Can anything prepare you for a first time listen of The Transformed Man? As a forty-something already familiar with the rest of William Shatner’s career in kitsch and irony before giving this a spin, I will say no. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard his embittered take on “Rocket Man” or that logic-defying run through of “Common People.” Hearing 1968’s The Transformed Man after all that is like picking up the first Ramones album after Ramones Mania, which was absolutely my experience in high school. You have this kind of cutesy framework that’s obliterated by the raw element. Like, God, this might really be from another planet.
According to the text on the back cover, The Transformed Man came about because Shatner was enamored with a couple poems by Frank Davenport and wanted to bring them to life. Davenport’s work came to Shatner via a co-worker on “Star Trek,” Cliff Ralke. Ralke’s father Don, a music industry figure best known for helping launch Ed “Kookie” Burns, wound up producing The Transformed Man. Having an actor recite poetry and Shakespeare and even some pop music lyrics over an orchestra isn’t that bizarre conceptually, even for 1968. Of course, it’s not the material, it’s the delivery, and Shatner floors it the entire time. You know you’re in for the ride for your life from the get-go; the LP opens with a white-knuckle reading from Henry V that suggests Shatner was there to help the English seize Harfleur.
When Shatner does a whimsical dance through Cyrano, I laugh. When he is tormented by Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” my jaw is on the floor. This is just the first 12 minutes of The Transformed Man. Make it to the conclusive title track and you’ll be rewarded with one final dose of crazed conviction as Shatner recounts a baptism through nature.
“I became as a pure crystal submerged in a translucent sea and I knew that I had been awakened…I had touched the face of God!” Those final words are barked like a mongrel, and it’s interesting to juxtapose that against Shatner’s recent trip to stars. Did he touch the face of God? Did he even see God?
“All I saw was death,” he said of space’s infinite vacuum.