Shatner Meets Sarah: Tundra on the Edge of Forever

Palin-DylanFor a long time after I first saw spoken-word artist Sarah Palin recite for a national audience, part of me doubted her existence. I have nothing against regional dialect poetry, and hers hasn’t suffered from lack of attention. Last fall, the Utne Reader described her work as beat poetry, comparing her Katie Couric interview line-by-line with works by Ginsberg and Kerouac. In Salon, Camille Paglia, the Sarah Palin of essayists, described her Alaskan counterpart’s style as “closer to street rapping than to the smug bourgeois cadences of the affluent professional class.”

Still, I remained skeptical. Palin’s ice-fogged persona—equal parts Northern Exposure and Manchurian Candidate—seemed too calculated to be credible to all but the most serious Ted Nugent fans. It didn’t help that the author of her signature convention speech is a vegetarian animal rights activist, or that the names of her six children (Snipp, Snapp, Snurr, Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka) sounded too familiar. I kept waiting for the J.T. Leroy/ James Frey-type moment that would blast her story in a million little pieces, revealing “Sarah Palin” to be the creation of a bored Berkeley creative writing student, or Tina Fey’s older sister.

But Palin is indeed real, and the past month has shown that I clearly misunderestimated her artistic skill. A governor is a lot like a performance artist, but with actual responsibilities. With her recent resignation, Palin has brilliantly freed herself from the chores of governance. Much like the title character in the children’s story Duck for President, she will find that quitting frees up time to work on her memoirs and give speeches only other ducks can understand. Her farewell rant in Alaska, which many found inscrutable, ranks as a surrealist tour de force, sledding over the icy tundra of grammar and diction like an American Idiotarod of freestyle improvisation.

Even better, late last month on Conan O’Brien’s show, “master thespian” and Canadian mind-control expert William Shatner performed cover versions of Palin’s farewell speech and Twitter posts. Palin joined a select few over several decades–notably, the Beatles, Dylan and Pulp–deemed worthy of Shatner covers (remarkably, Shatner is six years older than John McCain). For those like me put off by Palin’s chirpy delivery of her own material, Shatner’s covers were a revelation. Following up on his moving and poignant 2004 masterpiece Has Been, Shatner used his martini-dry delivery to make Palin’s words boldly go where no prose has gone before, peeking at the “big wild good life teeming along the road that is north to the future.” Or, as one of Palin’s tweets makes perfectly clear:

Left Unalakleet warmth for rain in Juneau tonite. No drought threat down here, ever…but consistent rain reminds us: “No rain? No rainbow!”

William Shatner, performing Sarah Palin’s Tweets

I doubt that even Shatner knows the first thing about splitting the Cheechakos from the Sourdoughs. But his spinning salad of Palin’s prose added a new layer of intrigue. I briefly recalled Ken Nordine’s worldly and other-worldy word-jazz. Even more, I thought of the surrealist beat poet Ted “The Hipster” Joans. As poets, Joans and Palin are a little like Captain Ahab chasing his nemesis: Joans’ Moby Dick was Dave Brubeck; for Palin, it’s Barack Obama. Joans’ credo was “jazz is my religion, and surrealism is my point of view”; for Palin, religion is her jazz and surrealism is her language. Joans spoke of poems as “hand grenades” meant to “explode on the enemy and the unhip”; Palin uses poems as hand grenades to explode on the unrighteous. Joans said “you have nothing to fear from the poet but the truth”; we have nothing to fear from Sarah Palin but her lies.

Ted Joans, “Jazz is My Religion”

keelerMost of all, listening to Shatner’s take on Palin made me think of his encounter with another feisty, dangerous brunette a generation earlier in the 1967 Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever. I’m no Trekkie, but if Shatner had a moment as a master thespian, this is it. Due to a deliciously preposterous alteration of history which forces the crew to go forward into the past, Shatner’s character, Captain James T. Kirk, is transported into the United States in the 1930s, where he has to choose between saving humanity from Hitler and hooking up with Joan Collins. In the sixties, this was apparently considered something of a close call. Love and hormones almost get the best of Kirk, but in the end justice triumphs.

As aired, City on the Edge of Forever enraged Harlan Ellison, author of the original script for the episode. The TV episode suggests Collins’ character, a Depression Era do-gooder named Edith Keeler, was supposed to be killed in traffic accident. But unless corrected, the accidental change in history would spare her life, allowing her to spearhead a pacifist movement delaying U.S. entry into World War II. That delay would then have permitted the Nazis to develop the atomic bomb first and conquer the world. When the episode aired at the height of the Vietnam War, the antiwar Ellison disliked having an unsubtle bird flipped at the peace movement against his wishes.

