Sometimes a story comes along that breaks your heart before you start interviewing. And then when you get to know the subjects it becomes even more wrenching yet at the same time uplifting. The story of aspiring musician Bernie Dalton, who refused to let the loss of his voice shatter his dream, reveals the resilience of the human spirit.
To watch their video of “Unusual Boy,” made for NPR’s Tiny Desk contest, click here.
To read my story for The Press Democrat, click the link above or read the text below.
By MICHAEL SHAPIRO
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
When Bernie Dalton – a surfer, single father, pool cleaner and aspiring singer – lost his voice, neither he nor his voice coach were initially alarmed.
And when it didn’t come back, he wouldn’t let that stop him from making the album he’d always dreamed of creating.
A few months earlier, just after turning 46, Dalton had responded to a Craigslist ad and begun taking voice and songwriting lessons from San Francisco musician Essence Goldman.
“He’d always show up early with a big smile on his face, very eager, waiting for me,” Goldman said in a phone interview from her home in San Francisco’s Richmond district.
When Dalton came to her in January 2016, they didn’t start by talking songcraft – they discussed their lives.
“I feel that voice is the direct channel to somebody’s spirit, so I tried to help him feel comfortable,” Goldman said. Songwriting is about “honesty and sharing your truth. So we cut right to it.”
Dalton, who lived in Woodside, talked about being a single dad, while Goldman shared that she’d recently been through a separation and was a single mom.
“He was extremely encouraging and supportive,” she said. “A very sweet (platonic) relationship was born.”
As a songwriter, Dalton was an “absolute beginner” but showed “a lot of natural talent,” Goldman said.
Once he brought her a fully formed original song – another day he sang the blues classic, “I’m Tore Down” by Freddie King, which Goldman recorded on her iPhone.
“That is the only known recording of Bernie singing in the world because shortly thereafter his voice disappeared,” she said.
Dalton thought the cause might be overexposure to chlorine from cleaning pools, and he sought natural healers.
Though he couldn’t sing, Dalton kept coming to see Goldman for lessons, bringing her lyrics and working on his songs.
Sometimes he’d come up with his daughter, Nicole, and she’d sing.
When weeks without a voice became months, Goldman became extremely concerned.
One day he came to a lesson and began drooling on a guitar.
“Bernie, you’ve got to see a neurologist,” Goldman told him. “This is really bad. You can’t wait.”
Dalton finally got some medical tests during the spring of 2017 – a year after he’d lost his voice.
“I think that there was optimism – you could call it denial – but Bernie is an extremely optimistic person almost to a fault,” Goldman said. “He just kept thinking he was going to get better.”
It’s didn’t take long to diagnose his condition, the disease Dalton and Goldman most feared: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Those afflicted with ALS, such as 49ers star receiver Dwight Clark who died June 4, suffer from degeneration of nerves in the brain and spinal cord, which cause partial and then complete paralysis.
Most victims die within a couple of years.
Despite the shock and his deteriorating physical condition, Dalton could still drive and kept coming to San Francisco for lessons with Goldman.
He asked for advice about how to tell his teenage daughter, which was “gut-wrenching,” Goldman said.
“I urged him not to wait. I told him she would want to know so she could be there to help him and comfort him.
“He didn’t want to burden her. It was finals time at her high school, late spring 2017. He wanted to wait until finals were over, and that is what he did,” Goldman said.
“He is always thinking about other people before himself. Bernie is the most selfless person I’ve ever met.”
Goldman had lost her father to pancreatic cancer and said she saw herself and her dad in Dalton’s relationship to Nicole.
“When Bernie was diagnosed with ALS, it was like losing my dad all over again,” she said.
Goldman stopped accepting money for the lessons and offered to start a fundraiser so Dalton could travel with his daughter before his symptoms worsened.
But he didn’t want to take a trip – he wanted to make an album.
She asked him: “Bernie, how are you going to make an album if you can’t speak or sing?”
He replied: “I want you to be my voice,” but initially she didn’t think she could do that.
Dalton kept sending Goldman handwritten lyrics, asking her to help him put music and melody to his words.
“I was working on my own album,” she said, a follow-up to her 2016 release, “Black Wings.”
“But he’s persistent, extremely persistent, and he kept sending me the lyrics in the mail. He said, ‘This can be your next record.’ And there was just something so important and heartfelt about what he was doing.”
Goldman launched a GoFundMe campaign that raised more than $23,000 to pay for producing Dalton’s album.
Members of Goldman’s band joined Goldman and Dalton in a recording studio and knocked out a song a day.
Dalton was involved in every aspect of song creation, from the melodies to the horn parts, offering his comments on a dry-erase board or giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the musicians’ suggestions.
They named the band Bernie and the Believers and titled the album, “Connection.” Last February they had an album release party at the San Francisco club Slim’s.
The first song Dalton wrote, “Simon’s Hero,” is a message to his daughter’s future children, kids that Dalton will probably not live long enough to know.
Dalton and Goldman crafted that song, whose title references Dalton’s hero Paul Simon, in her living room as she played a Dobro guitar.
“I wrote the music and melody in about 15 minutes, … the song was there,” she said.
“I second-guessed myself when I wrote it. Like, I’ve never written anything like this. This doesn’t feel like me, but it wasn’t supposed to feel like me. It wasn’t my song. I channeled him.”
Last March, the band released a video, a submission to NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert contest, in which Dalton listens to Goldman sing the Bernie and the Believers song, “Unusual Boy.”
Dalton is at the Cupertino Health & Wellness Center, wearing a hospital gown, a bowtie around his bare neck.
He opens the video with a Stephen Hawking-like automated voice saying: “My name is Bernie Dalton. My lifelong dream was to record an album … I could no longer speak or sing, so I asked my singing teacher, Essence, to become my voice.”
Goldman then appears in a yellow dress, backed by her band, and sits next to Dalton on his hospital bed. She proceeds to sing her heart out.
Soon Dalton’s jaw begins to tremble, tears form at the outer edges of his eyes and trickle down his cheeks.
Goldman kept her composure and continued to sing.
“I just sang the song to Bernie. I became the song in that moment,” she said during the phone interview in early June.
“It was as pure a communication as I’ve ever experienced. I lost myself in the song. I had to stay strong and be the rock because that was what was needed.”
She said music “is like a meditation. I just completely focused on the music and beamed him all the love in my heart through the song.”
What’s clear is the deep love that Goldman and Dalton share, not a romantic love but perhaps a more pure connection.
“He is my spirit brother, my soulmate. There is a mysterious force at work here, and it’s bigger than all of us,” she said.
“Bernie is a really special person, and I’m honored that he asked me to be his voice. It’s been the honor of a lifetime.”
To become Bernie’s voice, Goldman had to transform herself from a vocalist to an instrument, but it’s a journey she’s found immensely gratifying.
“As a songwriter, our greatest work is to be of service and to communicate something meaningful,” she said.
“The role of music is to create magic and to move people to speak truth. I can’t think of any experience I’ve had musically that’s had more magic and truth than this.”
Michael Shapiro writes about entertainment and travel for national magazines. Contact: www.michaelshapiro.net.