Why Leonard Nimoy needed to make music
Leonard Nimoy was one of the greatest examples of celebrity creativity out there. He didn't just star in TV shows—he directed hugely popular films. He wrote books of poetry. He took photos. Hell, he even made a comic book at one point.
He became an actor forever tied to a franchise that defined a part of pop culture, and rather than just enjoying being rich, he cashed in all the creative chips and kept working on interesting projects throughout the rest of his career.
“In Spock, I finally found the best of both worlds: to be widely accepted in public approval and yet be able to continue to play the insulated alien through the Vulcan character,” Nimoy wrote in his first book, aptly titled I Am Not Spock.
During a 2012 address at Boston University, Nimoy made the argument that we have to continually challenge ourselves to try out new creative pursuits at all times—but, by that same token, to keep them in check.
"Our creativity walks on the razor’s edge, using both sides of the brain," he said back in 2012. "The left side of the brain gives us logic and discipline. On the right side is instinctive, creative thinking. We, as artists, need both. Fall to the left and we lose inspiration and originality. Fall too far to the right and we are in danger of drifting into undisciplined chaos. The secret of a long, healthy career in the arts is the successful walk on the razor’s edge."
Creativity is a risk. But it's one we have to take.
Walking on the razor's edge requires creative people to take constant risks. Back in the 1960s, Nimoy did just that—he recorded five albums, at least two of them cashing in on his association with Spock. Not all of these albums got particularly great reviews, but they got better reviews than other musicians-turned-actors.
"Most actors-turned-musicians—Nimoy’s Star Trek co-star William Shatner, Don Johnson, Bruce Willis—suck at it," Stereogum's Phil Freeman wrote on Monday. "Nimoy’s five albums from the late ’60s aren’t great, but they’re also not that bad. Well, three-and-a-half of them aren’t, anyway."
We didn't need Nimoy to make pop music to ensure his place in history. But being creative in ways that we didn't expect of him kept him in motion. It ensured that his career was more than just a single act in a life full of never-ending scenes.
And as fans, we maybe respect this sentiment a lot less than we should. Too often, we expect our stars to create the way that they always have. It's why Weezer fans have been begging for a return to the sound of Pinkerton for 18 years. But creativity doesn't work like that.
Leonard Nimoy put in a lot of time on Star Trek, but if he was only Spock, he wouldn't have been a whole human being. He earned his nearly 50 years of constant success by being willing to take time for creative endeavors, even if they failed. That's worth respecting.
Five attempts to critically assess albums made by big-name celebrities
- "Musically, this is not 'cheesy pop,' but cheesy pop taken apart and stitched back together à la Frankenstein’s creation, with the same horrific-tragic outcome." — Tiny Mix Tapes' Guy Frowny, reviewing Farrah Abraham's My Teenage Dream Ended, which became an unlikely target of appreciation from avant-garde circles in 2012.
- "Would this band be getting so much attention if Keanu Reeves wasn't the bass player? Of course not. Do they stink? No. Are they any good? Maybe." — A review of Happy Ending, the second album by Keanu Reeves' band Dogstar, from the now-defunct music site SonicNet.
- "Still it's startling—and not unpleasantly so—to hear a guarded female voice sing words and melodies most commonly associated with Waits' gruff vocals. With all this gender realignment, David Bowie's cameos seem almost inevitable." — Pitchfork reviewer Stephen M. Deusner doesn't really hate Scarlett Johansson's attempt to cover Tom Waits.
- "Willis may deeply believe he has vocal talent, but the album stands more as a testament to the excesses of Reagan-era celebrity and baby-boomer nostalgia than as a piece of music." — Allmusic scribe Stephen Thomas Erlewine (who is my favorite album critic of all time, by the way), laying the smack down on Bruce Willis' turn at blue-eye soul, The Return of Bruno.
- "I don't expect the elitists, the metal purists, or the 24/7 haters to give WICKED WISDOM a chance. Hey, that's life in the Internet age." — Blabbermouth reviewer Scott Alisoglu, giving a somewhat positive review to Jada Pinkett Smith's hardcore metal band, Wicked Wisdom. Yes, Jada Pinkett Smith has a hardcore metal band.
"Rehab was an intense thirteen-month program and there were times in which he almost cracked under the strain. I visited him, once, right after he was admitted. He was asleep. The clicking and whirring of machines filled the room."
— Music production wizard El-P, one half of uber-hot hip-hop duo Run the Jewels, in a piece of fan fiction he wrote based on the 1991 Steven Seagal movie Out for Justice. El-P, whose last album with Killer Mike, Run the Jewels 2, was widely regarded as 2014's best album, says that he owns every piece of music made by Seagal. "My love of Seagal is ridiculous. Like, I love this man. I love how ridiculous he is," El-P told The AV Club. "I mean, he made an album called Songs From The Crystal Cave. How can you not love this motherfucker?"
Apologies to Stereogum's Phil Freeman, the guy I quoted above, but I'd like to take a moment to defend easily-mockable art. All the celebrities that created awful albums over the years deserved to have had the opportunity to create the art that they did. Creative muscles don't just move in one direction—and the moment that we forget it is the moment that they stop moving correctly. If you're successful at being creative, screw the haters and keep being creative. (If you're a failure at being creative, do the same. It's your life.)
We don't get to call the shots on a person's creativity. That doesn't mean we have to like what they create—but we should understand why they did it. Bruce Willis didn't decide to become a bluesman because he thought he was going to be awesome at it. He did it because he needed an outlet, and Moonlighting gave him creative license to … well, moonlight.
If you're famous and get the opportunity to get paid to be creative, cash in your chips. Respect yourself.