At the turn of the century, William Shatner was a 70s punch line at worst, and a cheap, novelty go to for TV and movie cameos at best. At the turn of the century, Ben Folds had ridden out the second half of the 90s with his highly successful Ben Folds Five, and released a surprisingly good solo record with Rockin’ the Suburbs. I remember when the two collaborated in 2005 to make William Shatner Has Been, but I never paid it any attention. I always assumed it was more on the Shatner, novelty side of things, and less on the Ben Folds, master pop musician side.
Then recently, I listened to an episode of Henry Rollins’ awesome podcast, Henry and Heidi, where he recounted the story of recording a song with Shatner for this album, and the friendship they’ve shared since. Henry can make almost anything entertaining, so maybe this story is all in his telling of it. But when it was done, I thought that if Shatner was half as enthusiastic about the rest of the songs on this record as he was about his Rollins team up, even if William Shatner Has Been isn’t good, it’s gonna at the very least be interesting.
The cover of Pulp’s Common People is the song that I remember making the biggest splash a little over a decade ago. Then, I thought it was pretty cheesy, a novelty playing up to all of Shatner’s ticks that had become clichés for hacky impressionists years before. Hearing it now, in the context of Rollins’ podcast, it sounds 100% straight faced, sincere and whole lot better for it.
A Shatner poem set to a samba music bed, It Hasn’t Happened Yet is hypnotic and kind of beautiful in a weird, possibly piss pulling way. At first, I found the faux preaching of You’ll Have Time a little too on the nose. But once Shatner dropped, “Live like you’re gonna die, because you are”, I was on board.
A song like Together makes me realise that I shouldn’t focus too much on Shatner, because Folds is obviously a massive part of this record too. His song writing, musicianship, arrangements and production work are all pretty great. And Together really is a showcase for his talents. It’s more soundscape than song, effortlessly morphing from one mood to another. And none of that comes at the expense of melody either. Folds somehow makes what is essentially a spoken word song, a toe tapper.
Ideal Love plays up to Shatner’s worst ticks and vocal clichés, and uses the weird rhythm of his speech to make something that’s almost exciting. And as it turns into a country and western call and response of the title tracks, I wonder why more of these songs didn’t breakthrough back in 2004. Then it’s time for the song that brought me here, I Can’t Get Behind That with Henry Rollins. It’s two old, cranky men, complaining about kids today in a slam poetry back and forth, set to a drum beat that could have come straight from the score of Birdman.
Listening to William Shatner Has Been I realised how much effect my own mindset going in has on my opinion of an album or artist. Because I really, really dug William Shatner on this listen. I found it sincerity more than made up for its foibles. But I also have absolutely no doubt that if I listened to this album a week ago, before hearing Rollins’ account of things, I would have thought it was pure cheese, pure gimmick, pure indulgence on Shatner’s part, and exploitation on Folds’.
I guess what I’m saying is, if you’ve never heard this album and expect the worst, listen to Henry Rollins tell his side of the story. You’ll love Shatner going in, and that’ll make this 40 minutes of listening a whole lot more enjoyable.