Sunday, September 29, 2013
Sensor Scan: The Transformed Man
William Shatner is one of those personalities who is so ubiquitous that their reputation precedes and obfuscates their actual contributions to art and pop culture. Shatner is so famous as Captain Kirk and the the king of unironic and self-evidently ridiculous camp that his iconic public persona dwarfs and overshadows his entire creative body of work. One of the reasons why I focus so heavily on Shatner in my overview of this period of Star Trek history (if not the primary one) is that his status as an omnipresent and immediately recognisable part of pop culture has ironically made it difficult to discern any reasonable erudition about the kind of actor he is, the style of performance he delivers and what the positionality he draws it all from really is. That's not to say Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, DeForest Kelley, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig aren't equally as iconic and memorable in their roles, they are, but everyone knows they're brilliant and, more to the point, everyone largely knows why they're brilliant. That's not really the case with with William Shatner.
All of which is to say that in 1968 William Shatner released an album of spoken-word poetry.
This is, it should probably go without saying, manifestly not the sort of thing anybody expected of William Shatner at the time, two thirds of the way through the original run of Star Trek. It is also probably fairly safe to say it is still not the sort of thing people expect of William Shatner today, because despite his subsequent musical performances becoming part of his camp reputation, the sort of bemused detachment this part of his oeuvre attracts from would-be fans and critics is rather telling. But the existence of The Transformed Man is in fact a very revealing look at not only the approach to Soda Pop Art in the late-1960s but also Shatner's own worldview and how his presence helped re-shape what Star Trek came to represent. So with that said, what the heck even *is* The Transformed Man?
It may actually be beneficial to begin with an overview of what The Transformed Man *isn't*, as this is the source of the overwhelming majority of confusion and bafflement this record attracts. In this regard it's worth comparing it, if for no other reason then the comparison is unavoidable, with Leonard Nimoy's musical catalog. In 1967, just as Star Trek was starting to gain a significant following, Dot Records released an album called Mr. Spock's Songs from Space, which was pretty much exactly what it sounds like: A collection of fluffy novelty songs Nimoy recorded in full-on Spock-the-logician mode to abjectly hilarious results. Literally the only reason this album exists is because Spock was the show's breakout character, and in the 1960s releasing an album of novelty music to tie in to a popular TV show was just sort of the thing you did, no matter how nonsensical it might sound if you think too hard about it (see also “Snoopy's Christmas” by The Royal Guardians). However, the album was popular enough it spawned a follow-up release in 1968 entitled The Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy, which added the twist of having one side be the in-character Spock one and the other side being dedicated to Nimoy singing as himself. This album also featured the mythically bonkers “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins”, which has gone on to become Internet Famous.
The thing about both of Nimoy's releases however is that, like all novelty music, it's abundantly clear none of this is meant to be taken remotely seriously. This is Nimoy goofing around and clearly having a fantastic time running with the self-evidently ridiculous (and amazing) idea of Spock singing songs to children (in fact, next time a Trekker approaches you to complain about something or other betraying the sanctity of these characters, just remind them Spock once recorded an album full of songs with names like “Music To Watch Space Girls By” and “A Visit To A Sad Planet” and that it's 100% canonical). Go watch “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” again and it very obviously looks like the sort of thing you'd see on a variety show targeted towards children to get them excited about literature-There are even direct references to slogan buttons and Carnaby Street fashion. This is largely because that's exactly what it was.
This is not, however, what The Transformed Man is. Shatner's release had the spectacular ill fortune to come out around the same time as Nimoy's, and while Star Trek was more popular and visible than it had ever been before to boot. It would have been impossible to not compare the two and mentally associate them with each other, when in truth the two records couldn't have been more different. The first clue should be in the artwork and liner notes: Nimoy's albums unabashedly cashed in on the popularity of Spock and Star Trek and latched onto the delightfully lunatic concept of Mr. Spock recording a novelty album. However, Shatner barely references Star Trek at all, except to say he met his collaborators in between filming blocks. There's a solitary picture of Shatner in costume as Kirk and while he is credited as “William Shatner: Captain Kirk of Star Trek”, I presume for marketing purposes, this had the side-effect of fundamentally altering people's expectations. As a result, fans picking this up expecting a cheerfully tongue-in-cheek comedy record about Captain Kirk singing space songs instead got a somber and profound meditation on the nature of performativity and the meaning of life. Suffice to say, this made Shatner look cataclysmically self-indulgent.