Listening to Shatner’s performances last month made me think of a more contemporary moment at the edge of forever. All kidding aside, Sarah Palin could conceivably become President. I’d bet against it, but I remember how far-fetched it once seemed that we would have Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jesse Ventura as governors. At a time when climate change is already occurring and Alaskan glaciers are melting with surprising speed, having a President who once said she was “not one who would attribute” global warming as “being man-made” could recklessly alter history—not our past, but our future. Describing Edith Keeler’s commitment to peace, Spock in City on the Edge tells Kirk, “She was right. But at the wrong time.” By contrast, Sarah Palin is wrong, and at the wrong time.

Star Trek, “The City on the Edge of Forever”

William Shatner, “Common People”

About Roger Moore

rocklobster3.JPGRoger Moore is a writer and musical obsessive who plays percussion instruments from around the world with an equal lack of dexterity. An environmental lawyer in his unplugged moments, he has written on subjects ranging from sustainable development practices to human rights and voting rights, as well as many music reviews. A native Chicagoan, Roger lives in Oakland, California with his wife Paula, who shares his Paul Weller fixation, and two young children, Amelia and Matthew, who enjoy dancing in circles to his Serge Gainsbourg records and falling asleep to his John Coltrane records.

Roger Moore’s Musical Timeline

1966. Dropped upside down on patio after oldest sister listened to “She Loves You” on the Beatles’ Saturday cartoon show. Ears have rung with the words “yeah, yeah, yeah” ever since.

1973. Memorized all 932 verses to Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

1975. Unsuccessfully lobbied to have “Louie Louie” named the official song of his grade school class. The teacher altered the lyrics of the winner, the Carpenters’ “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” so that they referred to Jesus.

1977. After a trip to New Orleans, frequently broke drumheads attempting to mimic the style of the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste.

1979. In order to see Muddy Waters perform in Chicago, borrowed the birth certificate of a 27 year-old truck driver named Rocco.

1982. Published first music review, a glowing account of the Jam’s three-encore performance for the Chicago Reader. Reading the original, unedited piece would have taken longer than the concert itself.

1982. Spat on just before seeing the Who on the first of their 23 farewell tours, after giving applause to the previous band, the Clash.

1984. Mom: “This sounds perky. What’s it called?” Roger: “ It’s ‘That’s When I Reach for My Revolver’ by Mission of Burma.”

1985. Wrote first review of an African recording, King Sunny Ade’s Synchro System. A reader induced to buy the album by this review wrote a letter to the editor, noting that “anyone wishing a copy of this record, played only once” should contact him.

1985. At a Replacements show in Boston, helped redirect a bewildered Bob Stinson to the stage, which Bob had temporarily confused with the ladies’ bathroom.

1986. Walked forty blocks through a near-hurricane wearing a garbage bag because the Feelies were playing a show at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club.

1987. Foolishly asked Alex Chilton why he had just performed “Volare.” Answer: “Because I can.”

1988. Moved to Northern California and, at a large outdoor reggae festival, discovered what Bob Marley songs sound like when sung by naked hippies.

1991. Attempted to explain to Flavor-Flav of Public Enemy that the clock hanging from his neck was at least two hours fast.

1992. Under the pseudonym Dr. Smudge, produced and performed for the Underwear of the Gods anthology, recorded live at the North Oakland Rest Home for the Bewildered. Local earplug sales skyrocketed.

1993. Attended first-ever fashion show in Chicago because Liz Phair was the opening act. Declined the complimentary bottles of cologne and moisturizer.

1997. Almost missed appointment with eventual wedding band because Sleater-Kinney performed earlier at Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street. Recovered hearing days later.

1997. After sharing a romantic evening with Paula listening to Caetano Veloso at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium, purchased a Portuguese phrasebook that remains unread.

1998. Learned why you do not yell “Free Bird” at Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams in a crowded theater.

1999. During an intense bout of flu, made guttural noises bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Throat Singers of Tuva.

2000. Compiled a retrospective of music in the nineties as a fellow at the Coolwater Center for Strategic Studies and Barbecue Hut.

2001. Listened as Kahil El’Zabar, in the middle of a harrowing and funny duet show with Billy Bang, lowered his voice and spoke of the need to think of the children, whom he was concerned might grow up “unhip.”

2002. During a performance of Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags,” barely dodged ashes of Jeff Tweedy’s cigarette.

2002. Arrived at the Alta Bates maternity ward in Berkeley with a world trance anthology specially designed to soothe Paula during Amelia’s birth, filled with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, and assorted other Khans. The project proved to be irrelevant to the actual process of labor.

2003. Emceed a memorable memorial concert for our friend Matthew Sperry at San Francisco’s Victoria Theater featuring a lineup of his former collaborators, including improvised music all-stars Orchesperry, Pauline Oliveros, Red Hot Tchotchkes, the cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Tom Waits.

2003. Failed to persuade Ted Leo to seek the Democratic nomination for President.

2005. Prevented two-year old daughter Amelia from diving off the balcony during a performance of Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

2006. On a family camping trip in the Sierra Nevadas, experienced the advanced stage of psychosis that comes from listening to the thirtieth rendition of Raffi’s “Bananaphone” on the same road trip.