Category Archives: Music

He’s Not Dead Jim: An Evening With William Shatner

If anyone could be given the accolade of being a self-made post-modernist superman in the world of popular entertainment then the unbackable favourite for such an accolade would have to be William Alan Shatner. Best known through his TV roles as a star ship captain, a veteran cop, an eccentric lawyer amongst dozens of other roles, as well as being a song stylist, writer, horse trainer and all round entertainer Shatner has taken self-aware parody and a congruent earnestness to levels never seen in contemporary pop culture. Denigrated as a has-been, he records an album of theatrical white-man rap backed by the incredibly credible Ben Folds called ‘Has Been’. Defined by his iconic status as Captain James T Kirk (the original and still the best) in ‘Star Trek’, he not only ran towards the type-casting he also undermined it with roles in movies such as ‘Free Enterprise’, or poking fun at his fans with the famous “Get a life…” sketch on ‘Saturday Night Live’. The man cannot be separated from the act, and yet his act is not necessarily the sum of the man.

Now I will freely admit that my interest in William Shatner is almost exclusively based on his role as Kirk on ‘Star Trek’. I’ve seen his performance as Bob Wilson in ‘The Twilight Zone’ classic episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, and some other incidental movie roles. I was not particularly interested in ‘TJ Hooker’ (although I do pride myself on my trivial knowledge of who was his lead male co-star in that show…and the answer is Adrian Zmed), and his work in the role of Denny Crane in ‘The Practice’ then ‘Boston Legal’ has mostly slipped me by.  Like any Shat-man fans I love listening to his truly unique recitation of the songs ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ on his classic album ‘The Transformed Man’, and I still recall watching with great hilarity his take on ‘Rocket Man’ from the 1978 Hugo Awards.

I’ve both volumes of his ‘Star Trek’ memoirs and there was a rather intriguing TV show some years back called ‘Invasion Iowa’ that perhaps gave us the best insight into Shatner the performer; this was a favourite of mine from the later Shatner oeuvre. I couldn’t tell you much about his other activities such as his horse breeding nor his charity work. It goes without saying that his professional career has been wide, long and varied in scope and I’ve but dabbled in watching it.

On reflection it would be incredibly hard to take some of this body of work seriously if you didn’t actually read or watch his off-camera discourse on these adventures in the world of film, television and music. Or taking into account his classical training as a theatre actor, his accomplished legacy of working with many greats of stage, screen and recording studio. You don’t reach the level of popular appeal he has by being a simple one line running gag, nor can his 50-odd year place in the public eye be seen as a stable career of excellence and artistic integrity. For every Emmy Award winning performance as Denny Crane there has been a B-grade movie role or a TV commercial which has shown Shatner happy to flog himself as a mouthpiece for whoever will pay his way. So the question is, how can such a confusing melange of genius and banality, of self-referential piss-taking and brutally keen seriousness about his craft and his life experiences be all mixed up in the one Canadian celebrity? Is William Shatner utterly egotistical (as perhaps feuding ‘Star Trek’ co-stars George Takei might contend)? Or is the man behind James T Kirk a contradictory cultural phenomenon that no one including the man himself can get a hold on?

I don’t know if I got any definitive answers from his presentation ‘William Shatner Live: Kirk, Crane and Beyond’ which I took in on the evening of Tuesday April 5th at Sydney’s State Theatre, but I sure as hell found the man on stage to be utterly engaging and entertaining. Over the course of an almost three hour interview/recitation/comedy routine/confession/self-serving celebrity roast William Shatner ranged from the unaware comedian, saying and doing things that raised as big a laugh as one could expect from perhaps a Mr Magoo come to life, then with a knowing inflection of his words, a cutting remark to his interlocutor Jonathan Biggins, or a simple change of posture the audience were signaled this was one big act from the great man. Not afraid of a self-deprecatory insight he dangled like a worm on a hook for his audience to swallow, hook line and sinker, there was also some rather pointed remarks about the environment, education, friendship and most affectingly addiction. One minute he was regaling his fans with stories of being held in a crushing grip of the testicles thanks to a sign language capable gorilla, then the next he was recounting the story of the death of his previous wife under the most tragic of circumstances. The presentation had a strange mix of embarrassment and guffaws, self-induced exorcism and hammy silliness, perhaps drawing a look on many an audience member’s face mirrored in this classic look of bemused exasperation from Shatner as Kirk:The moments that we came perhaps closest to Shatner at his most truthful were in those times when he spoke about himself with self-deprecatory comments, remarking upon his willingness to take almost any job available, his thankfulness at being cast as ‘Star Trek’s’ Kirk, and his effusive praise for his friends. His discourse on matter environmental were a little too naive, a little too simplistic and it was disingenuous to plead ignorance over the feud he has been part of with most of the other cast members from ‘Star Trek’. A more critical observer would have preferred real insight, or perhaps less happily a rant that whilst not pleasing could have been more honest. However to expect more from William Shatner is unreasonable; he was there to make people engage with him first and foremost, not reflect on the capabilities or flaws of George Takei.

