by Jochen Markhorst
After Star Trek he certainly has an admirable follow-up career. Prizes (a Golden Globe and an Emmy Award for his role in Boston Legal, for example), bestsellers, amassing a fortune of around $450 million with a travel website and reasonably successfully directing and producing, but he remains iconic thanks to that one role: as Captain Kirk. At first Star Trek is only moderately popular and William Shatner does not participate very long either; a little less than three years, 79 episodes (September ’66 – June ’69). But that gives him enough courage, and apparently also credit, to record an album: the bizarre, much parodied The Transformed Man (1968).
It is a painfully unsuccessful, über-pretentious project, in which an overacting Shatner links classical literature, especially Shakespeare, to pop songs, deconstructing both the stage texts and the lyrics, while in the background horrifically twisted show orchestral versions of the chosen songs are playing. “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is a low point, but Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” is ripped to pieces, too.
From the self-written liner notes, press publications and first interviews it can be concluded that it is not meant as a joke, that Shatner has really given in to artistic inspiration and ambition, and that he, initially, is quite proud of the result. In later years, after the cartloads of scorn and hilarity, he occasionally tries to distance himself half-heartedly from the monstrosity, insinuating that it was actually a joke, but in his autobiography (Up Till Now, 2008) he explains again, with infectious self-mockery:
“During appearances on several talk shows I had spoken the lyrics of several popular songs without causing any permanent damage. But on my first album I wanted to do more than that, I wanted to explore the unique relationship between classic literature and popular song lyrics. I wanted to emphasize the poetry of language, in both its written and musical forms, used to express the extraordinary range of human emotion. That was my concept for this album.
“What I decided to do was find a selection of beautiful writing and use that as a lead-in to a song that complemented it. Or at least served as a corollary. For example, I would use a selection from Cyrano de Bergerac ending, ‘I can climb to no great heights, but I will climb alone,’ to segue into Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ which had been interpreted to be Dylan’s allusion to his experiences with LSD— and I would perform it as a song sung by an addict bemoaning the fact that he is incapable of surviving without his drugs. In much the same way Hamlet’s classic speech, ‘To be, or not to be,’ led directly into ‘It Was a Very Good Year,’ made famous by Sinatra.
“It all made perfect sense to me. But apparently it was a bit obtuse for some other people. Okay, for many other people. All right, for most people.”
Surprisingly, one of Shatner’s more prominent victims, Bob Dylan himself, is one of the very few who do not think it is totally obtuse. Eighteen months after The Transformed Man, Dylan records “If Dogs Run Free”, the only song in his catalogue in which he does not sing or rap, but declaims. Less exalted than Shatner, but still.
The song is a little-loved in-between on New Morning, and absolutely unique in Dylan’s oeuvre. On the album version, the third and last take, Dylan talks his lyrics over cheap lounge jazz, including aimless guitar doodling and nerve-racking scatting by Martha Stewart. Looking back, in Chronicles, Dylan judges self-critical and full of contempt:
“Nothing was ever together. Not even after a song had been finished and recorded was it ever together. For one of those sets of lyrics, Kooper played some Teddy Wilson riffs on the piano. There were three girl singers in the room, who sounded like they were plucked from a choir and one of them did some improvisational scat singing. The whole thing was done in just one take and called If Dogs Run Free.”
That sounds, apart from being harsh and unloving, also very honest. Historically it is not entirely correct, though. The cocktail jazz version might have been done in one go, but it is not the first take. The first take is released forty-three years later, on Another Self Portrait (The Bootleg Series 10). That version is a lot more conventional. Also babbling, but it now babbles over three guitars, a lazy bass and easy-going brushes on the drums. Dylan seems to believe in the song, seems to feel more happy with the country atmosphere of this variant, talk-singing the verses with more intonation and singing the chorus with some enthusiasm. The rejection of this take and the choice for the unusual, exhausting third take fits with the self-destructive phase in which Dylan claims to be in this period, with his allegedly conscious attempt to alienate his fans.
He succeeds with this song. It has not too many fans, some of the proponents struggle with the defence of the song and seem to do so mainly out of loyalty, and only a very small minority is sincerely touched by “If Dogs Run Free”. But: the general aversion to the song gives wings to the rare advocates.
One J.R Stokes writes a short play in three acts to express his love and interpretation of the song (published in Judas! 14 under the title Waking Up To A New Morning). In Austria, two architects with a soft spot for Dylan open their own cocktail bar and call it If Dogs Run Free (Vienna, Gumpendorfer Straße), illustrator Scott Campbell is inspired to create a children’s book (If Dogs Run Free, 2013) and philosophy professor Michael Chiariello sees in the song a reflection on the doctrine of the Cynics around Diogenes, who strive for the freedom of the dog, who reject human habits and customs and dream of a life in public, without shame. Cynics (the word is derived from the Greek word for dogs, κυνικός) “run freely like dogs, take life as it is, do their own thing and live like kings” – Dylan’s lyrics indeed fit very nicely with the teachings of Diogenes of Sinope (404 – 323 BC).
Ultimately, Dylan does not reject the song altogether. In Writings & Drawings (1973) it is already striking that he makes a drawing to this particular song and in 2000, thirty years after the recording, “If Dogs Run Free” unexpectedly resurfaces on the set list of the concert in Münster, of all places. The master has an unsteady memory of the correct lyrics, chooses a fairly safe swing jazz arrangement and thanks the audience after the last chord with a proud, surprised, atypical smile. It is not a one-off fad, but appears to be genuine, regained love: until 2005 Dylan will play it more than a hundred times.
The few covers remain more or less within reasonable, jazzy bounds. The Dutchman Richard Janssen, from the rather successful Fatal Flowers, records in 1998 under a new name (Rex) a pleasant version for the Twee Meter Sessions, ten years after he polished up another abandoned love from Dylan’s catalogue in that same studio, “Tell Me That It Isn’t True”.
The only other noteworthy cover comes from New York, from the swinging ensemble Dave’s True Story. Their debut album from 2005, Simple Twist Of Fate, offers some wonderful renditions of Dylan songs (“You’re A Big Girl Now” is the highlight) and a very loyal version of “If Dogs Run Free”. Including a scatting lady and a talking singer, with a harmonica as a bonus.
(Dogs run free starts at 1:48)
After Trekkies and hipsters gradually transform his Transformed Man into a cult classic, William Shatner relapses to recidivism. With some cautious irony, granted, he starts to again recite pop songs to smithereens in the twenty-first century (“Bohemian Rhapsody” being one of the most prominent victims, on Seeking Major Tom, 2011). Wisely though, he does not burn his fingers on that one song with built-in Shatner security: “If Dogs Run Free”.
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