Friday, October 28, 2011
William Shatner: The Transformed Man and Has Been
There are several theories as to how it happened, but whatever the real story, William Shatner did indeed record an album at the height of Star Trek’s original prime-time run. Unlike other TV stars, he didn’t attempt to sing on the album, instead using his theater-trained voice to recite words over a not-so-hip backing. (By contrast, Leonard Nimoy put out five albums in the late ‘60s, and sang on each one of them.)
Shatner intended The Transformed Man to explain a journey of sorts, illustrated by juxtapositions of poetry and Shakespeare soliloquys with modern pop lyrics. The theater pieces are pompous enough, but he sounds a little drunk on “It Was A Very Good Year” and “How Insensitive”, and downright crazed on “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” (still the greatest-ever version of that song, if only for the final three seconds).
The album wasn’t a hit in the slightest, but gained notoriety over the years as an example of what ego and possible proximity to hallucinogenics can achieve. Once Rhino Records included a couple of tracks on their first Golden Throats album of actors singing badly, it was plucked from obscurity, much to its creator’s chagrin.
So is it really a bad album? That’s a matter of opinion. We feel that it belongs in the “so bad it’s good” category, and used to enjoy playing it on late nights at the CD store to see what customers would stay and who would leave. (The same experiment was performed using Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Frank Zappa.)
Once Bill decided to embrace his camp status, he started making the rounds of snarky comedy shows working his monologue magic, and used his status as the Priceline spokesman to do a series of ads in a faux-coffeehouse setting with Ben Folds in the band behind him. When he was approached by a Rhino offshoot to do another album, Shatner turned the tables by not only agreeing, but embracing the chance to make a sequel of sorts.
Has Been once again features the man on the microphone, but speaking mostly his own words. Ben Folds produced the album, wrote the music, and fostered the other selections—like the opening track, a hilarious cover of Pulp’s “Common People” that turns into a duet with Joe Jackson halfway through. Brad Paisley stopped writing songs about fishing long enough to contribute “Real”, a profound meditation on public image. And novelist Nick Hornby provided the lyric for the melancholy “That’s Me Trying”, one side of a conversation with an estranged daughter with choruses filled out by Folds and Aimee Mann.
In fact, most of Shatner’s lyrics reflect his thoughts about aging and his own fame, particularly on “It Hasn’t Happened Yet”, “You’ll Have Time” and the goofy title track. A trio of songs about romance follow the harrowing “What Have You Done?”, wherein he recounts discovering his wife’s drowned corpse in their swimming pool. “I Can’t Get Behind That”, a rant shouted with Henry Rollins, provides excellent comic relief.
Half of Has Been is great, and the rest not so, but where else can you hear Joe Jackson, Aimee Mann, Henry Rollins and Bill Shatner in the same place? Best of all, it gives the man a chance to rise above the caricatures and actually move the listener.
William Shatner The Transformed Man (1968)—3
William Shatner Has Been (2004)—3