December 1, 2004

William Shatner explores new musical worlds

William Shatner's first album in 36 years, Has Been [Shout Factory], successfully proves he's anything but that. Co-written and produced by pianist/singer Ben Folds-and including appearances by Adrian Belew, Joe Jackson, Aimee Mann, and Henry Rollins-the album takes the Star Trek legend's spoken word approach and boldly goes into a variety of genres that include pop, rock, trip-hop and spaghetti Western. This is an engaging, infectious disc that's light years ahead of The Transformed Man, Shatner's unintentionally hilarious 1968 camp classic that merged pop tunes like "Mr. Tambourine Man" with literature such as "Theme from Cyrano." In contrast, Has Been explores deeply personal topics, including Shatner's views on love, family, death, and creative rebirth. Humor also abounds-only this time he meant it to.

"When I was asked to do another album, I knew I was in a dangerous position of holding myself up to ridicule," explains Shatner. "With that in mind, I asked Ben, 'What will I write?' He said, 'Tell the truth.' I said, 'Of course. As long as you stay in the truth, no one can say anything. You're on safe ground as an actor, performer, and writer.'"

From the outset, Shatner realized he had a challenge ahead of him as a songwriter. "I don't know how to write songs," he admits. "Ben said, 'Don't worry about that-just write what's in your heart. You deliver the poetry and the ideas, and I'll make them into songs.' Then I thought, 'What are the structures of writing a song? 'Do I try to find rhyming words, or rhyme in couplets? Does that discipline apply?' We decided I would write as I felt, and he would take it from there."

Folds' suggestion provided Shatner with the freedom to investigate subject matter near and dear to him. "I'd sit down and write a thought I'd used in other writings, or jot down something that just occurred to me," he says. "I'll give you two examples. I've been near people dying. Parents and loved ones have died in my lifetime. I've become fascinated with the idea of death, but that's too heavy to put into a musical thing. So I attempted to do it in a lighter way.

"Another instance is when I read a tabloid in an airplane, and I saw the term 'has been' referring to me. It's a stupid term used by stupid people as a pejorative. The truth of the matter is somebody has been somebody, and, like a flower, you spring out, bloom, and then, ultimately, the petals fall off one way or another at some time or another. It happens to all living things. To call a flower a 'has been' is as idiotic as calling a great artist who hasn't done anything in the last while a has been. So I went off on that, and it became the title of the album."

-Anil Prasad,

Richie Havens' Intuitive Grace

Richie Havens had already established himself as a skilled interpreter of Dylan and other folk luminaries by the time he opened Woodstock in 1969. Since the '60s, Havens' career has taken many twists and turns-including commercial voice-overs and recent collaborations with Peter Gabriel and Groove Armada-but he has never lost sight of his original idealism and commitment to social justice, and, after more than 40 years of performing, his immediately recognizable voice remains as evocative and compelling as ever.

On Grace of the Sun [Stormy Forest], the 63-year Havens continues to develop the style he pioneered on 2002's critically acclaimed Wishing Well. His 26th album is a guitar-based, world-folk fusion spiced with exotic instrumentation such as Turkish violin, bazouki, sarod, and tabla.

"I finally got my thing down on Wishing Well," explains Havens, "and I was able to produce that and Grace by myself. You get with outside producers, and they say things like, 'You're a great singer-you don't need a guitar.'"

A major part of Havens' "thing" is playing impassioned rhythm guitar in open-D tuning [D, A, D, F#, A, D, low to high], barring with his thumb. In fact, his playing is so impassioned that he burns through picks and strings in rapid succession, and guitars almost as quickly.

"I used to go through a guitar-and-a-half a year," confides Havens, who details his approach at ("How I Play").

Though best known for interpreting other artist's material, Havens' own songwriting has blossomed significantly of late. "For the last two albums, the songs have really been coming out," he enthuses. "I don't claim to write songs. I write them down, verse by verse, without changing a thing. And I'm often surprised when they turn out to have deeper and higher layers of meaning than I'd first imagined. Most of the time, I write songs apart from the guitar, but, occasionally, a musical idea will haunt me, and I'll refuse to sit down and write to it. Then, one day, I'll be playing it in the dressing room, and a song will just pop out."

Havens' approach to recording is as intuitive as his songwriting. "I wait until the last minute to record an album, because if I don't have enough songs, what am I going to do?" he says. "I have to feel that the umbrella has all the spokes on it, so I'll just wait until I'm sure they're all there. When they are, I go into the studio, and the umbrella opens by itself."

-Barry Cleveland  

Keep up-to-date on the latest news
Get our Free Newsletter Here!


comments powered by Disqus

Reader Poll

Best amp from the 1960s?

See results without voting »