Friday, March 09, 2012
"If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while." - Tom Lehrer
If there is one thing I can point to in my childhood as having shaped my belief that the world is, at base, not quite sane, it is the playing of Tom Lehrer records by my parents.
For which I thank them most sincerely. Thanks, Mom! Thanks, Dad! You took my fragile childhood psyche and twisted it in wonderfully demented ways. Without your help, I wouldn't have become the bloviating ego-driven libertarian ex-stoner I so obviously delight in being today. The tool they used to shape me in such a profoundly discouraging (to my readers) way was Lehrer.
While My Dad bought the records, and is thus slightly more to blame, My Mom was entirely complicit (and she has reinforced the message throughout the years, first by bringing me to a performance of Tomfoolery, the musical revue based on his work, and then via purchasing a Lehrer songbook, with notation and full lyrics, as a later birthday present.)
(I assume some of you may already know Lehrer's work. For that matter, I suspect a few of you, as charmingly deviant as I, may revel in it, and will find much of what follows not only pedantic but wholly a waste of your time. Too damn bad. While I've always found a certain delight in preaching to the choir, this is about winning converts. So shut up and let the ignorant masses get some education.)
Tom Lehrer was born in New York in 1928. I don't hold that against him and neither should you. He migrated to Massachusetts, thus proving his innate intelligence, and studied mathematics at Harvard, earning his BA (magna cum laude) at age 19. He went on to earn his masters, and then taught at MIT, Harvard, and Wellesley. He did a stint in the army somewhere in there, rising to the rank of spec 3 (or, as Lehrer later described it, "corporal without portfolio".)
Meanwhile, he had begun composing satirical songs. The piano lessons his parents had begun for him at age 8 - classical, at first, but in popular styles after Tom expressed more interest in such forms - allowed him to accompany himself quite facilely. He performed the songs for his fellow students and teachers, at parties and other relaxed social gatherings, and found a good reception.
As requests for repeat performances of the songs became steady, he decided to finance a private pressing of a recording. He went into a Boston recording studio in 1953 and the result was Songs By Tom Lehrer (about as straightforward and earnest a title as could possibly be imagined for such a subversive recording.)
This was 1953, remember, so imagine the response to, say, "The Old Dope Peddler"...
When the shades of night are falling,
Comes a fellow ev'ryone knows,
It's the old dope peddler,
Spreading joy wherever he goes.
Ev'ry evening you will find him,
Around our neighborhood.
It's the old dope peddler
Doing well by doing good.
He gives the kids free samples,
Because he knows full well
That today's young innocent faces
Will be tomorrow's clientele.
Here's a cure for all your troubles,
Here's an end to all distress.
It's the old dope peddler
With his powdered happiness.
Or "Oedipus Rex" (and here you will get an actual performance, which is much more delicious than just a read of the lyrics. Lehrer had the perfect sardonic tone to accompany his perfectly sardonic lyrics.)
Lehrer pressed 300 copies of the record. He did a random sampling of his audiences, finding that figure to be about the maximum number he was likely to sell at three bucks a pop. As it turned out, though, the people who bought the record played it for their friends, who then wanted their own copies, and as students traveled back to their hometowns, orders started coming in for the record from across the United States (Lehrer had printed his home address on the sleeve.)
When all was said and done, that record sold 500,000 copies. All of this came about with almost no radio airplay. Lehrer's lyrics were considered too crude and/or risque by most media outlets.
He embarked on a few brief concert tours, most notably to the United Kingdom. He was received quite well there, where he was a bit more well-known due to less-stringent radio programming policies. His U.S. appearances were at hip nightclubs, such as The Blue Angel or The Hungry I in San Francisco. During this time, he recorded a second studio album, More Of Tom Lehrer.
Concurrently, he recorded two live albums which were exact replicas of the studio albums in content of songs. These were Revisited (containing the songs from Songs By Tom Lehrer) and An Evening (Wasted) With Tom Lehrer (which contained all of the songs from More Of Tom Lehrer.) The live recordings bring the added joy of Lehrer's spoken introductions to each song, which are easily as witty as the songs themselves. The obvious joy of the audiences is another bonus.
And the first cut on the above recording was the first thing I ever heard from the man. Any chance of my growing up to become a productive member of society was lost at that precise moment.
