa, leaving her happier than she’d ever been. By 1999, the wild child of TLC was wild in a different way, surprising her friends back in Atlanta with offerings of such sundries as sea moss smoothies.
While she continued the life of a pop star, touring and recording and making public appearances in the United States, she spent more and more time four countries to the south. She also began work on her first ever solo album, a spiritually minded suite of songs that were unlike anything she’d ever done with TLC. Many of the songs on the album, which will soon be released in the United States, were clearly inspired by both Dr. Sebi and his country.
Last March, Lisa organized a month-long trip that would allow her friends and family to experience all aspects of her transformative health kick first-hand. Ron and Raina, along with a group of Lisa’s musical protégé’s called Egypt, a documentary film crew, and a few other close friends travelled to Honduras and checked into Usha’s spartan accommodation. In an echo perhaps of the Lopes’ strictly regimented upbringing, the trip was run like a boot camp. Lisa was the taskmaster, insisting that people wake up at 6am for yoga, martial arts, a mountain climb, or some other activity, then leading them in downing noxious herbal bitters, soaking in hot springs, building fire pits. Their days were full, exhausting, and, in many ways, wonderful. This was the first time in years that the Lopes siblings had spent so much time together. It was a chance for them to get to know each other all over again.
Ines and I climb higher and more of the terrain comes into view. Directly to the east of Usha is a 50-plus acre tract of lush undeveloped land. This belongs to Lisa, although at the moment it is in Dr. Sebi’s name. She had plans to build a house and a non-profit children’s center there. Eventually, Lisa wanted to live here full-time.
As Ines and continue our climb, I recall how, shortly before departing for Honduras, I’d attended the Atlanta Music Awards with Ron and Raina. The two were presented with a plaque in Lisa’s honor. It read, “For Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez (sic): May you find the peace that you could not find here on earth.” I remember how, according to Ron, the plaque missed the point. “She had found peace,” he told me. “She found it in Honduras.”
At the summit, Ines and I take in a wide panorama. We can see Usha, Lisa’s land, and, a couple of miles to the west, a small fishing village with the unfortunate name of Sambo Creek. Lisa was a frequent visitor there. On April 25, four days before she was due to head back to the United States, she organized a final outing from Usha. She wanted to get some footage of Egypt performing for the locals of Sambo Creek.
The band, the camera crew, Raina and several others piled into a rented Mitsubishi Montero, with Lisa taking the wheel. (In a move that people would later imbue with prophetic meaning, she had just minutes earlier changed from an all-white outfit into an all-black one.) The packed Montero turned onto the narrow two-lane highway that fronts Usha. As they picked up speed, Lisa made a comment to her sister, Raina, about how she’d like to unwind with a card game later that night. Then a truck stopped abruptly on the highway ahead of them. Lisa swerved left and drove off the road, into a shallow ditch. The SUV hit a small tree and flipped. Lisa was not wearing a seat belt. She was ejected from the vehicle and landed on the hard rocks and soft soil.
On a glass table in the common room of our hotel suite is a boom box that belonged to Lisa. It is in the evening of the day that I climbed the mountain, and Lisa’s soon-to-be-released solo album, with the working title Supernova, is playing. A supernova is a star that burns too fiercely, generating an enormous amount of energy before dying prematurely. The song we’re listening to is called “A New Star Is Born”, and Lisa wrote it for her father. Some lyrics: “Dad, I know you’re listening / How you been? / Oh, I’m doing fine, just passing time, submerged in sin / Every time I take a bath I just get all dirty again / I’m trying to cleanse my mind, cleanse my soul and get in / Into that place you’ve been / No, I’m not trying to rush anything / I just want to visit you / Because I miss you.”
Ron has his eyes closed. He’s only recently been able to listen to the song without breaking down. His mother still can’t, and won’t let people play it when she’s nearby. Soon, she probably won’t be able to avoid it. It will be on the radio, in the clubs, on MTV. It is a possible first single. Lisa’s personal tribute to her dead father will catapult past the ears of her family members to those of people like me, who never met her. Each new listener will grieve for Lisa. Some will grieve for their own lost friends or family.
That’s what songs do. They transform the personal into the universal.