At show’s end there came one final masterpiece of Shatner-esque post-modern strangeness. No doubt inspired like so many other overseas celebrities to somehow connect with an Australian audience by going straight to the old trick of performing a local classic, William Shatner sang/rapped/declaimed the Men at Work classic ‘Down Under’. It was as if the same man who had taken on Cyrano de Bergerac followed by ‘Lucy in The Sjy With Diamonds’ was now channeling a significant phase in Aussie pop culture. To top it off he merged this worldwide Australian song performed in his own inimitable manner with Gough Whitlam’s oration from the sacking of the Federal Labor government on 11th November 1975. There was something hilarious yet compelling watching Bill in only a few moments give all his mock-Shakespearean acting skill to a line such as “…he just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich”, then scant seconds later recite historical words like “Kerr’s curr” and “…God save the queen, because nothing will save the Governor-General”. If he hadn’t won over his already compliant fans by now at Sydney’s State Theatre he never would.

So where does this leave me when contemplating William Shatner? He’ll always be ‘my’ Captain Kirk from ‘my’ Star Trek’. He will also always be a seriously funny man who has achieved more than one could possibly expect considering his self-evident flaws as a performer. Perhaps he could be considered to be a walking celebrity Peter Principle, having reached the level of his incompetence and made that his successful career schtick. Maybe I’m being harsh; he has given so much amused or addicted joy to cynics and geeks alike. Ultimately William Shatner is not Kirk, not Crane, not Hooker or the Transformed Man. William Shatner is just that…the one and only Shat-man.

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Bob & The PRC: Tangled Up In Red (Tape)

I read this morning that the artist who arguably defined the Sixties and its progression from the conservative safety of Eisenhower, Menzies and Macmillan into the radical, free-love, Ban The Bomb, Make Love Not War, Yasgur’s farm counterculture has bowed to the Chinese government and performed a censored list of songs at his recent Beijing concert. Yep…Bob Dylan, the man who sang ‘The Times Are a Changing’, who mused on how ‘With God On Our Side’ and told us that the ‘…answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind’ did the right thing by the regime that brought you such freedom loving activities as the invasion and occupation of Tibet and the repression of Tienanmen Square and didn’t sing classics that would have offended the local political sensibilities.

It could be said that in the spirit of openness having Dylan and his somewhat lifeless concert performance occurring at all is a start. You can’t expect a Jasmine Revolution to start with one riff from ‘Chimes of Freedom’. Also considering Dylan is Dylan, and the crotchetty old man has every right in the spirit of personal wealth accrual to swoop down on Beijing, grab the loot from a gig then exploit a few more wealthy locals and foreigners in Shanghai before making back for home, then who are we to complain. Other performers of a similar age have been to Beijing and kow-towed to local sensitivities (yes, I’m looking at you The Rolling Stones). Hell untold thousands of hugely successful international companies as well as foreign governments and autonomous world bodies have made sure that they’re on their best political behaviour when in the Middle Kingdom. Is it fair to have a dig at a veteran folkie who is after all just a singer/songwriter changing his tune when picking up the acoustic guitar and warbling into a microphone in front of a mainly Chinese live audience?

Of course it is…this is Bob fucking Dylan after all!

This is the same man who sat at Woody Guthrie’s bedside as the musical voice for the downtrodden of America’s Great Depression slowly slipped away? This is the same man who walked out on an Ed Sullivan Show complaining of censorship? How can one not feel disappointed that in Taiwan he could perform ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, however when he reaches the mainland the same classic gets left out?

Let’s look at it from another angle; in 1987 Billy Joel went to the USSR. This was in the era of Perestroika, and whilst the then Leningrad concerts may have had a goodly proportion of foreigners in the audience there were thousands of Soviet youths exposed to Joel’s Western pop music. In what we now know to be the declining years of the Communist regime of Soviet Russia Billy Joel was arguably brave enough, and his political minders relaxed enough to allow the American to perform a Dylan song. It was ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’; and as recorded Joel was explicit in associating the political context of Dylan’s masterpiece from the 60’s era US to the Gorbachev era USSR.

It would be fatuous to say that Dylan is a less noble troubadour for human rights than Billy Joel. It would be stupid to say that the USSR in 1987 is the same as the People’s Republic of China in 2011. These are two different countries with two different political systems at two different times with two different performers. Perhaps the Soviet minders felt that Billy Joel was far less threatening than the likes of a Bob Dylan could ever be, no matter the material. Perhaps Bob Dylan’s presence in Beijing is more politically charged than his actual music.

Then again if a glorified piano man with a successful but hardly legendary presence can sing a song that is redolent with themes of change, or revolution, of people doing something about their lack of individual rights and exerting their free will, why the fuck doesn’t the man who wrote the bloody song have the same conviction? What happened to the same man who went electric and then ignored the hard core folk fans who called him Judas? Why doesn’t he want to thumb his nose at the same regime that has just recently jailed the man partly responsible for the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium, artist and dissident Ai Weiwei? Is the wad of money the Chinese promoters giving Dylan that large he can’t but use it to metaphorically gag himself? Has Dylan really sold himself out that much?

I guess Bob himself doesn’t give a damn about it all; in his seventieth year like all grumpy old men he can tell anyone younger than him to shut up and stop trying to tell him what to do. The problem is when you create your own identity as a man willing to use music and art to inspire people to think about what is right and wrong, how to live a better life and do what you should do and not what the government enforces you to do, you sometimes have to actually live to that standard. Otherwise your work is negated and all the hyperbole from critics and fans alike becomes nought but empty rhetoric. Frankly I’d rather see an honest Billy Joel sing ‘Just The Way You Are’ or ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ knowing full well the guy is entertainer pure and simple, than a Bob Dylan undercut his own gravitas by playing into the censoring hands of the ruthlessly corrupt dictatorial bastards who keep about a quarter of the world’s population under tight controls.

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