eBay item of the week: the recordings of Leonard Nimoy

The great interpretive singer Leonard Nimoy exploded upon the popular-music scene with his first album, the curiously-titled Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space (1967). Still an unknown quantity, he nevertheless took a daring stance and adopted a distinct, recognizable “persona” for his performances, an alien space man named “Mr. Spock.” This interpretive strategy, designed to create an air of mystique around the singer, was at the same time being adopted by The Beatles, who copied Nimoy for their groundbreaking work Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Much later, David Bowie would grab this idea and run with it all the way to the bank, but it should be noted that Nimoy did it first.

The song titles on Mr. Spock are intriguing and otherworldly: “Theme from Star Trek,” “Music to Watch Space Girls By”, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Earth” and the immortal “Visit to a Sad Planet.” The album caught the “space” craze of the mid-sixties, was a huge hit and Nimoy’s label, Dot Records, was soon clamoring for more.

The “Mr. Spock” persona had made Nimoy a household word among lovers of song, and Nimoy was under great pressure from his label to deliver more of the same. But Nimoy, a formidable artist with incredible powers of persuasion, already felt that he had “done” the Mr. Spock thing. Like Dylan, Nimoy is an ever-changing chameleon who cannot be constrained by the demands of the marketplace. But commercial pressure at the time was intense, and Nimoy was forced to create at least half an album with the “Mr. Spock” persona intact.

The result of all this conflict was 1968’s Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy, a bifurcated whatsit that, in the hands of a lesser artist, would have stank of bitter compromise. Instead, it is a blazing triumph and perhaps Nimoy’s masterpiece. It was 1968, there were riots in the streets, change was in the air, and Nimoy was right in the middle of it. “Mr. Spock” handles Side 1, singing “Highly Illogical,” a stinging rebuke of the entire human race on the level of “Desolation Row” or “Sympathy for the Devil.” Later he sings “Spock Thoughts,” practically a philosophical treatise in song. The side closes with “Amphibious Assault,” which the liner notes describes thusly: “A surrealistic battle of the future. Will war come to this?”

On the “Leonard Nimoy” side, the mask comes off and the warm, tender humanism of Nimoy bursts through. The results are intoxicating as he sings “Bilbo Baggins,” a jocular celebration of “the bravest little Hobbit of them all,” Glenn Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” and Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter.” No elitist, Nimoy closes the album with the touching parable “Love of the Common People.”

Obviously chafing from the compromise of Two Sides, Nimoy ditched the “Mr. Spock” persona once and for all with 1968’s The Way I Feel. Creating a soft pocket of sensitive peace amid a world gone crazy and turned upside-down, this album of delightful love songs and quirky portraits is a small triumph on the level of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. The titles say it all: “I’d Love Making Love To You,” “Please Don’t Try to Change My Mind” and Joni Mitchell’s poignant “Both Sides Now” — this is an album of love and its consequences. But social commentary also raises its triumphant head; the LP’s highlight is “If I Had a Hammer,” not to be confused with Two Sides’ “If I Were a Carpenter.” Intended as a “little”, transitional album, The Way I Feel was a huge hit, its sales bigger than those of Nimoy’s first two albums combined, and Dot, ever the raging capitalists, demanded more of the same. This time, luckily for the music world, Nimoy was happy to comply.

Who would not want to feel The Touch of Leonard Nimoy? Almost a sequel to Feel, 1969’s Touch expands upon that album’s greatest themes and then goes further, including Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and the jazz standard “Nature Boy.” Nimoy then, unexpectedly, brilliantly, brings his career full circle with “Contact,” a song about contact with aliens.

No one knew it at the time, but Nimoy was, in fact, saying good bye with the inclusion of a “Spock”-themed song on the otherwise tender Touch. He abruptly withdrew from the marketplace of song, retired to his mountain retreat in Massachusetts and has since disappeared. The Salinger of Song, he has not issued an album of new material in almost 40 years. Why this happened is one of the great mysteries of popular music. Maybe the pressures of the pop-star world proved to be too much for this sensitive artist, maybe he’d decided he’d had enough, or maybe he felt he’d said everything there was to be said. Who knows? But we have these albums and that is treasure enough.