After the track ends, Ron tells me, for the first time, about the day of the accident, and the days following it.
He tells me about deciding not to ride to Sambo Creek with the others that afternoon because the SUV was full, and anyway, he was tired. He tells me about resting in his hut, then wandering toward the kitchen for a glass of water. He tells me about a sudden commotion, about cars pulling into Usha full of people screaming in Spanish. He tells me about seeing his sister Raina in the front seat of one of these cars, blood streaming down her face, and he tells me that when he asked her if Lisa was okay all she could say was that she didn’t know.
He tells me about riding in a pickup truck to the scene of the accident, and not seeing Lisa at first. Then he tells me about seeing her. He tells me about swallowing the panic. About lifting her into the back of the truck. About holding her in his arms during the ride to the hospital, feeling the warmth leak out of her.
He tells me about ill-equipped emergency rooms, about botched embalmings, about stepping over unsheathed corpses while dragging his sister’s coffin into cold storage. He tells me about news photographers chasing him down whenever he was outside the hospital, and sometimes when he was inside it. Some of these photographers took pictures of Lisa in the autopsy room, pictures which have since circulated on the internet.
He tells me that when things got really bad, he thought about all the times Lisa had taken care of him, and how if he couldn’t take care of her now, then what sort of man was he?
He tells me about the private jet that he flew back to the States in, accompanied by only two pilots and Lisa’s body. He tells me about the funeral back in Atlanta, and how overwhelming it was to have more than 30,000 people mourning his sister with him.
He tells me of all these things, and then he presses play and listens to Lisa again.
Later that same afternoon, Ron takes me to Sambo Creek. He says he wants me to see it because it was a special place to Lisa and it has become a special place to him.
The roads are unpaved, and dust kicks up a red haze behind us. Our headlights pick up a clump of young black men loitering on a corner, eyeing our expensive rental car menacingly as we approach. Ron lowers the window, sticks an arm out, waves, shouts Hola! All the young men drop their young-men poses, smile and wave back.
“Can you imagine,” says Ron, laughing, rolling his window back up, “what would have happened if I’d waved at a bunch of teenagers on a street corner in the Philly projects like that?”
We ride through the village all the way to the sea and visit a woman who lives in a house maybe 20 feet from the waves. Her name is Lesley and she has a baby named Desmond. The baby is 6 months old, chubby, with cappuccino-colored skin and large brown eyes. The eyes are familiar. They look like Ron’s. Or Lisa’s.
The woman is wearing the black headdress that, in the local culture, is associated with the recently widowed. She had Desmond with Ron’s uncle, Tony, who came to Honduras several years ago with Lisa, met Lesley, fell in love, and decided to stay. For a while he followed Dr. Sebi’s prescriptions for healthful living. Then he fell off the wagon, started eating too much fried fish, drinking too much Salva Vida (Life Saver), the local beer. He died of cardiac arrest less than two months after Lisa passed away.
As Ron coddles his cousin, people flow into Lesley’s house. They come to say hi to Ron, to pose for pictures with the baby, to ask after Raina and the other people that they’d gotten to know back in April. Alan and Fabio, two young men Ron had met during that previous trip, are among the visitors.
For the next few days Alan and Fabio will occasionally tag along with Ron and me as we do our errands. They show us shortcuts and help us find the big cardboard boxes and small box cutters that we’ll use in packing up some of what Lisa left behind. For both of them, just riding in a late-model car is a thrill.
They ask lots of questions, fascinated by the lives lived by people blessed with the exotic gift of an American birth. They talk about their dreams of going to America themselves, about the difficulties of making the journey the legal way and the dangers of going as mojados, or wetbacks. They point at Ron’s white Nikes and say that it would take three, no, four months of work to save up enough money for a pair like that.
When I remark that Lisa wanted to make the opposite trip from the one they contemplate, wanted to move from the States to Honduras, they shrug.
“It was different for her”, Alan says. “When she came to Honduras she was still Lisa Lopes from Atlanta. I am just Alan from Sambo Creek.”
