- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2004

William Shatner

Has Been

Shout! Factory Records

“Don’t just stand there, kid. Bust a move,” William Shatner commanded in one of his famous ads for Priceline.com. And this 73-year-old pop icon and virtuoso of the middlebrow has done just that: He just won an Emmy for his arc on “The Practice” and stars in the ABC offshoot “Boston Legal,” which premiered last weekend. Now there’s “Has Been,” a surprisingly “still is” musical offering from the spoken-word maestro who gave us immortal renderings of such works as “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Rocket Man.”

Music from Mr. Shatner is like a fortuitous open-mic night at your local watering hole. A guy who looks like the antithesis of a rock star — clean-cut, lumpy, in business attire — lumbers onstage. Pop-rock music comes over the PA. The man begins not quite singing and not quite speaking.

Randomly associated words like “Phoenix,” “Pegasus” and “Grecian urn” issue from his mouth. You don’t know why. You don’t care. You are oddly transfixed.

And here’s the thing about “Has Been”: Musically, it’s, like, seriously good. Jazzy one minute, punky the next and a smidgeon of electronica the minute after that. And why not a little spaghetti-Western jingle for the title track?

Piano-pop man Ben Folds, who appeared with Mr. Shatner in the dot-com mania days of Priceline, banged out most of the tunes and also produced and arranged them all. Country star Brad Paisley contributed another (the famous-person’s plea for normalcy, “Real”) and left a smokin’ acoustic guitar solo on it. Scattered throughout the 11 tracks are spot performances from singers such as Aimee Man, Joe Jackson and (no stranger to the art of the spoken word) Henry Rollins.

Oh, Mr. Shatner makes plenty of fun of himself. Ranting about this and that with Mr. Rollins on “I Can’t Get Behind That,” Mr. Shatner intones about the chutzpah of “singers that can’t carry a tune” and “get paid for talking.”

On second thought: “Well, maybe I can get behind that.”

Of course he can. Of course you can.

Mr. Shatner’s stilted, mushed-together cadence still defies traditional poetic meter. It’s been a running joke for more than 30 years, but in the liner notes, Mr. Folds explains its brilliance thus: “If I knew of lots of artists whose voices commanded attention on the first syllable and were readily identifiable upon uttering the next, I’d write songs for other people and drop everything else.”

I’m not so sure that evaluation does the trick ? it could apply equally to, say, James Earl Jones and Dick Vitale — but it’s true as far as it goes. When you hear Mr. Shatner, you know it’s him in an instant. He’s a natural storyteller whose voice has radio-announcer resonance.

The songs of “Has Been,” save for a cover of Pulp’s eat-the-rich diatribe “Common People” and “That’s Me Trying” (a sad tale of an absentee dad penned by Mr. Folds and novelist Nick Hornby), are all peeks into the personal life of Captain Kirk.

He rhapsodizes about his current wife, Elizabeth Martin, on “Familiar Love” and then ribs her one song later, on “Ideal Woman,” for dancing on tables, wearing capri pants, chewing gum and snoring.

On “It Hasn’t Happened Yet,” he cries of unfulfillment and numerous fears — of “falling,” “failure” and “losing my hair” (a little late to start worrying about that now).

“What Have You Done?” has him going into morbid poetic detail about the death by drowning of his third wife, Nerine Kidd.

Ah, but we’re all going to bite the big enchilada someday, he barks on the gospel number “You’ll Have Time” — just like “Johnny Cash, JFK, that guy in the Stones, Lou Gehrig, Einstein and Joey Ramone.”

Maybe that’s the special gift of Bill Shatner: Even when he bears bad news — “You are gonna die/Oh yeah” — he makes you feel you’re in good company.

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