“I Did It My Way!”
Nobody – But, Nobody – Performs a Song Quite Like William Shatner
At 89 years old, William Shatner shows little sign of slowing down. And I’m not even talking about his long and storied career in television and film (both in front of and behind the camera), his numerous books (fiction and non-fiction), his convention appearances, charity work, interaction with fans on Twitter and just the ongoing role of being William Shatner, one of the most inimitable natural personalities on earth. I’m referring specifically to his music career, which has been a sometimes strange but always fascinating facet of his livelihood ever since 1968’s The Transformed Man sought to capitalize on his iconic role as Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk with a bizarre mash-up of Shakespeare and rock/folk songs dramatically rendered by Shatner as if he’s tripping balls with Bukowski.
It’s an oddity that was sort of lost and forgotten over time until twenty years later, when Rhino Records released their first Golden Throats compilation of celebrities doing humorously abnormal versions of popular songs. The two tracks culled from Transformed Man – “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the latter climaxing with a mighty cry in the wilderness that calls forth an image of Kirk doing his “KHAN!!” scream in Star Trek II – were the clear crowd favorites, and led to a revival of interest in Shatner the Music Man. Before he knew it, he was doing loopy versions of the Best Song nominees on the 1992 MTV Movie Awards while under the influence of a concussion!
Since then, he’s gone wherever the musical muse leads him, collaborating with a mind-boggling array of individuals along the way. His indie-pop collaboration with Ben Folds, 2004’s Has Been, is a genuinely touching classic (and was the inspiration for a ballet!) He’s made a progressive art-rock album (2013’s Ponder the Mystery) with the likes of Rick Wakeman, Nik Turner (Hawkwind), Edgar Froese (Tangerine Dream) and Zoot Horn Rollo (Captain Beefheart). 2011’s Seeking Major Tom was a thematic album of space, science and sci-fi-related classic rock songs chock-full of modern-day Shatner classics: “Space Truckin’,” “Space Cowboy,” “Iron Man” (in which he adopts a menacing metal voice), “Bohemian Rhapsody” (a song tailor-made for his dramatic tendencies) and “She Blinded Me With Science” with Bootsy Collins and Patrick Moraz, which simply must be heard to be believed.
He did a wacky hip-hop song for the movie Free Enterprise in 1999. He’s covered CeeLo Green (“Fuck You” on George Lopez’s late-night talk show) and The Cramps (“Garbageman,” a single from just last year). He released two albums in 2018 alone – a country album with Jeff Cook of the band Alabama (Why Not Me) and a Christmas album (Shatner Claus) featuring Todd Rundgren, Billy Gibbons, Henry Rollins and Iggy Pop! The man’s done it all, and he ain’t done yet.
The title of his brand new album leaves no doubt as to William Shatner’s latest musical direction: The Blues, wherein he reinvents 13 blues and blues-rock classics (plus one newly written song for the album) such as “I Put a Spell on You” and “Smokestack Lightnin’,” backed by guest guitarists including Steve Cropper, Sonny Landreth and Albert Lee. The guitar work is stellar, and Shatner sorta actually growls and howls his way through warhorses like “Mannish Boy” and “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Other songs find him indulging his knack for bewildering people, such as his laid-back vocals on “The Thrill is Gone” which prompted one reviewer to speculate whether he gobbled a handful of tranquilizers prior to recording it. Another concussion, perhaps? Regardless, Ritchie Blackmore – who also played on “Space Oddity” from Shatner’s Major Tom album, which the latter enacts as if he’s actually working at Ground Control – sounds incredible on it.
It’s been said that if one’s art doesn’t spark a strong reaction, you’re doing something wrong. William Shatner’s musical performances definitely elicit a strong reaction. Some believe they’re genius. Many people find them hilarious, some consider them truly awful and describe them as bad karaoke. The truth is, they are all of those at different times, even occasionally all at once. Shatner sincerely takes his recording career seriously, but he also has a lot of fun with it, and I believe he’s well aware (usually, at least) when he captains universally recognized songs into strange new worlds. Mostly, though, I appreciate the fact that he has a sense of humor about it all.
You’ve done music in such a dizzying array of styles. Are your personal musical interests that wide ranging?
