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.”
It took me a couple of listens and a few more Google searches to realize that “What Have You Done” is about the horrifying death of Shatner’s third wife, Nerine. She was an alcoholic, her drowning in their pool was ruled an accident. “What Have You Done” recounts finding her body, which left Shatner helpless: “My love was supposed to protect her. It didn’t. My love was supposed to heal her. It didn’t.” The stark honesty on the track segues into its antithesis: the warm techno womb of “Together.” Here is Shatner reborn, speaking in mystical terms: “Pegasus, Grecian urn. So much to learn. Together.” Listening to it now, as a 25-year-old in much more stable mental health, I am startled to realize that I feel the same thing I felt that fateful Hanukkah when I first heard it: My problems melt away. I liked these two tracks individually, but taken together they mapped out a rare type of clarity. When I was an 18-year-old, this presentation of overcoming grief suddenly made my problems seem so insignificant. I could see in the Shatner of “Together” a person I wanted to be, one who turned pain into a chance for growth. It didn’t change things overnight, but it gave me a blueprint that held steady.
At the Music Box Theatre, also for sale in the lobby was last year’s disappointing Seeking Major Tom. This album only gets the slightest of mentions in Shatner’s World, with Shatner noting all the artists he got to collaborate with for it. In a way, Seeking Major Tom can be seen as the inverse of Has Been—almost all covers, with only a few originals scattered around, and a much greater reliance on collaborators. There’s a full-on Sheryl Crow song, no Shatner involved. (It’s called “Mrs. Major Tom” and is as probably as weird as Sheryl Crow gets.) There’s a desire to appeal to all people at all times, which is great when it works, but I’ll let you guess how often that happens. Does the world really need William Shatner covering “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Or “She Blinded With Me Science”? Even cults of personality have their limits. But even here, with the cash-ins and trip-ups, the uniqueness of Shatner’s music abounds. No other artist I’ve ever heard puts such emphasis on every word. Try to sing a song like he does and you’ll see how hard it is. The honesty of the theatricality of it all bleeds into your listening to other bands, and you might find yourself starting to wonder why, say, the National just can’t admit that they’re having a fun time on stage.
Back at the show, I have to admit here’s nothing revelatory here. It’s a collection of loose reminiscences, ranging from Canadian radio theater to meeting Patrick Stewart. Things get emotional at times, but it’s mainly light: Stories about cross-country road trips get more play than Nerine’s death. It was my first time seeing him in person, and it was easy to see how he kept getting hired. Even when the jokes failed, or the occasional line got flubbed, he seemed unflappably kind, nothing like the stories of him on set and everything like the wise, eccentric grandfather who truly found the mystic meaning in horses and urns and the wonder of life.
At the end, he performed the last track of Has Been, “Real,” which includes the line “I’m an entertainer, and that’s all.” But William Shatner’s idea of entertainment is very different from everyone else’s. I don’t want to say old-school, because it’s not quite that. What really makes his music shine through, what makes it invaluable, is the belief that personal expression should primarily be a form of entertainment, that any sadness will inevitably give way to joy, and that joy itself is a serious critical state, one to be praised. It’s a mindset that, however based in earnestness it is, is almost definitely an act: There’s no way someone could be on like that 24/seven. But who cares? It gave me, and still gives me, something to strive for—a reason and a way to step back from life. Shatner’s music is not meant to drastically alter your perspective on life, and that’s precisely why it does.