Poppa Neutrino, 1933–2011

The free spirit who rafted across the Atlantic

In 1983, David Pearlman felt reborn. Recovering in Mexico from a life-threatening illness brought on by a dog bite, he decided to take a new name to celebrate his survival. He immediately thought of the neutrino, a barely detectable subatomic particle that moves at nearly the speed of light. And so he christened himself Poppa Neutrino, a peripatetic street musician and oceangoing adventurer whom his biographer, Alec Wilkinson, called “the happiest man in the world.”

Even before he changed his name, Neutrino lived a “turbulent life,” said The New York Times. His father, a Navy sailor, shipped out to sea before his son was born; his mother was a chronic gambler who never stayed anywhere long. By his reckoning, young David attended 40 to 50 different schools. “For some reason I loved this,” he said years later. “If I ever wanted a stable life as a child, I’ve repressed it.”

At 15, he lied about his age and enlisted in the Army, said The Washington Post. Upon his discharge, he wandered the country along Route 66, “briefly enrolled in a Texas seminary, and spent time with poet Allen Ginsberg in San Francisco.” Little is known of his life in the following few years—he claimed to have worked as a sign painter, a pastor, and a reporter in Vietnam—but at some point he settled in New York City and started the First Church of Fulfillment, which he described as “the only church in the history of the world that didn’t know the way.”

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Four times married, Neutrino “led his burgeoning family on journeys across the U.S. and through Mexico,” said The Wall Street Journal. To raise money, the family learned to play jazz and rhythm ’n’ blues on pawn-shop instruments, performing as the Flying Neutrinos. The band survives to this day, directed by Neutrino’s daughter Ingrid Lucia Marshall and Todd Londagin, a musician he raised as his son. One of the few places the family settled for any length of time was on a houseboat, “built of cast-off wood and harbor debris,” docked in Manhattan.

Another boat made of scrap was the vessel for Neutrino’s most famous achievement, said the Cape Cod Times. Living in Provincetown, Mass., in the 1990s, Neutrino got it in his head to lash together a raft from discarded timber, foam bricks, and plastic bottles and sail it across the ocean. Bearing Neutrino, his wife, two friends, and three dogs, the “lumpy but eventually triumphant” craft made the crossing from Provincetown to Ireland in 60 days, surviving 20-foot waves and periodic food shortages. Neutrino suffered a heart attack en route.

Toward the end of his life, Neutrino auditioned for American Idol. In his homemade audition videotape, he said, “I’ve traveled the world with just the spare change in my pocket. I don’t pay rent because I can’t afford to. But I’ve had experiences that not even the wealthiest of us can imagine.” He died with $4.44 in his bank account.

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