Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Surprised by Shatner

So Capt. Kirk and I were having a chat one day… Well, it wasn’t really a private conversation. More like a Q&A session at a Star Trek convention, but it felt intimate. Just me, Bill Shatner, and a few thousand close friends.

I was commenting on his portrayal of his swashbuckling alter-ego and inquiring as to the paradigm shift, I perceived, in his character between films four and five. I was polite, but anyone paying close attention could tell it was not a change of which I appreciated or approved. Shatner rattled off something about polling and marketing data and said the audience responded well to the added humor in the Star Trek films so the studio kept adding more. In my mind, one of my greatest cinematic heroes had been reduced to little more than a clown and I was pissed. Not that I could stay that way for long. Concluding his remarks, Shatner commented that he wished we’d had that conversation a few months earlier so it could have been included in his autobiography.

Truth is, comedy is all the pop-culture icon seems to do these days. And it’s not that he’s not funny. He is. He’s appeared most recently in the Miss Congeniality films, was nominated for an Emmy for his role as The Big Giant Head on Third Rock From the Sun and won last year for his role as a demented lawyer on Boston Public.

That said, it probably shouldn’t have surprised me last week when I discovered that William Shatner had released an album. No, no, not that album—another album! In the late 60s, he recorded an LP entitled “The Transformed Man,” which is widely considered a camp classic today, though Shatner never intended it that way. His version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” was abysmal. His rendition of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was voted as the worst massacre of a Beatles song ever.

And so, when I heard he’d release another CD entitled, “Has Been,” my reaction was, “Oh no! Didn’t he learn his lesson the first time?” Gingerly inserting the CD into my car’s CD player, I grimaced, preparing for what I was sure would be a reaction of both embarrassment and mockery.

Instead, I was surprised by Shatner.

It doesn’t suck. In fact, it’s quite good. Really.

“Has Been” is not a singing CD in the traditional sense, but, like much of his first attempt, Shatner’s contribution is much more of a sing-songy oral recitation, more like a dramatic reading. The truth is, Shatner can’t sing and he knows it.

One endearing thing about William Shatner is that he’s never taken himself too seriously (except during the shooting of the original Trek series, when, by all accounts, his massive ego earned him the disgust of most all his fellow cast members). This self-deprecating, even self-parodying aspect of his personality lends itself well to his comedy and adds a brilliant buoyancy to the CD.

Perhaps the best indication, not only of the CD’s quality, but also of the enthusiasm behind it are those people involved behind the scenes. “Has Been” was produced and arranged by the delightfully one-of-a-kind, Ben Folds, who actually brainstormed the idea of doing an album with Shatner in the first place. Numerous other artists from Joe Jackson, Brad Paisley and Nick Hornby to the luminous Aimee Mann lent their talents and voices. Remarking on the recording experience, Folds said, “If I thought that there were heaps of artists who were willing to be as honest, vulnerable, creative and as trusting with their producer as William Shatner has been with me, I’d just be a producer.”

One of the most extraordinary things about the CD is its ability to jump back and forth between moments of hilarious comedy and moments of profound drama and still balance a depth you would never expect or anticipate. One poetic reading, in particular, which describes Shatner’s true life experience of coming home to find his wife drowned in their pool is devastating:

She was underwater
In the shadows
The water was still and so was she
I dove in with so little breath
In truth I knew
I was too late for death
Is this what death looks like?
My love was supposed to protect her
It didn't

Some of the songs are dark and almost painful to listen to. In “It Hasn’t Happened Yet,” Shatner deals with his own insecurities and the plaguing voices that whisper that he’s never been good enough, never pleased anyone, never made a difference. “That’s Me Trying” tells the painful story of an attempted family reconciliation long after it’s too late:

I know I haven't been the very best of dads
I'll hold my hand up there
The reason that I'm writing is that I'd like for us to meet
Get a little daughter dad action going soon
We can put things behind us
Eat some pizza, drink some beer
You still see your sister Emily?
Bring her, too