I was eight when I heard it. As a pre-adolescent, some of the more licentious bits of his oeuvre were entirely lost on me. Still, there was enough funny stuff there for a kid to latch onto and be marred forever after. Whenever my folks put the record on, I sat and listened to the whole thing. I became a proselyte without realizing it, playing it for my friends. They laughed, too. I memorized all of it, including Tom's introductions and post-song banter. A lovely side effect became an increased vocabulary, as Mr. Lehrer was one of the most erudite grammarians to ever write a lyric.
My Dad then bought the previously mentioned studio recording, Songs, and I fairly much memorized that one, too. It was business as usual: tremendously clever lyrics combined with sprightly piano, all of it with an air of unseemliness that was quite appealing to my rapidly warping mind.
In the meantime, Lehrer had stopped performing and recording. He was never overly fond of the concert stage, stating that he didn't enjoy playing the same songs over and over. He wrote them to amuse himself as much as any audience, and he just didn't get the same kick from them after repeated playings. He went back to a schedule of teaching math, which was his first love.
Then, wonder of wonders, after a six or seven year recording hiatus since An Evening had been originally released, a brand new Tom Lehrer showed up in the record bins.
That Was The Year That Was was a new live recording, containing 14 never-before-put-to-vinyl songs. Most of the material had been written by him for a short-lived TV show called That Was The Week That Was, although Lehrer had not performed the songs on the show.
(He decided to tour again, and record the songs himself, partly because they had been edited by American TV censors and he wished to have them in some form for perpetuity as they had originally been intended.)
American mores and tastes had changed a bit since his 1953 debut. Much of what had once been considered ribald in his lyrics was now quite acceptable. His songs began to receive some airplay here and there. As a result, this recording went gold with sales exceeding one million copies. Tom made the rounds of then-current talk shows - Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas - but, unfortunately for us, he had had enough. He once again returned to teaching, despite the monetary possibilities present for him as a performer.
The question his more ardent fans sometimes wonder about is, "Where the hell did I put those pills, and how did I get in the kitchen?"
Hah-Hah-Hah. No, the most obvious question is, "Why, Tom? The era was just warming up to political satire and you were at the very forefront. You probably could have made a career of it and gained considerable wealth. Why did we never hear more?"
The answer, supplied some years later by Tom Lehrer himself, was, "Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize."
In reality, he just liked teaching more than he liked performing. And he also found himself becoming mad, more than amused, when reading the headlines. He had found it easier to write his lyrics when there was something of a "liberal consensus" happening during the fifties and sixties (at least, in his circles) and in the post-Kennedy world, it seemed less and less humorous as the years passed. He found that instead of wanting to lampoon certain people, he wanted to strangle them. And whereas he could imagine his audiences being tickled by his sort of lyrical play in a simpler day, he now truly imagined that while part of his audience might enjoy a new song, another part of it might boo or even get up and fight with the people who were enjoying it.
And he felt that applauding a joke, which was becoming more the norm, meant that you were agreeing with the political sentiment, but not that you necessarily found it funny.
"With audiences nowadays," he says, "I see it with these late-night people, Jay Leno, David Letterman, and so on, the audience applauds the jokes rather than laughs at them, which is very discouraging. Laughter is involuntary. If it's funny, you laugh. But you can easily clap just to say [deadpan]: 'Ha, that's funny, I think that's funny.' Sometimes they cut to the audience and you can see they are applauding madly. But they're not laughing."
He didn't stop composing songs entirely. He wrote a few clever ones for the kid's TV show, The Electric Company. But his satiric and political output was at an end, at least for public consumption. He has said he still composes some, but only for his own enjoyment. He has no plans to come out of retirement at age 83.
It's a shame, really, as I consider him the greatest satirist of the twentieth century. Despite the fact that most of his recorded output happened over 50 years ago, the majority of it is still fresh. And much of the overtly political satire still applies. Sure, there's the occasional anachronism ("Whatever Became Of Hubert?", a song about Hubert Humphrey as Vice-President, would mostly be lost on anyone born after 1960, unless that person were a rabid political history geek) but "So Long, Mom" is still timely (unfortunately).
If you don't have his recordings, do yourself a favor and get them. Infect a young mind with them while there's still time to do some benevolent damage.
Amazon (from whom I am receiving no payment, by the way, but if they sell a couple and feel like tossing me a buck or two, I wouldn't spit at it.)
Oh, what the heck. One more.
Who's next, indeed.
Soon, with more better stuff (although that's an awfully large conceit when I've put so much of Lehrer's material into this. On the other hand, if you've been reading me for any appreciable length of time, you know I've re-framed his jokes occasionally, and otherwise plagiarized his style, so I can at least promise you more of that.)