Exploring new frontiers

Times Staff Writer

The fans lining the parking lot for an album signing at Tower Records in West Hollywood on a recent Tuesday night had the disparate, occasionally desperate look of what you'd expect to run into at a sci-fi convention.

Not surprising, since the celebrity inside wasn't one of the pop-rock musicians generally found at these in-store promotions, but Capt. James T. Kirk himself, actor William Shatner.

Although the title of the CD he was signing, "Has Been," generated smile after smile from fans looking at it for the first time, the last laugh is Shatner's. His collaboration with singer-songwriter Ben Folds is anything but a punch line.

Unlike his 1968 debut album, "Transformer Man," "Has Been" is being taken seriously not only by Shatner and Folds, but by many of those who take the time to listen to Shatner's confessional -- and at times whimsical and intensely painful -- poetry that Folds has set to music.

His musical guests -- Joe Jackson, Aimee Mann, Henry Rollins, Brad Paisley, guitarist Adrian Belew -- take it as seriously, even when it's serious fun, as he does with their contributions.

The 73-year-old pop culture icon is too busy filming his new ABC series "Boston Legal" to undertake anything as time-consuming as a promotional tour for the album, but he says he will sing a couple of numbers from it during Folds' shows tonight and Friday at the El Rey Theatre.

His seriousness about the invitation to record a second album 36 years later surprised even the man who extended it, former Rhino Records head Richard Foos, who now runs the Shout! Factory label with his brother, Garson.

"My reaction was 'Oh good! ... What'll I do?' " Shatner said this week during a break from shooting "Boston Legal," a David E. Kelley spinoff from "The Practice" in which he stars with James Spader.

"I knew their expectation [at Shout! Factory] was probably some kind of record that would be fun, but Ben and I both knew that was not the direction I would go in," he says. "But what to do was the real puzzlement. Ben's answer was for me to tell the truth, which is what he's been trying to do on his albums to give them some kind of meaning."

The truths Shatner tells are as lighthearted as the title tune -- a skewering of armchair naysayers set to music by Folds that could have been lifted straight from a spaghetti western -- and as dark as "What Have You Done," a stark, virtually solo recitation about finding his third wife, Nerine, drowned in their swimming pool in 1999.

"It's a portrait of a cataclysmic experience," Shatner says. "I basically wrote that in one sitting, trying to distill what happened.... Ben and I talked about whether it should be in or not, and we both realized there was some risk involved, in a variety of ways."

Then there's "That's Me Trying," written for him by Folds and "High Fidelity" author Nick Hornby, about a father belatedly trying to reconcile a lifetime's neglect of his daughter. ("I don't want to talk about any of that bad stuff / Why I missed out on your wedding and your high school graduation / I'd like to explain, but I can't.")

As one whose over-the-top career has lent itself to microscopic inspection by frequently over-the-top fans, Shatner says he felt "great hesitance" to go public with such intensely personal material. What persuaded him to proceed was his wish "to communicate the subtlety of what I hope is in there to the people I love. I wanted them to understand one more time, what I had been feeling and doing there. Sort of a legacy, if you will."

The Montreal native has written before -- an autobiography ("Get a Life!" from 1999), several "Star Trek" novels and the "Tek War" series of sci-fi novels. But he'd never attempted song lyrics. He did, however, once record a rap: "No Tears for Caesar," with rapper The Rated R, a former member of Tupac Shakur's Thug Life, for the "Star Trek"-inspired 1999 film "Free Enterprise."

"I was interested in using Antony's oration over Julius Caesar, and I went in to explain what the speech over Caesar's dead body was all about," he says. The Rated R, he recalls, "listened carefully, and then he began to write 'No Tears for Caesar.' He was as careful about his choice of words as anybody could be. I saw a real artist at work, honing the lyrics. I've never forgotten that ... the inspiration of seeing that young man hunched over, writing in that darkened room."

For "Has Been," he strove to apply the same care.

"Ben said, 'You just write and let me worry about making it a song.' ... The old fashioned way was verse, chorus and bridge.... That's not where I wanted to go. I tried to give it a free form in a way that needed shaping every so often. I didn't want to have couplet rhymings -- that carried an old-fashioned stance."

In that respect, what he and Folds came up with on "Has Been" continues Shatner's most famous mission of going boldly into new frontiers.

"Our musical tastes can stultify unless we are open to anything, including stuff that we think is unmusical," he says. "People of another generation don't know what rap or heavy metal or hip-hop is, the same way the previous generation didn't know what rock 'n' roll was. How to break open so that you're there and vulnerable to new musical sounds is a real problem."

Finding solutions to that problem, he says, "was the most enjoyable, most fulfilling thing I've done in a long, long time."

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Ben Folds, with William Shatner

Where: El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. today and Friday

Price: $30

Info: (323) 936-6400

Randy Lewis can be reached at weekend@latimes.com.

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