I’m not sure what, if any, credibility I have as a music blogger. I’ve certainly put a lot of stuff out into the world of ones and zeros, just shy of 1,500 posts on Life in the Vinyl Lane over the last five-and-a-half years. Some of it, undoubtedly, is garbage. But if I may be permitted just a bit of ego, at least a few posts were pretty solid. It doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, I suppose, since I’m not getting paid for this and you get to read it (or not read it) for free, but like anyone who is compelled to write at an almost compulsive level I try to put my best foot and word forward.
Today I put all that cred, such as it is, on the line. Because today I’m going to tell you about the sheer brilliance of William Shatner’s 2004 album Has Been.
Wait, what? What?! You’re going to seriously and un-ironically extoll the virtues of an album by an actor perhaps best known for playing Captain James T. Kirk and TJ Hooker? A guy whose delivery style is a favorite target of comedians, second only to Christopher Walken? The same William Shatner who gave the world the surreal cover of “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” in 1968?
Yes friends, that William Shatner. The Shat.
A friend of mine bought me a copy of Has Been as a birthday gift. I’m pretty sure it was intended as a bit of a joke, and that’s certainly how I took it. When I played it for the first time I figured it’d be good for a chuckle or two, but I quickly realized that wasn’t the case. And when I heard the brutal honest delivery of “That’s Me Trying” followed by the gut-wrenching “What Have You Done?” I knew this was something important.
The list of contributors to Has Been is impressive. Produced by Ben Folds, a number of writers and performers worked with Shatner on this partially autobiographical work. Joe Jackson is here, and so too are Henry Rollins and Aimee Mann and Jon Auer. Nick Hornby wrote one of the songs. That’s quite a collection of talent, and these folks didn’t sign on to be part of some kind of joke project or a simple money-grab. Something about it intrigued them. The Shat.
The album opens with a cover of Pulp’s “Common People” before providing us with a pair of soul numbers. There’s a genuineness to Shatner’s delivery on these two songs, the quiet loneliness that infuses “It Hasn’t Happened Yet” and the impassioned gospel-esque, preacher-style life lesson of “You’ll Have Time”. But it’s the fourth song that brings me back time after time (after time), the aforementioned “That’s Me Trying”. While real-life Shatner has solid relationships with all three of his daughters, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he is in fact the dead-beat dad who narrates the song and is trying to reconnect with one of his adult children.
I got your name from the phone book at the library.
Wandered in, looked you up and you were there.
Weird that you’ve been living, maybe, 2 miles away
For the best part of 20 years…
The perspective is that of a man who abandoned his children and wants to reconnect… but only on his terms. He’s still so selfish (I don’t want to know if I’ve got grandchildren…), but in his own way he is in fact trying, trying to connect, and the whispered I’m trying that closes the song makes me sigh every single time I hear it.
That’s followed by the album’s most poignant, and indeed most difficult to listen to composition, “What Have You Done?” Shatner has been very open over the years about the death of his third wife, Nerine, in 1999. She struggled with alcoholism, and it contributed to her drowning death in their home’s swimming pool. “What Have You Done?” isn’t a song per se – there’s no musical accompaniment. Instead it’s a quiet two minutes of Shatner recounting the moment he found Nerine and pulled her from the pool, hoping she was still alive but knowing she wasn’t. My love was supposed to protect her / It didn’t / My love was supposed to heal her / It didn’t. It’s gut-wrenching and honest. It’s the kind of art I’m glad exists in the world, even though it’s incredibly painful to hear.
“Familiar Love” is presented to us by a worldly man, one who has experienced just about everything that life has to offer and knows what he wants and, more poignantly, what’s important. But that’s followed by “Ideal Woman”, a humorous view through the eyes of a man who tells his lover that he wants her to be who she is, to be honest and true to herself, except… well, he sneaks in a few caveats that shows what he truly wants is to her to be her, unless it’s something that he finds annoying.
The title song is high point, The Shat confronting the haters of the world, those who throw around labels like “has been” directed at those who were once incredibly successful but now are not, conveniently forgetting that they themselves have never done anything of consequence.
Riding on their armchairs,
They dream of wealth and fame.
Fear is their companion,
Nintendo is their game.
Never done Jack and two thumbs Don
And sidekick don’t say Dick.
We’ll laugh at others failures…
Though they have not done shit.
Shatner has certainly been on the receiving end of this slap-in-the-face jibes over the course of his career. He’s the easy mark with his distinctive and deliberate style and his willingness to take risks, many of which fail. But the haters, on the other hand, are paralyzed by their fear, never taking a chance, never willing to be honest and open and risk failing.
While the delivery of “Has Been” is both a bit comical and done with the subtle, knowing voice of a man who has responded to this kind of crap countless times before, on “I Can’t Get Behind That” Shatner pairs up with Henry Rollins to get a bit aggro about the things in this world that they, well, just can’t get behind. Silly things like car alarms and leaf blowers but also more serious stuff like, oh, say religion and global warming. I’ve heard Rollins talk about the unlikely friendship he and Shatner developed (including things like Shatner inviting Henry over to his house to watch football), and it’s clear there’s a lot of mutual respect there.
Has Been is something unique, that thing that should have been a joke but wasn’t. Sure, there are a few tracks that don’t do it for me, but when Shatner is on, he’s on. My guess is you can find this sucker in the used racks somewhere; if you do, give it a try. You won’t regret it.