The next afternoon, after our contentious visit with the gaunt, coughing lawyer, we visit the Atlantida headquarters of Banco Occidente in downtown La Ceiba. Atlantida is the name of the state in which La Ceiba is located. (I can’t help noting the similarity in names between the city Lisa Lopes lived in and the state she died in. Atlantida is simply Atlanta with more id.) Among Lisa’s belongings at Usha we’d found a deposit book from the bank, and Ron wants to try to close out her account. The deposit book documents a series of modest transactions, with a final balance of about $450.
Honduras is a poor country, made poorer by the ravages of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and the bank is heavily guarded by men with automatic weapons. Once inside, Ron and I are ushered into the air-conditioned office of a matronly manager with reddish dyed hair.
She tells us two things. First, the booklet is not up-to-date, and the balance of the account is substantially higher than we thought. Second, somebody other than Lisa has been making withdrawals from it.
“Cristian Virgilio Avila,” says the bank manager. “That’s his name”. Ron recognizes it.
During her last trip here, Lisa paid Mr. Avila $6,000 to help get Osami Bowman, a son or Dr. Sebi, out of prison, where he’s been locked up for the last two years on marijuana-related charges. Avila claimed to have valuable connections with certain high-placed judges. Perhaps he did. Regardless, the money disappeared, and Osami Bowman is still in prison.
Although it appeared to everyone she told that she’d been scammed, Lisa, perhaps unwittingly, continued to pay Avila to work toward Bowman’s release. She’d given him a note, according to the bank manager, authorizing him to withdraw $165 every two weeks. He apparently continued using this note even after she died, though the bank eventually put a stop to it.
The news doesn’t surprise Ron. He’d long ago discovered both the extent of his sister’s trust in people and all the willingness of them to take advantage of it. Lisa was, after all, a woman who managed to go bankrupt the same year she sold her nine millionth album.
It happened in 1995, when a remarkably unfair record contract left one of the most popular bands in the world mired in debt. Although TLC eventually renegotiated their contract, they still never made the sort of money that some comparably popular groups do.
Although her family is unwilling to give me an exact figure, Lisa Lopes did not have much money saved up when she died, and the family is currently adjusting to a new and less secure financial situation. While she is in no danger of having to move back into a garage, Wanda Lopes is in the process of selling her house, after which she will move into Lisa’s. Raina, having sustained a back injury and a fractured ankle in the accident, is currently unemployed, unable to continue her work as a personal trainer. She has no health insurance.
Ron, for his part, is focusing on the future, throwing himself into managing Lisa’s posthumous affairs, convinced that the next few years can be some of the best of her career.
The afterlives of musicians can be lucrative. Six of the 10 dead celebrities whose estates earned the most money last year were musicians. The estate of Tupac Shakur, the most recently deceased entry, earned $7 million in 2001. (Incidentally, if Lisa ends up making the list next year, it may be with Tupac’s help. Her soon-to-be-released solo album contains a duet with Tupac, recorded after his death. Lisa and Tupac used to date, and she asked his mother, Afeni Shakur, to give her access to one of his many unreleased vocal tracks.)
Ron predicts that the upcoming new TLC album, 3D, which includes Lisa on numerous tracks, will sell more copies than any previous one. He believes that Lisa’s solo project will ride the wave of the TLC album’s success and achieve some high sales numbers of its own.
Lisa’s family is currently at odds with her record company, Arista, over its handling of her musical legacy. The executive producer of her solo album, “L.A” Reid, is currently giving artistic control over the Supernova project to Suge Knight, the notorious head of Tha Row, a West Coast label that specializes in gangsta rap. Ron would prefer that control over Supernova stay with Arista and the Lopes family.
To supplement their income from the upcoming albums, the family already has a book deal in the works, as well as a documentary film project incorporating much of the as-yet-unreleased footage shot in Honduras in April. Even Lisa’s song for her dead father, “A New Star Is Born”, may be reworked for maximum saleability.
“We’re going to try and get Babyface to tweak the mix,” Ron tells me. “N’Sync might redo the chorus.”
Of course, his sister’s continuing commercial viability hinges in large part on the lifespan of her fame. For now, at least, Lisa’s celebrity is still intact. We are in the bank manager’s office for about 20 minutes. By the time we leave, word has gotten out about who Ron is, and most of the bank’s employees stare as we make our way out of the air-conditioning, past the guards with their automatic weapons, and into the crowded, noisy streets.
La Ceiba’s prison, which houses Osami Bowman, is as well-guarded as its banks, though here the difficulty lies in getting out, not in. On the day that we visit the prison, guards give Ron and me numbered squares of fibreboard as we pass through the barred iron gates, and tell us that they won’t let us leave if we lose them. I assume they’re joking, but Ron tells me they’re not; On his last visit here with Lisa in April, they stayed a few hours and had to grease more than a few palms in order to avoid spending the night.
In Honduras, a prisoner’s comfort is largely determined by his wealth. The government doesn’t have the money to provide for the upkeep of its miscreants, so it instead pays solely for their containment. A prisoner’s family is expected to bring him food, as well as the money he needs to pay rent to the prison managers. This rent goes toward living accommodations of varying sizes and lavishness. The poorest prisoners live in rooms crammed full of people, with honeycombed tangles of 30 or more bunks rising to the ceiling. The richest have their own cells. Osami Bowman lives in a private cell about the size of a highway toll booth, with an adjourning private bath.
The last time Lisa came here she brought along the members of Egypt, and they gave an impromptu concert in the prison courtyard, singing and dancing for the same people we see here today, these shirtless young gang members, these old men, their faces covered with either tattoos or sparse grey stubble. There are pictures of Lisa taken during the performance. She’s playing a bongo drum, looking as relaxed and joyful in her sweatpants and t-shirt as she ever looked in the elaborate costumes that she wore on elevated stages in packed arenas all over the world.
The bongo drum that she’s playing in the pictures is now hanging on the wall of Osami’s cell.
Ron promises Osami that he’ll do what he can to finish what Lisa started, to get him out of prison.
Ron, in fact, wants to carry out all of Lisa’s plans. “I look back and its like I’ve been preparing my whole life for this”, he says, “to do Lisa’s work.” He wants to build the children’s center that she envisioned next to Usha. He wants to build a house there too, and he wants to live in Honduras someday, like she wanted to live here someday.
Visiting hours come to a close. We don’t lose our numbered squares.
On our last day in Honduras, Ron gives his clothes away. Not all of them, just the ones that he’d left down here in April. Fabio and Alan of Sambo Creek are his chosen recipients.
We meet them in a house in their village, and Ron hauls a large zippered duffel bag into the living room, tells them to have at it. Fabio asks whether perhaps it wouldn’t be better if Ron doled the clothes out himself. No, Ron tells him, you guys figure it out.
Fabio is reticent and gracious, and is hesitant about taking too much. Alan has no such qualms, and once the bag is fully plundered his pile disproportionately large. Alan takes the FUBU shirt, the Nike jumpsuit, the Yankee’s pullover hat, the Tommy Hilfiger sunglasses and the Regal leather jacket. Fabio winds up with some sweatpants, an old pair of Adidas sneakers, and a few t-shirts.
Noticing the disparity, Ron tells Alan that maybe he should even things out a bit and give up a few items of clothing. Alan refuses.
When we leave Sambo Creek that night, I worry that Ron shares at least one of his sister’s weaknesses, that he’s too trusting of the wrong people. I wonder if he’s liable to get burned by this, just like Lisa did, and how this bodes for his future in shepherding his sister’s posthumous career through the cut-throat music industry.
The next day, however, I find that my worries were perhaps unfounded. “I’ve been thinking that if I ever get Lisa’s center going here I might want to hire some of the people from Sambo Creek to work for me,” Ron tells me. “Now I know who I can trust. I’d hire Fabio in a heartbeat. Not Alan.”
A few days after we get back to the States I receive additional proof that Ron is no pushover.
He had previously told me that I would have access to a trove of as-yet-unseen Lisa materials, ranging from the diary that she kept in Honduras to some of her earliest photographs, poems and drawings. I would also have the opportunity to screen hundreds of thousands of video tape that were shot during the weeks leading up to her death.
But after consulting with the proposed author of the upcoming licenced book project about Lisa, Ron informs me that the Lopes family has decided not to provide me with any more exclusive information or material, as that might hurt their marketing efforts for the book. As a reporter, I’ve understood for a long time that access to a celebrity is a valuable commodity.