Out of This World
It’s time we update our pantheon of Emotional Canadian Jews: Like Leonard Cohen and Drake, William Shatner lays his soul on the track with abandon
Apologies to Mark Twain, but what is the secret to William Shatner’s immortality? I mean, there’s Star Trek, but Shatner’s not just a cult actor, like Nathan Fillion or Bruce Campbell. He’s a cult human being. He’s been able to get job after job because so many people like the idea of giving William Shatner work. This work includes, but is not limited to: lucrative primetime TV gigs, shilling for a variety of Internet companies, showing up “confused” at gala ceremonies, a play on Broadway, and a music career. Perhaps stretching himself so thin has turned him from a human into a living, breathing brand, forever selling us on the next thing with a plodding, deliberate elocution and affected self-seriousness? Or is there a real man still left under all that marketing?
The impetus for these questions is an almost decadelong fascination with Shatner. And the answer can be found, if you look right, in the form of his Shatner’s World, Bill’s new one-man show playing all across the nation now. I saw it in New York at the Music Box Theatre, playing to a mostly full house of partisans sporting Captain Kirk and Boston Legal attire in equal measure (no jumpsuits, sadly). The famous transporter sound played, and we heard off stage “No no no! I wanted to come on with a jetpack strapped to my ass!” and he rushes on stage. The joke didn’t work, but there was raucous applause followed by an hour and a half of amusing anecdotes. It was very nice, but I soon started to itch impatiently: I was there for the music.
Let me back up, so you know what we are dealing with: three studio albums, a live album, and a recording of the Old Testament with a cover that I hope I see in the moments before I die. If you are willing to give it a fair shake, his oeuvre can fundamentally change the way you listen to music. It’s time we update our pantheon of Emotional Canadian Jews: Like Leonard Cohen and Drake, Shatner lays his soul on the track with abandon. It’s just: His soul is considerably weirder.
Shatner’s musical career began in 1968 with The Transformed Man, his first album, which was mocked and relegated to the dustbin of kitsch. Kinder critics labeled it an “unintentional comedy classic,” but others were harsher, like England’s Q magazine, which named it one of their 50 worst albums of all time. But Shatner’s only mistake was unleashing a concept album on a world that couldn’t handle it, that had lost any interest in the spoken word. On The Transformed Man, Shatner re-enacts scenes from classic theater, Shakespeare, and Rostrand’s Cyrano, and then seeks their contrasts in modern songs. Cyrano’s monologue talks about the joys of solitude, and “Mr. Tambourine Man” is about needing a drug dealer. The problem is that you can only understand this after Shatner explains it to you. All you hear is that signature brief … pause … between … words … style, which tends to negate any potential emotional impact.
It’s weird and it can be interesting, though it doesn’t quite work, and it’s certainly not the type of album that could help a young, depressed kid recover from a suicide attempt and simultaneously get ready for college—which is why I’m glad that, at 18, I had his 2004 follow-up, Has Been.
Hypothetically, a yeshiva is the perfect place for a lonely and very sad kid to hide out while waiting for college: Just immerse yourself in Talmud study and bide time. I would follow multiple cliques around a day, hoping their camaraderie would rub off on me. Surely, this had to be as uncomfortable for them as it was for me. One day, I tried putting a razor blade to my throat in hopes that it’d scare something—anything—into feeling. Two years later, things had gotten a bit better, but even in senior year I still listed “razor blade” as my most defining characteristic. Add in the fact that I had gotten into college on the other side of the country, and it isn’t surprising that I became aloof, a slightly bullying senior for whom classes were optional. By senior year, in fact, a lot of my personal horror story was over. One of the ways I coped was music. I got Has Been for Hanukkah in 2004, and it did what great music usually does: It brought me back to Earth, allowed me to reconnect with a feeling I thought I had forgotten, warmed me up a little more to the idea of life.
Has Been certainly starts big enough, with a version of Pulp’s “Common People.” It opens the album with an upbeat keyboard, sounding like a preset you’d hear on a Casio. “She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge,” Shatner intones. He’s doing the same thing he did on The Transformed Man, but this time there’s no pedestal, no learning curve needed. The song keeps raising the bar on itself, from an explosive guitar riff to letting Joe Jackson actually sing part of it to, finally, inevitably, a children’s choir as Shatner sneers at his/Cocker’s would-be lover, “Yeah, you’ll never live like common people! You’ll never do what common people do!”
It’s a song about the Pyrrhic victory that is blue-collar pride and on its face would be a bit hard to swallow from a seemingly well-off actor. But somehow the feeling that dominates Has Been is one of an underdog. “Common People” is the only cover on the album! The rest of the material is either partially written by Shatner the person or written in his voice. Although it’s hard to imagine he had much to do with the album sonically, the number of sounds you can get out of Has Been really is staggering, even so many years later: ’40s standards, gospel, even gonzo punk featuring Henry Rollins(!). Shatner is a fascinated traveler, stopping by as many types of sound as he can find. The genre-hopping doesn’t hurt; in fact Has Been is only helped by its septuagenarian protagonist’s candid admission that he’d rather leave the music to the professionals. And then, to top it all off, there’s the emotional glue of two of the album’s back-to-back songs: “What Have You Done” and “Together.”
How serious is our society’s literacy problem? Unless we commit to being serious readers of a shared canon, we might as well stop reading altogether.