A Man Transformed
“...Then over to the shallow edge, she was face-down, smaller, and more vulnerable than in life…”
...and that’s when you know: This is Not a Joke.
The continued state of celebrity granted to William Shatner would appear, on the surface, to be one of the more inexplicable ongoing occurrences of the previous and current centuries. Seriously, who has a career after a debacle like his recitation of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards? His face is still instantly recognizable as the ubiquitous James T. Kirk, Captain of the Starship Enterprise, and he’s loved and revered by millions of Star Trek fanatics around the world. Even so, it’s always been difficult to see Shatner’s career as anything more than a running joke, one where nobody’s quite sure whether they’re laughing at him or with him. That joke recently took a surprising turn as Shatner parlayed his distinctive form of celebrity into an Emmy-winning role on The Practice, playing the slightly off-center yet undeniably brilliant lawyer, Denny Crane.
As the Denny Crane character develops (and snags his own show, the surprisingly entertaining Boston Legal), the viewer is treated to a gravitas, a seriousness that Crane would just as soon keep hidden. There’s a sense of lost relevance, a fear of getting old that drives Crane at least as much as the financial benefits of being a big name lawyer in a big name town. He’s one of the many that lived by that famous creed “Hope I die before I get old”, who, now, are actually growing old despite their best efforts to the contrary.
Perhaps not surprisingly, that same sense of impending mortality shades Shatner’s most recent foray into the world of music. Has Been is the title. Taken as a whole, it’s a tale of a man’s struggle with his past, a collection of memories, regrets, and grievances somehow colored with a healthy dollop of humor and irony. Ben Folds is along for the ride, arranging and producing the album. No stranger to memories, regrets, and grievances himself, Mr. Folds manages to arrange a perfect instrumental backing to go with Shatner’s words, recruiting two handfuls of guests to come along for the ride.
“It Hasn’t Happened Yet” sees Folds providing a gentle piano pulse behind scattered thoughts that all amount to Shatner’s overwhelming sense of failure, both personal and professional. “That’s Me Trying” is a poignant letter to a long-estranged daughter, as written by Nick Hornby of High Fidelity fame. Shatner makes it his own, making the tale of a man who wants to meet his daughter but would just as soon avoid all the complications that might come with such a meeting believable and terribly, terribly sad. Folds and Aimee Mann provide the chorus vocals, adding a hopeful lilt to the ultimately futile proceedings.
Still, nothing approaches the heft of “What Have You Done”, quoted at the beginning of this review, for sheer emotional weight. Shatner, on the verge of tears, relates the tale of finding his wife dead in a swimming pool, and it’s simply shattering. If you never thought you could be moved by a CD featuring William Shatner, I dare you to listen to “What Have You Done”.
Even with all this gravity, it’s Shatner’s uniquely dry sense of humor that keeps the proceedings from turning into one great big suicidal death march—though maybe the simultaneously hilarious and morbid “You’ll Have Time” (which features the unforgettable refrain of “You’re gonna die!”) isn’t the best example. A rendition of Pulp’s “Common People” opens the album, and listening to Shatner yell about dancing, drinking, and screwing (because there’s nothing else to do) is one of the more genuine of the smile-inducing moments here. He even manages to drop-kick his detractors with the title track, encapsulating them into three instantly memorable characters: (Never Done) Jack, (Two Thumbs) Don, and (Don’t Say) Dick.
And “I Can’t Get Behind That”, the rant with Henry Rollins? Beautiful. Can there be any better proof of Shatner’s relevance than holding his own in a shouting match with the king of shouters himself?
Don’t answer that.
Album-closer “Real”, a country ditty with Brad Paisley, would appear to be addressed to the Trekkies themselves, effectively saying “I’m not James Kirk; Don’t treat me like I am,” without actually mentioning the name of the famous Captain. It’s as if Shatner’s been waiting a lifetime to get these thoughts out there, and hearing him relish every word, a man now transformed, is the primary draw of this album. Has Been is a brilliant spoken-word album, performed by a man now 73 years old. And somehow, it just might be the pop album of the year.
“‘Has been’ implies failure? Not so.
‘Has been’ is history.
‘Has been’...might again.”