But if we cast aside all preconceptions of The Transformed Man being a celebrity novelty cash-in, which it's not, and try to take it at face value, it starts to become clearer what Shatner may have been aiming for here. At its most basic, The Transformed Man comes out of the spoken word poetry most famously associated with the Beat Generation movement of the 1950s. Spoken word is fundamentally focused on the dynamics of language, especially the tone and sound of words, often combined with an emphasis on nonverbal gestures. The genre has its origins, as much avant-garde art in North America does, with black culture, in particular modernist Jazz, blues and the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. This is an environment that will also provide some of the inspiration for the early Mod scene and many art rock acts of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, thus linking the Mods with the Beats and the literary underground. Spoken word performance then, at least this kind of spoken word performance, is thus an extremely countercultural form of creative expression, such that if you come up with a list of spoken word performers, it will also double as a roughly comprehensive introduction to some of the most significant artists, thinkers and social justice activists of the past half-century (Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, William S. Burroughs and Laurie Anderson, just to name a few).
What William Shatner realised, and indeed what he was uniquely poised to realise, was that there is an intrinsic connection between something like spoken word poetry, theatre and music. Namely, that they are all explicitly, and in fact almost uniquely, performative. In the liner notes, Shatner talks about how as a child visiting the theatre he was always fascinated by orchestral music and how it complimented the performance, and how he's always wanted to do a project that explores the interconnection between the two art forms. The Transformed Man, he goes on to say, is the product of a chance meeting with producer Dan Ralke after working with his son Cliff on Star Trek where they would talk about Shakespeare, music and poetry on breaks, and that he knew he needed to make an album after being exposed to the wonderful poetry of Frank Davenport. Seeing this album released, he claims, is the realisation of that dream he's had since boyhood. Shatner may be pulling our leg here, but then again he actually does seem like the kind of person who would talk about poetry on his lunch break. What he does on The Transformed Man then is use his perspective as a thespian to explore this interlinking performativity.
The way Shatner accomplishes this is by taking a mixture of poetry and classic Shakespeare scenes and pairing them up with spoken-word renditions of famous contemporary pop songs. This basic approach is usually a source of derision, but I have nothing against reinterpreting pop songs in different genres. What Shatner is saying is that pop music, poetry and Shakespearean prose are all equally creative outlets for people to explore human experience, which is something I really can't find fault with. After all what is Vaka Rangi but a long-winded experiment in treating pop culture like any other form of “serious” art? And anyway, you can't help but smile to hear Shatner breathlessly introduce each track like an old-fashioned stage manager, quite literally “setting the stage” for the audience at the beginning of a play. He's clearly having an absolute blast.
And furthermore, the structure works great. The album opener, for example, “King Henry the Fifth; Elegy for the Brave” takes the bombast and zeal of King Henry rousing his troops to action and sets it up against a somber poem about soldiers lying dead and dying on a battlefield after a conflict. The glory of the battle is shown to have little meaning in the hereafter, as the bodies of the deceased are unable to know of the effect their efforts had on the ordinary people at home, or of the comings and goings of nature's cycle, indifferent as it is to human ambition. Similarly, “Hamlet; It Was A Very Good Year” and “Romeo and Juliet; How Insensitive (Insensatez)” look at anguish and nihilism in opposition to rose-tinted nostalgia and obsessive young love contrasted with the clumsy, confused coldness of a relationship coming to a close, respectively. Crucially though, Shatner is saying that all of these conflicting emotions are things everyone experiences throughout life, and that expressing them is itself a kind of staged artifice.
The pinnacle of this theme would appear to be “Theme From Cyrano; Mr. Tambourine Man”, which seems like Shatner's exploration of the creative process, and how creators struggle between appealing to to the demands of fandom and doing what they personally find intellectually rewarding and stimulating. It's possible to read this track as a bit of autobiographical embellishment on Shanter's part, especially knowing what was going on with Star Trek at the time (or indeed what we know the Star Trek phenomenon is going to eventually become), but I think there's something altogether more subtle going on here. Never once on The Transformed Man does Shatner ever indicate he's doing anything different than what he normally does, that is, play a role. The creator of “Theme From Cyrano; Mr. Tambourine Man” isn't meant to be a crass stand-in for Shatner himself any more than he's the lover in “Romeo and Juliet; How Insensitive (Insensatez)”, the soldiers in “King Henry the Fifth; Elegy for the Brave”, or Captain Kirk in Star Trek, for that matter (And anyway, Shatner plays the creator as frenzied and standoffishly huffy, so if he is talking about himself he's being *extremely* self-deprecating about it). These are all different *characters* Shatner is playing, and while they may come out of his positionality as all art by definition has to, he's frankly too good a writer and a performer to do something like that.
