In our last issue Greg Hrbek wrote about his nearly life-long obsession—I think we can safely call it that—with William Shatner, the singular and protean figure whose mainstream acting career (ranging from his portrayal of Captain Kirk in Star Trek to an Emmy-winning role in The Practice) is counter-balanced by his avant-kitsch spoken-word projects which find him performing rock lyrics over new versions of a disorientingly eclectic range of songs.
Since Hrbek’s piece appeared, Shatner has released a new recording, Seeking Major Tom which Hrbek referred to in a private email (that reached the Salmagundi offices due to some unaccountable warp in the time-space continuum) as “probably the most important release since the invention of the player piano” (see “obsession,” above).
Here’s Hrbek from his essay in Salmagundi:
[Shatner’s] cover of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” has become one of the most notorious artifacts in American popular culture. Depending on who you ask, it is either among the worst recordings ever made or the epitome of pure camp. Susan Sontag described camp as “a love of the exaggerated, the ‘off’, of things-being-what-they-are-not.” The Transformed Man is all those things. The songs are so exaggerated, so ‘off’ (warped by mannered spoken-word recitation, arranged in a style completely incongruous with the music’s original spirit), they lose all sense of prior identity. They are what-they-are-not. In other words, not Dylan, not the Beatles. Not so much bad copies as outlandish distortions. They bear about as much resemblance to their musical forebears as Ubu Roi did to its theatrical ones. You have to admit there’s a vision behind it all; and you can’t deny it’s a vision appreciated by a precious few.
— “The Science of Imaginary Solutions,” Salmagundi, #170-171 , Spring Summer 2011
And here’s a track list and liner notes for songs Hrbek mentions in that essay which the author compiled especially for his Salmagundi readers in the adrenaline rush following the release of Shatner’s new record:
- SPLEEN/LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS (5:54)
- IN LOVE (4:46)
- IT HASN’T HAPPENED YET (3:46)
- PLANET EARTH (4:50)
The Beatles cover discussed in my essay has been hit and heard millions of times since the invention of the Internet. Much less listened to is the prelude to that track: a recitation of a Baudelaire poem, “Spleen” (When the low sky presses like a lid / On my spirit, heavy with pain). In 1998, thirty years after the release of The Transformed Man, Mr. Shatner recorded a spoken-word guest vocal for a Ben Folds side-project, Fear of Pop. That song, “In Love” (At puberty, I was sworn to secrecy / By the international brotherhood of lying fickle males), led to a 2004 album-length collaboration with Mr. Folds. The best-known track from that album is a cover of a hit by British pop band, Pulp. Lesser known is “It Hasn’t Happened Yet,” autobiographical lyrics by Mr. Shatner (When is the mountain scaled? / When do I feel I haven’t failed?). 2011: another concept album with guest appearances by members of Deep Purple and The Strokes. Mr. Shatner, eighty years old at the time of this release, renders Duran Duran’s New Wave song, “Planet Earth” (Look now, look all around / There’s no sign of life), in a tone and cadence suggestive of human consciousness immortalized in the body of an android.
Greg Hrbek’s most recent book, Destroy All Monsters, and other Stories, won the 2010 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction.