The Transformed Man
William Shatner Gets Serious on Has Been

I’m a little distracted this week. I got fired on Monday.

It’s the first time I’ve ever been fired from anything, for any reason, and being who I am, I’m trying hard not to internalize it. The actual incident that led to my dismissal is somewhat trivial, and served as a convenient scapegoat, I’m sure. The simple truth is that I did not bring my A-game to this job, and I know it. I gave it probably 75 percent of the attention and concentration it required, and it showed in my performance – silly mistakes, simple misunderstandings, etc.

The fact is that this job was never going to work for me. It was both a) very boring and b) very precise, two things that do not go together well with my personality. If I’m not interested in what I’m doing, then my mind wanders, and my organizational skills falter, and I start getting numbers and dates and addresses wrong. And then they have no choice but to let me go.

It’s depressing, though – four months ago I had this whole life plan. I had a snazzy new apartment, I was going to share my life with a beautiful Brazilian girl named Carol (who undoubtedly is reading this – hi, sweetie!), and I was going to keep this well-paying job for as long as I needed to. Now Carol is in Brazil and is staying there, the job is gone, and I am packing my things once again and starting a new life.

So it’s off to greener pastures, I hope. I am headed to Chicago, the site of my greatest successes so far, to reconnect with old contacts and hopefully get something artistically and financially rewarding off the ground. I’m selling everything that isn’t a comic book or a CD, and ditching this failed attempt at a life. In a way, this is a positive thing – it’s shown me the kind of job I cannot do, and it’s given me the impetus to get the hell out of here, since the two years I spent in Baltimore rank as perhaps the worst of my life. I need to go back to school, I need to do something that makes use of my skills (instead of something that forces me to submerge them), I need a clean slate.

So I’m gone.

Thanks to everyone who has been there for me this week – your help has been invaluable, and I can’t even tell you what you mean to me. Thank you so much.

* * * * *

So of course, I needed to buy something this week that would cheer me up. Repeated listenings of SMiLE have helped, of course, since it’s the most playfully happy thing I’ve heard in years, but I’m all about the new. So of the 10 or so new discs that came out this week, I decided that I had money enough to buy only one, and it would have to be one that could lift me from despair and make me laugh.

So I chose William Shatner.

Shatner’s whole career deserves its own descriptive noun – Shatnerosity, perhaps, or Shatnericiousness. There’s almost no accounting for his longevity as a cultural icon, save for the all-encompassing significance of Star Trek. Shatner was only James T. Kirk for three years on television, but he spun that off into seven Trek films, books, convention experiences, other TV shows (TJ Hooker, the new Boston Legal), and a series of terrific commercials for, all without a modicum of what anyone might justly call real talent. He’s always himself, in exactly the same ways. The truth is, though, that some projects need an element of Shatnerosity, and the only one who can provide that is William Shatner.

Then there’s his singing career. It was short-lived – one album in 1968, called The Transformed Man. But what an album it is – poetry recitals, ‘60s psychedelica, and fall-down-funny versions of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” delivered in Shatner’s often-imitated, hammy, rhythmic speech. It was ridiculous specifically because it was so deadpan serious – Shatner never betrayed the sense that he was in on the joke, although he undoubtedly was.

Thirty-six years later, Shatner’s back with an album called Has Been, produced and arranged by Ben Folds. The pair met when Folds enlisted Shatner for his Fear of Pop album in 1998, and immediately clicked. The resulting album is as surprising as anything in Shatner’s whole bizarre career, largely thanks to his working relationship with Folds. What’s, indeed, shocking about Has Been is not that Folds gets Shatner, but that he shows us that there was something there to get after all.

It would have been easy to make the kind of album most people are probably expecting from Has Been. Just get Shatner to speak-sing some famous pop songs and make fun of himself, and it’s a million seller. While the album starts off in that vein, with Shatner wickedly intoning Pulp’s “Common People” to great effect, the rest of it will disappoint anyone looking for more of the same. Not that it’s any less funny, but Has Been refuses to be dumb-funny, aiming rather for a peculiar sort of is-he-serious autobiographical beat poetry that is never less than engrossing.

The best part of this album is that Shatner is treated here with complete artistic respect. The record plays to his particular strengths – his Shatnericiousness – as if he were Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, and it explains without having to just what it is about Shatner that people adore. He goes out on an emotional limb more than once here, especially on “What Have You Done,” a monologue about his late wife, and he eschews jokes and easy humor.

But in its own way, something as heartfelt as “It Hasn’t Happened Yet,” a lament for wasted potential, is just as funny as a farce like “You’ll Have Time,” with its Tom Waits-style backdrop. Shatner understands his own joke – it’s practically impossible to take him seriously, even when he’s absolutely serious, and he and Folds play to that throughout Has Been. The title track, for example, is a hokey Western melodrama in which Shatner earnestly defends his cultural status, but the hilarious setups and backing vocals keep it from pomposity. It’s a fine line, but Folds and Shatner walk it for the length of this album without falling off.

The parade of guest stars helps – the album is fashioned like a jazz-rock version of a hip hop record, with sung choruses by guest vocalists like Joe Jackson and Fleming McWilliams. The one real over-the-top funny moment here is “I Can’t Get Behind That,” a mock-furious rant that features Henry Rollins. Shatner matches him shout for shout, and the verse where he rails against singers who “can’t sing, and get paid for talking” is a hoot. (“Okay, maybe I can get behind that.”) Elsewhere, Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) provides very Shatner-esque lyrics for “That’s Me Trying,” about a father clumsily reaching out to his estranged daughter, and it (and Folds’ lovely sung chorus) fits right in.

In fact, the only moment that sounds out of place is the final track, “Real,” written and sung by Brad Paisley. It sounds very much like an outsider’s view of what it means to be plain old non-heroic William Shatner. Despite a classic second verse – “So next time there’s an asteroid or a natural disaster, I’m flattered that you thought of me, but I’m not the one to call” – this is the one song Shatner doesn’t seem to own. It seems to be missing a certain… well, Shatnerousness.

Has Been is a strange record, a perfectly made document of a singular voice, and one that works specifically because that voice doesn’t seem to deserve this record, and its owner knows it. No one else could have made this album, though, and kudos to Ben Folds for recognizing that anyone could have done a collection of parodies. Has Been is simultaneously more serious and funnier than a simpler project would have been, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you find yourself moved by it, too, in an odd sort of way.

Hell, it’s simply Shatnerific.

Next week, probably R.E.M.

See you in line Tuesday morning.