The filename of the picture at the left,
for reasons I won’t go into here, is “william-shatner-kidney-stone.”
As fate would have it, one day recently the postman brought CDs by two guys named Bill: The Transformed Man by William (Bill to his friends) Shatner and The Best of Bill Withers (Bill to everybody, as far as I know).
Shatner, who is never far from my consciousness to begin with, has been especially on my mind lately because my lady friend and I have become dangerously obsessed with the TV show Boston Legal. At one time I would have had a hard time publicly admitting this fact, because BL is after all a prime-time lawyer show, and what self-respecting pseudo-intellectual watches those? But honestly, this show couldn’t be more different from the CSIs and Law and Orders of the world: where they are ponderous and self-important, it is playful and self-aware; where they are stuffy and straight-laced, it is sexy and insouciant; where they revel in procedural details, it makes no pretense of realism whatsoever. Boston Legal may not be the best show in the history of television, but it is among the most entertaining.
And there at the center of it all is the man himself: The Shat, bestriding the proceedings like the colossus that he is. James Spader as Alan Shore may get more screen time (and is no slouch himself in the Magnificent Overacting department) , but it is Shatner’s Denny Crane who gives the show its spirit: totally over-the-top, absolutely shameless, and suffused with a lustful, ageless vitality. Like Shatner himself, Boston Legal‘s utter fearlessness sometimes leads it to cross the line into ridiculousness, and so what?
Which leads me to The Transformed Man. Like any good student of popular culture, I was familiar with Shatner’s notorious versions of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but I had never before heard the complete album from which they were taken. I can’t exactly call it a revelation; even at 34 minutes, The Transformed Man is entirely too much of…well, not a good thing, but certainly a thing. A thing where Shatner, in his patented turbocharged scenery-chewing style, declaims excerpts from Shakespeare and lyrics by Dylan and Lennon over cheesy orchestral backing. It’s almost impossible to listen to all the way through — in fact to do so is to risk permanent brain damage — but it is without doubt an experience unlike any other.
I’m not quite sure how to segue now into a discussion of Bill Withers, who is everything Shatner is not: humbly self-effacing, effortlessly soulful, and possessed of a mind-blowing musical talent. But I guess I’ve just done it, so that’s a load off my mind.
Consider, just for starters, “Lean on Me.” This is one of those songs that it’s hard to conceive of anyone actually writing — it just seems like it’s always been there. But before Bill Withers, this was a world without “Lean on Me” in it. Rectifying that situation by itself would have been enough for one lifetime; but he also wrote and recorded hits like “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lovely Day,” and “Grandma’s Hands,” as well as lesser-known but equally great songs such as “I Don’t Know” and “Take It All in and Check It All Out.” While we’re at it, it would be wrong not to mention “Use Me” or “Who Is He and What Is He to You” or “Harlem.” And “Just the Two of Us,” though damaged somewhat by decades of overexposure and misappropriation by Will Smith, still goes down pretty smooth. (Aside: It occurred to me listening this time just how odd, or how progressive, or how something it was that “Just the Two of Us” was a duet between two men.)
“Just the Two of Us,” released in 1980, was pretty much Withers’ last hurrah. The compilation includes a couple of tracks he recorded in the mid-80s, and these are disitnctly inferior. It’s not Bill’s fault that the classic soul of the 60s and 70s gave way to synthesized twaddle during the Reagan years, but apparently he was powerless to do anything about it. Which makes me respect all the more that after 1985’s Watching You Watching Me, Withers quit the music business and, except for very rare live performances, has never returned. This is quite ususual. It is much more common to see an artist whose time has passed still out there flogging the hits while desperately trying to get someone to pay attention to his latest record. Withers, to his credit, turned his back on the whole circus and walked away.
This has only added to the value of what he left behind: a body of work whose warmth, humanity, and compassion transcends time and defies irony. And irony, of course, leads me right back to William Shatner. I really ought to have some neat way to wrap this up, but I don’t, so instead, here’s a link to a page I found that has lots of videos featuring guys named Bill: Not only Shatner and Withers, but Burroughs and (boo) O’Reilly as well: