William Shatner

Has Been

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Toward the end of Star Trek's run, William Shatner released The Transformed Man, a collection of spoken word interpretations of popular songs and recitations of poetry pitched halfway between middlebrow art and trippy trendiness. With his overheated, hysteric delivery supported by syrupy strings and studio trickery, Shatner sounded like a psychedelicized Rod McKuen, and The Transformed Man was every bit a period piece as anything McKuen penned during that time -- such as the largely (and justly) forgotten Frank Sinatra concept album A Man Alone. The difference is, where A Man Alone was pompous, pedestrian, and dull, The Transformed Man was pompous, bizarre, and thrilling, a truly strange, compelling miscalculation that was ignored at the time but turned into a cult classic over the years, partially due to Shatner's iconic status as Captain James Tiberius Kirk, but mostly because it was flat-out, fall-down funny. Perhaps it wasn't intended as comedy, but by the time Rhino featured his histrionic versions of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" on their 1988 compilation Golden Throats: The Great Celebrity Sing-Off, there was no doubt that they were now considered comedy records, and soon they were well known -- so well known that fans of those two cuts may not have realized that the rest of The Transformed Man was filled with readings of Shakespeare and obtuse poetry that somehow spoke to existential struggles with identity, winding up as some sort of a concept album. Its status as a cult comedy classic didn't get how weird the whole thing was, but it didn't really matter, since "Lucy in the Sky" and "Tambourine Man" were really funny, whether they were taken in the context of the album or removed from it.

By the late '90s, Shatner's status as a serious actor had long since faded, and he was best known as a caricature of Captain Kirk -- not really for the work he did on Star Trek, but how it was parodied, and the songs from The Transformed Man fed into that image, leading to a lucrative role as a Priceline.com spokesman. In those ads, he revived his musical career, but there was a difference this time around: he was in on the joke. Around the same time, Ben Folds enlisted Shatner for a guest vocal on his 1998 Fear of Pop project, beginning a friendship that later blossomed into a full-fledged collaboration on Has Been, Shatner's long-awaited return to recording. Arriving in the fall of 2004, Has Been was released at the height of a Shatner resurgence that those late-'90s Priceline commercials kick started. He had another round of commercials for the company -- this time also starring his longtime comrade Leonard Nimoy -- and a co-starring role in the prime time series Boston Legal, which was a spin-off of the long-running TV drama The Practice, where he had won an Emmy for his guest spot as a sleazy lawyer. Things were breaking in Shatner's favor because he had embraced the overblown, cheerfully smug caricature, playing his persona instead of playing a character. Because of this, it was reasonable to expect that Has Been would be a cheerfully comic record, an album designed to be a comedy album, unlike The Transformed Man, whose humor was unintentional. That's not the album Has Been is. Sure, there's a good dose of humor throughout the record -- not only is Shatner hamming it up, but Ben Folds can never resist a joke -- but that's only one element on an album that's as weird and bewildering as The Transformed Man. In many ways, Has Been is its polar opposite -- there are no baroque arrangements or psychedelic effects, it's grounded in rock & roll and jazzy lounge instrumentals, its message clear, not deliberately cryptic. But the most shocking thing about the album is its sincerity. There's only one cover of a big pop tune, and it's Pulp's "Common People" -- one of the great singles of the 1990s, but a standard only in Europe, and largely unknown in America. While it's played on Has Been with a knowing wink, the song itself is intended to be funny: in Jarvis Cocker's hands, the wit cut like a blade, while Shatner blusters his way through it, but the difference is in delivery -- Shatner knows what the words mean, and he delivers it with an actor's precision. It's funny, but it's sincere, right down to how Folds brings his idol Joe Jackson in to snarl the chorus, so the cover works as a piece of music, not just as a novelty.

That's the approach of Has Been in a nutshell, but the album gets far stranger very quickly as Shatner begins a series of spoken song-poems, all but two written by him and revealing his introspective musings on love, life, work, fear, disappointment, regret, and everyday mundane things that get on his nerves. Even the two songs not written by him -- "That's Me Trying," Nick Hornby's tale of a neglectful father ham-fistedly reaching out to his adult child, and Brad Paisley's peak behind the personal ballad "Real" -- feel autobiographical, feeding into the sentiment that this record functions as a kind of last testament, Shatner getting everything off of his chest while he still has a chance to do so. That he's doing it while cracking jokes, or while Folds crafts the title track into a mock spaghetti Western theme, just makes the entire project all the more surreal and oddly affecting. It may not be an album that's as funny or timeless as The Transformed Man, but Has Been is every bit as bizarre as that cult classic, giving Shatner the distinction of producing two of the strangest footnotes in the history of popular music, as well as celebrity culture. And that's gotta count for something.

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