Shatner, Transformed

They laughed then--roared, actually, till they ran out of breath--and probably will now. He expects nothing less, because rare is the punch line who doesn't remain the punching bag, at least until the glowing eulogies set the record straight far too late. But he is 73 now--Jesus Christ, Captain Kirk is 73!--and doesn't care what they think. Screw 'em, he will say, because he didn't do this for them, but for him and, he likes to say, "the people I love," the family and friends and fans who have stuck with him all these years. Which is why, last week, William Shatner released his third album, Has Been, whose very title seems intended to get in the first swing.

When word of this project surfaced, it seemed the stuff of tragic folly. Shatner had already made The Transformed Man in 1968, which has become the kind of album certain to clear out a room full of stoners. (Nine years later came Live!, a two-record collection of his, ah, powerful one-man show.) Shatner's always had a difficult relationship with The Transformed Man; over the years he has defended it and disowned it. Today he merely explains it: "The Transformed Man sought to relate literature that was classical with literature that was topical, and the literature that was topical were songs that were popular in the time I made the record," he says. "I linked them musically, and I sought to show a relationship between them, or some kind of relationship. But the cuts were all six minutes, and they'd put on a three-minute cut for radio, and it was invariably one of those songs, so people would listen to it and say, 'What is he doing?' But if you'd heard the full cut, you would have realized there was an actor at work trying to do what I've said."

So when Shout! Factory label owner Richard Foos approached Shatner about making another album, the Star Trek star was leery of being ridiculed once again. He had mocked himself plenty of times--on Saturday Night Live, on various MTV award shows, those Priceline ads--and was done with it. The clown had taken off his makeup.

"My antennae immediately perceived that they wanted to make a record that would be held up if not to ridicule, then to humor," Shatner says now. He thought about passing on it. He had better things to do, especially since he was about to return to prime-time television as co-star of Boston Legal with James Spader, in a role for which he would soon win an Emmy Award. But then he rang up his old friend Ben Folds, on whose album Fear of Pop Volume 1 Shatner had appeared on a spoken-word track called "Still in Love."

"I called Ben and said, 'What in heaven's name?'" Shatner recalls. "We both knew that the first song on that record would be the one that people would get ahold of and do a mockery on. We knew the uphill battle we had to fight, given the institution that I've been placed in."

But two years after the idea had been proposed, Shatner and Folds finally went into the studio, not with the intention of remaking The Transformed Man but with the goal of allowing a sincere and intimate peek into Shatner's private life. They rounded up an astonishing collection of musicians. Joe Jackson played piano and sang. Aimee Mann, Kim Richey, Webb Wilder and others performed backup vocals. Soul Coughing's Sebastian Steinberg played bass; New Bohemian Matt Chamberlain sat behind the drum kit; Adrian Belew, who had played with Talking Heads and King Crimson, provided guitar on one track. Brit psychedelic-art-rockers Lemon Jelly scored an entire track. High Fidelity author Nick Hornby, Henry Rollins and country star Brad Paisley all contributed songs. And, of course, Folds produced and played and wrote with Shatner, whom he refers to as "a rock legend" without any suggestion of irony.

The result is something surprisingly heavy--funny on purpose in spots, but also moving if you know anything about Shatner's life off the screen. Once you get past the catchy, rollicking cover of Pulp's "Common People," a duet with Jackson and a children's choir, things get deep in a hurry. It's an autobiography set to music, as personal as a man's journal, in which he writes about how he was a lousy dad ("That's Me Trying"), how he's still afraid of failing ("It Hasn't Happened Yet"), how he's sick of being known only as Captain Kirk ("Real"), how he's watched people he's loved drop dead ("You'll Have Time"). There is even a track in which he speaks about the death of his wife, Nerine, who drowned in a swimming pool in August 1999. In the piece, titled "What Have You Done?," Shatner talks about finding her body: "The water was still and so was she/I dove in with so little breath/In truth I knew I was too late for her death." Folds has said that Shatner was initially reluctant to include the last song. The last thing he wanted was for critics to bash an album on which something so private appeared.

"I wouldn't say I didn't want it on there, because nothing's there that I didn't want, but we had trepidation about..." Shatner pauses and begins again. "The tracks that are personal, that I have made it a policy I'm not going to talk about, they're just there, and they're self-evident. The record is meant in all seriousness, but there's also humor and love. The trepidation was 'Can I reveal myself this much and take the criticism that might come with equanimity?' And I think I can. This is an album of feeling, of some intellect and perception, but mostly it's about feeling. And you start and end the record, and it's all emotional, and that's what I followed--not 'Should I or shouldn't I?'"

What's most astonishing is that Shatner didn't have to do this, especially now, as he enjoys the rare third act afforded few in show business. He still has a film career (a second Miss Congeniality with Sandra Bullock is due next year), still writes best-selling sci-fi, still breeds award-winning horses and has that shiny new Emmy on his mantle. Yet lately he's become obsessed with mortality, disappointment, grief--all the Big Stuff that a man confronts when he's "closing in on my own turn," as he puts it, referring to death.

"I've only, of late, had the courage to show that with such nakedness," he says. "It's just the way the current is running. I'm in a flow, and it's scary. Yeah, it's frightening. I spent many a night tossing and turning... yes."

So, then, does this record serve as catharsis, or does it underscore...

Before the sentence can be finished, Shatner answers.

"I think it's probably roiling the waters," he says. "We don't like to think of the impermanence of life. No matter how often you think, 'Oh, I'm going to die,' the thought goes away immediately and you're into something about life, whether it's the joy or the vicissitudes, but you don't think about dying too often, because your mind or your body won't let you. But these things are stirring the waters, absolutely."