Not everyone gets him altogether, let alone his music—which involves dramatic spoken-word readings of literature or original material set to melody and rhythm. But quite a number of major artists do, including the likes of Peter Frampton, Bootsy Collins, Steve Howe, Ritchie Blackmore, Lyle Lovett, Brad Paisley, Steve Miller, Sheryl Crow, Zakk Wylde, Bootsy Collins and Johnny Winter, who all appear on William Shatner’s thematically ambitious new album Seeking Major Tom (Cleopatra Records).
The two-disc set (also available in a collectible three-LP box set) is based on David Bowie’s classic “Space Oddity”’s lunar astronaut Major Tom, and features it and other space-themed rock songs such as “Mr. Spaceman,” “Space Cowboy,” and “Rocket Man,” which Shatner famously performed in a much-parodied reading on the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards show. It is his third studio album, following his acclaimed Ben Folds-produced Has Been (2004) and his 1968 debut The Transformed Man, which juxtaposed Dylan and The Beatles with Shakespeare.
Shatner also released William Shatner Live in 1977.
The legendary Star Trek hero discussed the project last week in a phone interview.
Your last album, Has Been, was brilliant—but it came out in 2004. Why so long between albums?
I don’t know. I love the idea of making these albums, but one thing or another gets in the way. All of a sudden this opportunity was offered to me, but I didn’t want to do all these science fiction songs that the label submitted. But I did discern a few pertaining to Major Tom, and flashed on the concept of sketching out Major Tom when he exits the capsule of David Bowie’s song.
So all the songs on Seeking Major Tom are tied together?
All these 20 songs give us the arc of Major Tom’s life from the moment he steps out of the capsule and walks on the moon: “Space Cowboy,” “Mrs. Major Tom,” “She Blinded Me With Science,” “Twilight Zone.” Something begins to darken and he hallucinates his past and childhood and how he likes to fly with “Leaving To Fly” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and he goes to heaven with “Lost Among The Stars” and ends up in hell with “Iron Man”–and it’s all my fantasy.
How did you come up with the songs?
I just worked them out with the 20-odd musicians who came aboard. We reached out to some of them, and many asked to be part of the project.
Johnny Winter said he was a Trekkie–and still has his original Star Ttrek t-shirt. Bootsy Collins called you “the closest thing to cool as one could get!” Have you thought of getting some of these artists to back you up on a tour?
I would definitely need to travel with a band–and it seems like more than I could handle! These songs are so complex, I don’t know how I could do them. But I also have another fantasy, where the album could lend itself to a laser light show that follows Major Tom around, but in a more disembodied way. I just don’t know that I have the temerity to foist myself on an audience for a full evening!
I’m timid–in this singing mode. It’s an odd artform—“spoken musical word”—with a full complement of music behind me.
Were you timid recording the album, then?
You know, Freddie Mercury and Brian May are so brilliant on “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I said to the producer Adam Hamilton when we started, “I don’t’ know you. So lets start with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ and if we can make it pleasant to ourselves, we’ll make a whole record.’ But it was a struggle, because Mercury’s brilliant voice was always there–though this is not an attempt to imitate anyone, but to make it entirely my own.
Your “spoken musical word” songs are truly unique.
I got asked to do talk shows and didn’t know quite what to say! I just wanted to be entertaining: I love the lyrical word–the onomatopoeia of the word–and thought some great lyrics lent themselves to an actor performing them, not sustaining a note but feeling the emotion and letting a beautiful melody and orchestration carry it. So I did it on talk shows and they were successful and suggested that the idea might work.
Not everyone ‘appreciated,’ shall we say, your music. Your 1968 debut album The Transformed Man was mercilessly mocked in some quarters, epecially your version of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” which George Clooney once said would be one of his Desert Island Discs, since it would inspire him to cut off and hollow out his own leg in order to make a canoe to leave the island.
The Transformed Man was also a concept album. If people listened to each cut in its entirety they might have gathered what I was trying to do—linking great literature of yesteryear to the great song lyrics of today—with music. But people mostly heard one or two songs that were performed by me as an actor, that weren’t in context.
You’ve written novels—many of them Star Trek titles—and have a new nonfiction book that’s just come out, Shatner Rules: Your Guide To Understanding The Shatnerverse And The World At Large.
The book’s basic premise is, Say yes to opportunity, even though you get mocked and laughted at, and it doesn’t turn out as you expected. In your life you can’t expect to know what comes from saying yes, so I said yes to The Transformed Man—which is what led me to Seeking Major Tom.
So how did you come up with your spoken musical word concept?
In my day it was Frank Sinatra, and the way he climbed up a note with his jazz interpretation of a standard really moved you. I couldn’t do what Frank Sinatra did in the use of his voice, but I had a lifetime of dwelling on a word and making it suggest something to a listener or theater-goer, that the author might not have thought of.
How do you mean…
Because I say words as an actor, with feeling and emotion and an intellectual component–such that every thing I say has a slightly different connotation to me than to you. The way I say something subliminally suggests how I feel, and that pertains to the lyrics of songs.
How, then, does this relate to Seeking Major Tom?
These songs are sung by characters who are meaningfully saying words–as I do in my interpretations of the songs.
Brian May’s guitar solo at the end of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is filled with the same agony as the lyric Freddie Mercury is singing in his beautiful voice. I tried to bring that agony to the agony of Major Tom in linking the lyric with the music. Good, bad or indifferent, I’m trying to do different things!
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