He's been a starship captain, a Karamazov brother, a cop, a lawyer and a science-fiction author. Now, William Shatner returns to the recording studio for a new, space-themed spoken-word album, Seeking Major Tom. The two-disc set features a laundry list of popular musicians, from Lyle Lovett and Peter Frampton to Sheryl Crow and members of the prog-rock bands Asia and King Crimson.
Having recorded galactic covers like Steve Miller Band's "Space Cowboy" and, of course, a signature take on Elton John's "Rocket Man," Shatner tells NPR's Rebecca Roberts that Seeking Major Tom tells the story of the fictional astronaut in David Bowie's "Space Oddity" and what happens after he steps out of the space capsule.
"Well, I thought it would be fun to characterize what happened to him," Shatner says of the lost astronaut. "So I have him walking on the moon or being a space cowboy, thinking of his wife [who] 'blinded me with science.' Then things get darker and he's in the twilight zone. He queries God in 'Lost in the Stars' — why is this happening? And, ultimately, in the 20th song, he goes to hell with 'Iron Man' with Zakk Wylde."
At 80, Shatner shows no signs of slowing down. Where does he find the energy for a third album?
"Well," he says, "I looked at the size of my biceps..."
Shatner also has a new book, Shatner Rules, and is about to perform a one-man show across Canada. He's also directed a documentary about the actors who have played captains on Star Trek, fittingly called The Captains. It was sitting down with Patrick Stewart, Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, that Shatner says really helped him come to grips with his Star Trek past.
"I began to have a defense at what I perceived to be a form of derision towards Star Trek," Shatner says. "It irritated me, so that all these things like 'Beam me up, Scotty' would be a source of irritation. I realized that when delving into Patrick Stewart's career and his attitude. He taught me that I had been doing the wrong thing. I had applied myself as responsibly as I could in performing the role, but in the intervening years, I acquired an attitude, which I have striven to divest myself of."
REBECCA ROBERTS, HOST:
He's been a starship captain, a Karamazov brother, a cop, a lawyer, a science-fiction author. Now, William Shatner returns to the recording studio for a new, space-themed spoken-word album, "Seeking Major Tom."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAJOR TOM")
WILLIAM SHATNER: Ground control to Major Tom. Ground control to Major Tom. Take your protein pills. Put your helmet on.
ROBERTS: A man who really almost needs no introduction, William Shatner joins me now from his office in Los Angeles. Welcome to the show. Thanks so much for being here.
SHATNER: Well, it's a pleasure to be with you, Rebecca. For you to characterize it as a spoken-word album is interesting because it really is, and on the other hand, it has so much music in it with 20 of the greatest living musicians that it's hard to put into a category of only spoken word because I think you could listen to this in the form of music.
ROBERTS: You know what I think it is? I think it's a rock opera.
SHATNER: It is a rock opera. How wise of you to put it that way. I speculated what happened to Major Tom when David Bowie finished with him. In the David Bowie song, he steps out of the capsule and we can't find him. Well, I thought it would be fun to characterize what happened to him. So I have him walking on the moon or being a space cowboy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPACE COWBOY")
SHATNER: (Singing) I'm a space cowboy. I'm sure you know where it's at. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
And then things get darker when he's in the "Twilight Zone" and he queries God in "Lost Among the Stars." Why is this happening? And ultimately, in the 20th song, he goes to hell in "Iron Man" with Zakk Wylde.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IRON MAN")
SHATNER: (Singing) I am Iron Man.
ROBERTS: I can't believe you made a theme album in an age when no one bothers to listen to a whole album anymore.
SHATNER: I know. And it's like either retrograde or a new idea springs up. Where does failure and success begin and end? The record already has gotten really popular, more popular than anything else I've done as an album, and you just don't know. When asked why do it, you answer with why not?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IRON MAN")
SHATNER: (Singing) Heavy boots of lead fill his victims full of dread. Running as fast as they can, Iron Man lives again.
ROBERTS: The musicians who guest star on it, it's a pretty extraordinary range. I mean, it's Zakk Wylde, you mentioned Peter Frampton, Sheryl Crow, Bootsy Collins. I mean, I know you weren't generally in the studio with them...
SHATNER: Brad Paisley, Lyle Lovett, Michael Schenker. I mean, you just go on and on about the great instrumentalists that are on this record. That alone is phenomenal.
ROBERTS: This is your third album, is that right?
SHATNER: Third album.
ROBERTS: What made you decide you had a third one in you?
SHATNER: I was asked by Cleopatra, the label, saying would you do these songs. And I saw that there were a number of songs using the character Major Tom. And I thought would it not be of interest to speculate, using all these songs, including Sheryl Crow sings "Mrs. Major Tom," and give him a complete character and give him an arc, a dramatic arc?
