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- Posted on Oct 12th 2011 3:00PM by David Chiu
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On his latest 19-song concept album, 'Seeking Major Tom,' the former 'Star Trek' leading man tackles a subject that he is familiar with -- space. The record focuses on astronaut Major Tom, who is famously mentioned in the songs 'Space Oddity' by David Bowie and 'Major Tom (Coming Home)' by Peter Schilling, and also offers up covers of Pink Floyd's 'Learning to Fly,' Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and Black Sabbath's 'Iron Man.' Guest players on the album include Lyle Lovett, Peter Frampton, Yes' Steve Howe, Toots and the Maytals, Steve Miller, Brad Paisley and Sheryl Crow.
In this interview with Spinner, Shatner explains how the record came about, why he chose to covering 'Iron Man' and 'Rocket Man' and how his singing career has evolved since 'The Transformed Man.'
According to your liner notes on 'Seeking Major Tom,' the project began when Brian Perera of Cleopatra Records left you a bunch of song lyrics with the idea of making a record. You didn't seem keen on it at the time.
Well, even less than keen -- I wasn't going to do it. But as I looked through the lyrics, I began to see that there are a half a dozen songs with the character Major Tom in them and that there was a song called 'Mrs. Major Tom,' things that I hadn't known. It occurred to me that it would be an interesting dramatic venture to see if I can draw an arc of progression of as to what happened to Major Tom after he stepped out of the capsule.
With the exception of 'Rocket Man,' were you familiar with any of the songs prior to making the record?
Not really. I didn't have time to identify the songs. I love music and I listen to music, but I had no way of saying, "That's Freddie Mercury and Queen." If you had asked me a year ago about Freddie Mercury and Queen, I wouldn't be able to tell you. If you had played me 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' I would have told it you that was one of the greatest pieces of music I've ever heard. It's operatic, it's modern and beautifully sung. And then if you would have told me about the history of Freddie Mercury and Queen, I would have gasped because it's so dramatic. But I knew nothing of that until I came to it in this latter day.
And in the same way, heavy metal music made me turn away over the years, not understanding heavy metal. In my first attempt to do the lyric [in 'Iron Man'], I realized the lyric spoke of hell -- it was like hell to me. That's where I wanted to send Major Tom, who goes to heaven in the Sinatra song 'Lost in the Stars' and then goes to hell in 'Iron Man.' But I had no concept of the focus of the energy that is necessary to sing those songs.
You definitely bring ferocity and energy in your performance of 'Iron Man.'
It is ferocious. The guy is dying and although literally 'Iron Man' literally says hell, the whole feeling of it is ferocious as he's struggling not to die.
What was it like working with guitarist Zakk Wylde on that song?
I've never seen fingers fly on a fretboard so quickly. He spent the whole day laying out his track and laying down another track on top of that. He was intricately working that song like an actor would do with a Shakespeare soliloquy, where every word has a meaning and you try and get the rhythm and the meaning and the sense, and yet throw it away so it doesn't seem obvious that you're working it. This guy blew my mind.
I went to the [Revolver Golden Gods] Award ceremony where they gave me gave me an honorary Headbanger Award, which I thought was very funny. The first thing I asked when they asked me to come down was, "What do I wear?" They said, "Wear something black." My wife and I went all in black. When I got there on the black carpet interviews, everybody said, "What the f--- are you doing here?" I had to laugh and laugh. When I got the award, I said to the crowd: "F---ing gnarly!" We all had a great time, it was unbelievable. I got a great insight into the youth and energy that goes into heavy metal.
For the album you did a version of 'Rocket Man,' which you famously performed at the 1978 Science-Fiction Awards. What was it like revisiting that song again?
When it was suggested [to do] 'Rocket Man,' I thought, "Well I've done it, it's been mocked, and people say they liked it and people say they don't like it." Now if I go there, I go there with all consciousness of what the song really is: This guy is getting ready to leave the earth and his wife and all that is familiar. And then yet he is a rocket man and has pride. I thought, "I'm going to do this song again and do it as I now know better." And that's my interpretation.
You bring a very distinctive flavor in your interpretations of these songs. Where you do summon or channel that energy in those performances?
Each song is distinct in itself: It's funny, it's sad, it's outrageous, it's loving, it's fearful. The range of human emotions are in these wonderful songs and as a singer who sustains a note must feel, but does it less emphatically than I as an actor [who's] unable to sustain the notes like Freddie Mercury [could], but knowing what that must have been like. [As in 'Bohemian Rhapsody,'] the young man feeling sorry for himself: "I got to go," "I don't want to go, but got to go," "Mother here's what I did," and "I didn't mean to, but God now I have to." And the agony of the ending, which then bleeds into this guitar solo [that] echoes his agony. What an incredibly complex piece that is.
What was it like working with Sheryl Crow on 'Mrs. Major Tom'?
It was rushed. She was passing through Los Angeles. We snared her at the airport, got her into a studio. She thought she was going to do a line or two, and did that song a cappella with all that gorgeous, bell-like quality in her voice. She sang that song as purely as any songstress can. It was a gorgeous, gorgeous moment.
So what's next after this album. Will you be performing a song from it on TV or doing a live appearance?
What I am playing with now is a concept of a light-and-laser projection show using that music and some advanced technology of which I am dimly aware of, to use it as a traveling light-and laser-show. That's where I am with that at this moment in time. I would love to see that happen.
In your 2008 memoir, 'Up Till Now,' you wrote about your 1968 record 'The Transformed Man,' which drew an ambivalent reaction. Were you discouraged by the fact that people at the time didn't take you seriously as a singer?
I wasn't thinking of myself as a singer. The concept of 'The Transformed Man' was to take literature -- "To be or not to be" [the soliloquy from 'Hamlet'], which is, "Should I stay alive or kill myself" -- [and] I put music to that. I segued that into the song 'It Was a Very Good Year,' which this singer sings about the various stages of his life and how wonderful it was, and now he's an older man. I've been told by some people that it was a terrific rendition. They lauded that interpretation of the song. What an interesting combination of literature of the past and literature of the present being that song -- that was the concept behind that song.
I have a new book out now called 'Shatner Rules,' which is all about saying yes to life. Saying yes to 'The Transformed Man' -- even through that ridicule -- brought me to 'Has Been,' which was critically acclaimed, and brought me to ['Seeking Major Tom'], which I love. Even though it may seem easier to say no, by saying yes, opportunities arrive that you don't even know about. It was the vindication of doing a 'Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds' at a Ben Folds concert. They got what I was doing, that I'm acting and performing a character. So when I raised the finger, it was a salute to the crowd. They were screaming for us for a half-hour at that concert with Ben Folds in Los Angeles. I just felt great that some people got what I was doing.