Shatner. No other name in entertainment carries as much recognition for camp, and that’s including John Waters and every actor associated with his films. His stilted delivery of lines as Captain James T. Kirk is both iconic campy brilliance and widely ridiculed. It was this role and his portrayal that led to rifts between him and his costars, a long dry spell of acting roles and his continued embrace of / aversion to the franchise. But before the ride on the Enterprise would end, Shatner went where no other Federation officer had gone before, on vinyl. The Transformed Man was Shatner’s first attempt at a spoken word pop album featuring his now infamous renditions of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” He later went even further over the top for a cover of “Rocket Man” for a science fiction awards special. The performance was so memorable that it’s been aped ever since, most notably by Futurama and Family Guy, and even by Shatner himself. His commercials for Priceline.com played on this performance, finding the former starship captain backed by an all-star band featuring Lisa Loeb, members of Veruca Salt and Fishbone, and, most notably, thanks to their continued collaboration, Ben Folds.
Ben Folds first teamed up with Shatner on Folds’ semi-anonymous vanity project, Fear of Pop. This album, which featured far more electric guitar and electronic keyboards than most Folds fans were used to, also featured a song with Shatner’s now infamous spoken-word style, “In Love.” In it, a relationship quickly and one-sidedly devolves into primal rage with Shatner giving the final deathblow in, “You say I can’t commit? You’re right! I can’t commit…to you!” This one song then led to the return favor with the Priceline band, and eventually to 2004, when Shatner recruited Folds to produce an album that would mark his return to music on the grandest scale possible. It’s hard to say how serious Shatner was about The Transformed Man, but it’s at least fair to say that, given the album’s title, Has Been, that Shatner is somewhat more realistic. As opposed to his 1968 album, there is only one cover on Has Been, but I’d venture to say, out of my entire fondness of covers, this one ranks up there as one of the best of all time.
“Common People” was one of those magical songs already thanks to the standoffish breathy judging of Jarvis Cocker. Shatner, with the help of a snarly Joe Jackson (which makes him sound like a boxer) takes this track to another level. But the effect is somewhat the opposite of Johnny Cash taking on “Hurt.” With Cash, the song’s lyrics became more fitting, with Shatner, the Pulp song becomes more ironic. No, Jarvis Cocker is far from a `common person,’ but Shatner has instant face recognition, and I’m not talking about the Michael Myers mask. I got the album just for the cover, but I was ecstatic to find that there are a number of songs that are just about its equal.
“It Hasn’t Happened Yet” and “Familiar Love” are touching ballads, if spoken word songs can be called ballads. The former speaks to Shatner’s many fears, the latter the stately art of courtship. “You’ll Have Time” is a gospel-style sermon about death, one which finds Shatner oddly in a new but fitting element. “That’s Me Trying” is a highlight, one of the songs that sounds most like one of Folds’ solo pieces, somewhat ironically since it was written by novelist Nick Hornby, about an older man trying to restart a relationship with a long lost daughter. Aimee Mann’s background vocals only add to the genius. “What Have You Done” is fairly creepy, sounding like an M. Night Shyamalan story, but is really about the drowning death of Shatner’s wife. “Together,” another song not written by Folds, this time by dance duo Lemon Jelly, starts out sounding like the bagpipes that send Spock to the Genesis planet, but then turns into a sly breakbeat and acoustic guitar gem. The title track, a pastiche of western movie and television themes, think the “Canyonero” commercial from The Simpsons, is hilarious, and the best vitriol-fueled tirade Shatner has delivered since his SNL skit where he tells Trekkers to `get a life.’ For the true head turner on the album, listen to “I Can’t Get Behind That,” a bile-spitting duet with, yes, Henry Rollins. Considering this song, one that is simply and beautifully a list of grievances, “In Love,” and his reworking of Folds’ “Rockin’ the Suburbs” featuring Shatner as an angry neighbor, it seems like Shatner is not the calm and beatific icon we think he might be. Of course, Shatner answers those questions with “Real,” a song sung with, and written by, country artist Brad Paisley in which he distances himself from the larger-than-life heroes he portrays on television and in film. I guess he didn’t see Galaxy Quest.
Many entertainers have made their own first names famous, (i.e. Madonna, Prince, Cher, Barbra, Frank, and Bono) but Shatner is one of the few who practically lives with his last name. It’s been years since I’ve heard him referred to as William Shatner, or, with the exception of friend Leonard Nimoy, `Bill,’ with most simply calling him `Shatner.’ There is some kind of magic evoked with the name. There is a hint of mockery, but most of the time there is simply reverence. Thanks to his own embrace of the past and his over-the-top style, he has vaulted beyond mere `celebrity’ into something much harder to achieve, notoriety. Has Been not only cements that status, but also elevates him even further into that rarified air. He could have easily sold thousands of records by releasing all covers, but by collaborating with Folds, Mann, Jackson, Paisley, Rollins, Lemon Jelly and also the Posies’ Jon Auer, Adrian Belew and Matt Chamberlain, he’s surpassed any low or even mid-level expectations and made one of the best albums this decade. Yes, it’s really that good.
Fear of Pop- Fear of Pop, Volume 1
William Shatner- The Transformed Man
Ben Folds- Rockin’ the Suburbs