But one of The Transformed Man's many hidden virtues is its ability to slowly and methodically build tension all the while lulling the audience into a false sense of security with fake climaxes. The real stunner comes on side two, which features only one track (the title one) as Shatner and his producers very wisely recognised it stands on its own. This track, a recitation of a poem of the same name, tells the story of a person who gives up a day job and house in the city to seek wisdom and inner peace in the wilderness. The speaker begins a lengthy meditation amongst and communion with the land, the sky and the wild creatures before eventually experiencing something that can very easily be described as ego death: A complete dispossession of the Self leading to an understanding of their place within and connection to a cosmic consciousness. Interestingly though, the last line of the poem mentions “touching God”, which would imply a pop Christian reading, despite the rest of the poem describing a very pagan version of enlightenment. The lynchpin, however, is, as always, William Shatner.
Although the words are not his, I'm going to speculate a bit and hazard a guess this is a kind of experience not altogether unfamiliar to Shatner. See, despite becoming known mainly for being part of a ubiquitous and iconic piece of United States pop culture and being seen primarily as a US actor, William Shatner is, of course, actually Canadian and was born and raised in Quebec. Canada has the largest, most unbroken stretch of wilderness in the world: The Boreal Forest, and Quebec, one of the nation's oldest and most storied provinces, is situated right where the forest's great expanse truly begins to open up. I don't think it's unreasonable to presume this might have left an impact on him. Furthermore, as a performer, and in particular thanks to his unique style of performance, Shatner is very, very good at conveying and drawing attention to artifice, and that's the entire point of The Transformed Man, both the album and the poem: Shatner's overall message here is that our conception of reality, all the way up to the way we can attain enlightenment, is subjective. Furthermore, enlightenment, wisdom and inner peace are deeply personal and ethereal things, and in the end it's ultimately impossible to convey them to others in a way that is 100% loyal. So, if Shatner's rendition of “The Transformed Man” feels hammy and stilted, well, that's the point: It's a metaphor unto itself, and the almost audible twinkle in Shatner's eye lets us all know it's a grand, cosmic joke that he's in on as much as we are.
What's even more marvelous is that “The Transformed Man” comes directly after “Spleen; Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, where the contrast is despair and hopelessness pitted against the euphoria of describing a transcendental experience (and the ultimate futility of trying to get someone who didn't experience it firsthand to understand it the same way you do). While “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” may not actually be about LSD, it was definitely the poster song for altered states of consciousness for a very long time, and certainly would have been seen as such in 1968. The easy thing to do here would be to draw parallels between the two songs and declare Shatner is endorsing the 1960s counterculture and the possibility enlightenment can be found by allying with them. However, I'm going to go one better.
While the youth culture themes are there, I think it's even more rewarding to put Shatner amongst a larger group of colleagues. See, reading William Shatner as someone who is first and foremost invested in the performativity and artifice of human interaction puts him square in the tradition of Avital Ronell, who is herself operating in the tradition of Giles Delueze, Goethe, George Bataille, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Søren Kierkegaard, Edmund Husserl and Walter Benjamin. Ronell regularly likens writing, and really all creativity, to drug tripping. Writers, like junkies, let go of the sense of Self and independent will and let themselves be taken over by an outside force. Writers and creators, if we can allows ourselves to momentarily use those words despite their patriarchal connotations, take dictation from an ethereal spirit and become “writing beings”, in the language of Kafka. The text exists only inasmuch as it is a dead signifier of some long-forgotten intangible mental and physical confluence. In the language of William Shatner and Avital Ronell, we're all putting on some stilted and awkward show in an attempt to pay our dues to writing. We transform ourselves every day in an attempt to grasp and understand truths that will transform us spiritually.
In case it wasn't abundantly clear after all that, I consider The Transformed Man to be something of a masterpiece. It's not Shatner's absolute best effort (there are in fact moments where it feels like Shatner is trying a bit too hard-His histrionics at the end of “Theme From Cyrano; Mr. Tambourine Man” tread dangerously close to “Omega Glory” territory), but it's an absolutely staggering debut album and piece of work once you figure out what it's trying to tell you. See, the big secret about William Shatner is that, in truth, something like this record is a far better showcase for his style of acting then something like Star Trek, and it's in an environment like this where he's finally and truly allowed to shine. The end result of all this is that we finally have a handle on what William Shatner really is and the perspective he brings to the table: Shatner certainly isn't a musician, but he's not an actor either.
No, William Shatner is a performance artist. And his subject is the performativity of our lives.