ROBERTS: I'm speaking with William Shatner, the voice behind the new album "Seeking Major Tom."
So you've got this record, you've got a book, you've got a new documentary movie coming out, you're about to launch a cross-Canada tour. You're constantly on my iPad with those Priceline commercials. When do you plan to slow down?
SHATNER: Slowing down is a relative term and is it kilometers or miles that we're going to slow down to? I'm having the time of my life with all these projects. Yes, it's arduous right now trying to promote all these things at the same time, but in the doing was the ecstasy. And then the anticipation of this one-man show. I know nothing of Canada, my native country, between Vancouver and Toronto. Maybe Hamilton, which is 30 miles west. And then I stop. And I'm going to go to Saskatoon, to Regina, to Winnipeg, and then go to Toronto and Montreal.
ROBERTS: Are you really going to Saskatoon or did you just say that because it's fun to say?
SHATNER: Saskatoon. Yeah. No, I'm not really going to go to Saskatoon.
SHATNER: I just like to say the word.
ROBERTS: I'm absolutely with you. Let's all say it again. Saskatoon.
SHATNER: Saskatoon. And then you could play that Saskatoon in your mind.
ROBERTS: Name that Saskatoon.
SHATNER: There you go. You could get on Saskatoon and buy a song.
ROBERTS: Right. A 99-cent Saskatoon download.
SHATNER: I mean, what? Where is Saskatoon? And what's there? And do they have a good restaurant?
ROBERTS: Well, you're going to find all that out.
SHATNER: And then I'll report directly back to you.
ROBERTS: Now, in the documentary "Captains" when you talk to all the folks who've played the different Enterprise captains, I read in an interview that sitting down with Patrick Stewart really helped you kind of come to grips with your "Star Trek" past and be a little less self-conscious about it. Is that true?
SHATNER: Well, it's true. I had never directed a documentary before, and as a journalist yourself, you understand that discovering a story while you're in the process, I mean, you don't know what the story is. You're talking to people to find out what the story is. Well, it didn't really occur to me that I would be just making these discoveries in the documentary. I thought I was going to record what I already knew to be there.
But in fact, what happened with every one of the six actors that I talked to in "The Captains" was a discovery. And then, since I was one of the six captains, I discovered something about myself as a result of doing research on Patrick Stewart that completed the arc of the hour and a half documentary, which was self-discovery, what I had been doing and what I needed to do to change.
ROBERTS: And what's the answer to that question?
SHATNER: Well, I'm torn between telling you the answer or urging you to buy the DVD.
ROBERTS: You can do both.
SHATNER: Well, if I tell you the answer, will you buy the DVD?
SHATNER: All right. I began to have a defense at what I perceived to be a form of derision towards "Star Trek" and so that all these things like Beam me up, Scotty would be a source of irritation. I realized that when delving into Patrick Stewart's career and his attitude, he taught me that I had been doing the wrong thing. I had applied myself as responsibly as I could in performing the role. But in the intervening years, I acquired an attitude which I have striven to divest myself of.
ROBERTS: So there's the DVD, the tour, the album, the book "Shatner Rules: Your Guide to Understanding the Shatnerverse and the World at Large," and one of your rules is basically, you know, when you're 80, you can do whatever you want. Although I have to say when I'm 80, I plan on working a lot less hard than you're working.
SHATNER: But, Rebecca, say you found somebody you really wanted to talk to, some great discovery that needed explanation, and they lived in Timbuktu, and they said to you - you're 80 and your legs are bothering you, and your left arm is stiffer than your right due to a variety of reasons. And they say, will you travel to Timbuktu? Surely you're going to say yes.
ROBERTS: Yes. I would say yes but not if I was going to Saskatoon on Thursday and Timbuktu on Friday, which it seems to be what you're doing.
SHATNER: Right. But if you had to go to Saskatoon and then you wanted to go to Timbuktu, you might say yes because the opportunity has been offered to you. And the day after Timbuktu, you may drop dead.
ROBERTS: Well, that's an excellent point.
SHATNER: Well, as you get older, you become more sensitized to the fact of how ephemeral life is. So that relishing life, every moment, like talking to you right now is the most enjoyable thing I can imagine because it's what I'm doing right now. That's the way I think we should feel.
ROBERTS: The one and only William Shatner. His new album is "Seeking Major Tom." Thank you so much for your time.
SHATNER: Rebecca, a pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")
SHATNER: (Singing) I see a little silhouette of a man. Scaramouch, Scaramouch. Will you do the fandango? Thunderbolt and lightning. Very, very frightening. Me. Galileo. Galileo. Galileo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.