“Well, I have a peculiar situation. Most people I talk to say, ‘Oh, I love this music,’ ‘I grew up with that music, and this singer here…’ They’ll name either familiar or obscure singers and bands, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ I, on the other hand, grew up in a non-musical household. One thing I remember is my father, on Saturday afternoons, lying back in a sofa resting from a week’s work, listening to the opera. So that was the limit of my musical background. But I would hear music all the time, on the radio and elsewhere, concerts. So, I love music, as I hope my musical background and performing may suggest, but I don’t know the names of the people and the bands. So it seems like I’m ignorant, but, really… I’m not. But if you were to ask me my favorite album, all I could point to is The Beatles’ White Album, which gave me an inspiration, because one night shooting [a movie] in Las Vegas…it was the middle of the night, and everybody is asleep except the movie company that I was with, and I was in my dressing room waiting to be called, and in order not to make any noise I had earphones on, and somehow I had The White Album in front of me. And I heard the nuances of that album. I’ve always thought that many of The Beatles’ songs were simplistic, in the lyric and the melody and the orchestration. I heard all the complexity with the earphones on, and that kind of layering – which is what you try to do as an actor – I got an insight into the complexity of modern music.”
Jeff Cook from Alabama calls you “a master at delivering lyrics.” Your voice and phrasing are very unique, and they work together in song as if you’re reciting dramatic prose. How do you decide what vocal approach to apply to each song? Do you approach it like acting?
“It’s just exactly that. Since I couldn’t compete in any manner with these great performers – obviously I’m not gonna fly in the face of B.B. King or Jay Hawkins – what I had to do was find my own voice. So I took each one of these songs for a dramatic scene, and was the person, the actor, the character, in the song – and the song becomes a scene for me. So I’m playing the emotional quality of the song, allowing it to lead me where it does take me. So, in a song like ‘I Put a Spell on You,’ there’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins screamin’ away, and I’m not gonna do that. And this was what I told the animator of the coming musical video of ‘I Put a Spell on You.’ To me, it was a guy sitting in a bar, longing for the barmaid, but unable to tell her. And, so this is all in his voice, all in his mind. Half mad, half crazy. So, the music video, which reflects exactly how I feel about the song, is: I’m in a bar, there’s all this activity going on, the group that’s playing the accompaniment is down at the other end, and this barmaid, looking sexy, is pouring drinks for people at the bar, and I’m at the other end looking with envy at her, and singing this song that obviously is all in my own mind.”
I don’t know how much you know about Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, but he was a total character, and a really wacky, crazy performer.
“That’s what I could hear on that album. It spoke to me! Hahaha! Because that’s exactly what I got from him.”
Well, a lot of people feel that way about you, in a way. A lot of people have no idea, in some of your music, whether you’re joking or if you’re serious, or if you’re intentionally hamming it up. What’s the case?
“Well, it probably is a little bit of both. But mostly, I’m trying to offer another interpretation of a familiar song. So I’ll take something that everybody knows, but it’s been done by people who know how to sing, and I’ll take a shot at it as a scene, knowing that I’m gonna be backed musically, as I’m trying to tread the middle of…of a song, and a performance, so it’s neither one. But the problem that I have is, if you are singing a lyric, and you come to a word where the music is sustained – ‘I looooove you’ – and the word ‘love’ is sustained, you get the passion of the word ‘love’ because of the sustained note. I’m not going to be able to do that. What do I do to indicate what the lyricist had in mind? And that’s the problem I have to overcome. So when you say some people think I’m – I hate that word – ‘hamming it up,’ or I’m overdoing it, what I’m trying to achieve is – sometimes with success, and sometimes not – to equal the passion of the singing note with a spoken note.”