Years of silence
Not enough.
Who could blame us giving up?
Above the quiet there's a buzz
That's me trying

Other songs are lighthearted and wacky. “Common People” is an eminently singable story about a rich girl slumming it in college. “You’ll Have Time” insists we “live life like you're gonna die because I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you're gonna.” The album’s title track, “Has Been” is a playful, spaghetti western romp in which Shatner considers the thought that he may be washed out even though it’s the last thing he feels. The funniest and wittiest song, by far, is a hilarious rant with Henry Rollins that is also a legitimate piece of societal criticism, entitled, “I Can't Get Behind That”:

ROLLINS: Eat quickly. Drive faster. Make more money now! I can't get behind that.
BILL: My kids say: He said to me, and I'm like... and he's like... and she's like...
ROLLINS: It's all... He's all... She's all...
BILL: I can't get behind that kind of like, English!
BILL: I can't understand why the price of gas suddenly rises when oil goes up...
ROLLINS: ...but takes months to go down long after oil falls!
BILL: I can't get behind any of that!
BILL: I can't get behind the gods who are more vengeful, angry, and dangerous if you don't believe in them!
ROLLINS: Why can't all these gods just get along? I mean, they're omnipotent and omnipresent, what's the problem?
BILL: What's the problem?
BILL: What about the men who say 'Do as I do. Believe in what I say, for your own good, or I'll kill you!' I can't get behind that!
ROLLINS: I can't get behind that! Everybody knows everything about all of us!
BILL: That's too much knowledge!
BOTH: I can't get behind that!
BILL: Yeah! And what about student drivers using my streets to learn? If you learn to play the drums you got to go to a studio! Go to a parking lot, for God's sake! Why are you jeopardizing my life? I can't get behind a student driver!
ROLLINS: I can't behind a driver who drives like a student driver! If you're going to drive an urban assault vehicle then get off the phone and keep your eyes on the road!
BILL: I can't get behind so-called singers that can't carry a tune, get paid for talking—
how easy is that? Well, maybe I could get behind that!

The song that impacted me and the hero-worship I’ve very consciously dragged into my adulthood to most, was “Real”:

I have saved the world in the movies
So naturally there's folks who think I must know what to do
But just because you've seen me on your TV
Doesn't mean I'm any more enlightened than you

I'd love to help the world and all its problems
But I'm an entertainer, and that's all
So the next time there's an asteroid or a natural disaster
I'm flattered that you thought of me
But I'm not the one to call
And while there's a part of me
In that guy you've seen
Up there on that screen
I am so much more
And I wish I knew the things you think I do
I would change this world for sure
But I eat and sleep and breathe and bleed and feel
Sorry to disappoint you
But I'm real

The surprise record of the year, “Has Been” is an odd recipe of surprisingly pop-driven, lyrically potent songs. Shatner mixes a healthy amount of introspective self-awareness with a just a dollop of self-mockery and then combines it all with plenty of raw vulnerability to create an effect that is unexpectedly touching, extremely entertaining, and unlike anything else out there. Shatner's delivery is world-weary and boozy-suave yet thoroughly impassioned. Sure, it's hammed up in places, but this time, Shatner is in on the joke.


Blogger Danica said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:27 AM  
Blogger c_neil said...

I still find it odd that people would listen to a guy that can't sing and isn't much of a musical artist.

Based on your description, this CD will sell only for the same reasons that the Priceline ad campaign was a success.

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Kenny said...

Oh... it's so bad...
It had to get better from there.

So, it was a pretty big leap of faith to spend money on the CD in the first place! :o) It's good you liked it!

12:30 PM  
Blogger BalloFruit said...

Amazing. Absolutely amazing. I had no idea that you'd write 12+ paragraphs about a CD that I introduced you to as a joke.

Granted, after talking to you about it, I seriously listened to it again and noticed everything you pointed out about it.


1:44 AM  

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