Sensitive to the demands of a marketplace starved for greatness, the prestigious label Famous Twinsets released a two-LP set of choice cuts called Outer Space/Inner Mind. For a new generation of listeners, this was a gold mine of delight. Strangely, Famous Twinsets didn’t think to put a photo of Nimoy on the cover, instead focusing the packaging on the model spaceship the “Mr. Spock” character is shown fondling on Nimoy’s first album. I guess they were trying to preserve the mystique of their reclusive star, or perhaps Nimoy demanded that his picture not be used in order that he be able to move through the world unrecognized. We may never know. In any case, Outer/Inner provides an excellent overview of this vital artist, even though it does, for some inexplicable reason, completely ignore songs from Touch.

DID YOU KNOW? Nimoy has also worked as an actor.


Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Bald Chick reacts — or, more precisely, doesn’t react, to the Enterprise entering a field of Cheap Special Effects.

A film of staggering, almost monumental tedium, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is practically an oxymoron.  Why title something The Motion Picture when motion is the thing most signally lacking?

In the future, everyone on Earth is required to wear a miniskirt.  In space, everyone is required to wear pajamas.

In the future, everything takes a very long time.  Especially in narrative terms.  A gigantic space-thing is heading for Earth, and it takes the movie a full 40 minutes to get the goddamned spaceship launched.

(I have learned from Wikipedia that I am actually watching the new, improved “Director’s Cut” which reportedly flies like the wind.  It is my sad duty to inform the public it does not.)

But, oh boy!  Now that the ship is launched, I bet we’ll come in contact with the gigantic space-thing, right?  Sadly, no.  First, the ship must encounter a wormhole, a terrifying outer-space danger that bears a striking resemblance to cheap 1970s special effects.

In fact, I would say that fully half of Star Trek: The Motion Picture consists of the ship encountering cheap 1970s special effects.  A typical sequence goes like this:

1. Someone looks at a screen.
2. On the screen is a cheap 1970s special effect.
3. Cut to: exterior of the ship, encountering the cheap 1970s special effect.
4. Cut to: group of people staring.
5. Cut to: another shot of the cheap 1970s special effect.
6. Cut to: someone else staring.  Perhaps a jaw falls open.
7. The principles gather to discuss and theorize about the nature of the cheap 1970s special effect.
8. Repeat every ten minutes.

After taking 40 minutes to get started, the movie marks time for another twenty minutes, until we finally make contact with the gigantic space thing.  Director Robert Wise brings to Star Trek: The Motion Picture the light, lyrical touch he brought to The Andromeda Strain and the stolid, grim determination he brought to The Sound of Music.

The theme of the movie is desire.  Kirk desires command of the Enterprise, Spock desires to be free of emotion, Stephen Collins desires a bald chick.  More to the point, everyone on the ship seems to want to have sex with everyone else.  There are more meaningful glances, knowing smiles, wistful exchanges and heartfelt handshakes in any given hour of Star Trek: The Motion Picture than in the totality of The Way We Were

So it is perhaps appropriate that the gigantic space thing has a gigantic space anus (or, as Spock calls it, “the orifice”) through which one must pass in order to gain the thing one desires.  Spock, in a fit of passion, steals a spacesuit in order to pass through the space anus, and eventually Kirk pilots the whole spaceship through, sublimating, no doubt, his desire to pilot his spaceship through the anuses of his beloved crew members.

The gigantic space thing snatches a crew member off the ship, the Bald Chick.  Why she is snatched is unexplained.  Why she is returned, looking like the bald chick but transformed into a dull-witted robot, in a revealing mini-robe, is unexplained.  Why the crew spend a good hunk of time trying to awaken her inner Bald-Chick-ness is unexplained.

Eventually, the plot conspires to have the Bald Chick express the desires of the gigantic space thing, which is to “touch the creator,” which in this case means covering Stephen Collins with sparkly blue lights and self-destructing.  If this is how machines have sex, I don’t want to live in the future.

So the gigantic space thing disappears, taking the lives of Stephen Collins and Bald Chick, who get mentioned, and the lives of three ships of Klingons and a bunch of people on a space station, who don’t.  Then Kirk, appropos of nothing, decides, on no authority whatsoever, to steal the spaceship and leave.  In the future, apparently, there is less accountability necessary than today.

Things pick up in the final half-hour or so, as a handful of acceptable, middle-brow sci-fi “ideas” take hold and the tedium momentarily transforms into viewer interest.  These ideas, I’m told, were adapted from earlier, cheaper episodes of the Star Trek TV show (which I have , regrettably, never watched) and would be later presented, in compact, exciting, character-driven, 22-minute form, as “The Return,” a tremendous episode of Justice League Unlimited.