My favorite performance on The Blues is the one song I’m not familiar with – the last song, “Secrets and Sins.” It’s a newly written original on an album of blues covers…
“Let me tell you about that. I’m working, during this COVID period, on a new album. We’re just working at it from home. I’ve got a wonderful lyricist, a poet, that is in New York City, to whom I’ll tell a story of something that happened in my life, and his genius – and I don’t use the word lightly – is to put it…into lyrics. And we have a composer, a musician, [in] upstate New York, who… I tell the lyricist a story… just did that the other day about how easy it was to ease my infant daughter’s fears because she was small, and I was able to get rid of some fears she had of some shadows on the wall by explaining it. But how that story so many years ago stayed with me, because the ease with which I had of easing her fears, was no longer there. Now fears are much more complicated, and you don’t get rid of them all that easily. So I was telling this story to my friend, saying ‘I think this would be a good song,’ and he [replied], ‘I’m working on that – it’s such a delirious idea, a good idea.’ So we have another song in the making from something that happened to me. And we’ve done that with a number of songs, almost 18 of them right now, and it’s an autobiographical album which we’re working on and will release someday in the near future. So what I’m seeing, what I’m feeling… [is] though I’ve been making mistakes musically along the way, I’ve touched some fine things, and I’m learning how to tread this tightrope of music and spoken word. Not wanting to do either one of them singly, but trying to combine them. And that’s my challenge, and that’s what I’m hoping to achieve. What I hoped I’ve achieved on the blues album.”
The album prior to this was your Christmas album. Your version of “Silent Night” with Iggy Pop strikes me as a sort of counterpart to Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth.” Has anyone ever told you that?
“No, but it’s interesting you should choose both of those songs. Because, exactly, ‘Silent Night’ is a very…thoughtful, religious sort of serious song, almost Ecclesiastical song. And I tried to invest into it that. And I tried ‘Drummer Boy,’ and what I thought, as an actor, that there’s a progression, from ‘par-rum-pah-da-bum,’ that would be done differently every time he spoke it. And so there is a progression of the drummer boy as he progresses through the emotion of the song. So therein lies exactly what I’m talking about – taking these familiar songs that people have done over hundreds of years, and doing it my way, and hoping that it’s acceptable.”
My girlfriend is vegan so she got a kick out of “Too Old to Be Vegan” from your country album. Does that song accurately represent your point of view about veganism?
“I had experimented with being a vegan. And, I’m an admirer of people who are vegans. We now know that too much red meat is not healthy. My wife reminds me of that all the time. And, um… She just left the room and smiled! But I keep going back to: ‘A good steak is very hard to find!’”
I really enjoyed your “space rock” album from several years back, Seeking Major Tom…
“That whole album is my idea of Major Tom – the lyric in the [‘Space Oddity’] thing is ‘stepping out of the capsule.’ So he steps out of the capsule, and we don’t know where he ends up! Well, in my version of that album, he ends up in all those places, ‘walking on the moon,’ and that kind of thing, and finally ends up in heaven.”
It also includes a remake of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” The footage of you performing that one at the Science Fiction Film Awards in 1978 is one of your most famous musical performances.
“Yeah, that there… they asked me to do something, and I thought it would be a joke – pretend I’m Frank Sinatra with a cigarette and bow tie and all. For them. It was not meant to be recorded. But somebody shot it, and, against all our legal principles, started releasing it. But it was meant as internal joke. I never was able to recover from that. So I did it again the way I thought I should have done it.”
The original was even recreated by Stewie on Family Guy. Did you ever see that?
“I didn’t, no. I mean, I admire Family Guy, I admire Seth MacFarlane, but fun has been poked at me because of that. On the other hand, though, that song, I remember thinking that ‘Rocket Man’ could be interpreted three ways: ‘Rocket Man’ for Major Tom, but also ‘Rock It, Man’ is a possibility, so it’s a rock song. And then there was a third that I thought of then – I can’t think of what I was thinking now. But I was trying to do three interpretations! A little complex and stupid and experimental, but I was having fun. And I’ve suffered the slings and arrows, and I don’t mind, as long as I can come up with an album like The Blues.”
Has Been was a phenomenal comeback album for you in 2004. “Common People” with Joe Jackson really took off, deservedly so – it was a hoot. But so much of that album, the songs you wrote with Ben Folds like “It Hasn’t Happened Yet,” are very moving, and very effective. I don’t think anyone really expected that from you, especially after such a long period of not doing albums.
“Well, it took a long time [after The Transformed Man] because nobody asked me, hahaha! But Ben Folds had heard that album, and he called me, and I did a number on an album he did called Fear of Pop, [which] was very popular. And in fact I performed it several times in front of an audience, with him. And then we decided to make an album together, and that was an extraordinary experience. He’s a genius, and I loved working with him. And I’m very happy with that album.”