Friday, March 09, 2012

Tom Lehrer - An Appreciation

"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.)


Anonymous said...

You took my fragile childhood psyche and twisted it in wonderfully demented ways.

You gotta love parents who'll do that for a kid!

And now I'm off to YouTube Mr. Lehrer - I had no idea.

The Broad said...

I well remember my Dad buying his first album in 1953 and laughing like a loon as he played it. Even I at the age of 8 was able to appreciate the humour of 'Be Prepared' and 'When I Hold Your Hand in Mine', not to mention 'The Wienershnitzel Waltz'! I do believe I still remember most of the lyrics of the songs in that first album! Off to Amazon to see what I can get! Thanks, Sully!

Michelle H. said...

I know of his stuff, which is the equivalent of that I know the fridge light goes out when the door is closed, but I've never seen it. People have mentioned him, but I've never had the pleasure to listen.

This is a wonderful post to a man who shaped your world, however demented it is know. So glad you are how you are. If you weren't, you'd never have this blog.

Bruce Coltin said...

To this day, I can't look at a pigeon without hearing the song in my head. And, I know for a fact that Rick Santorum loves Vatican Rag.

Anonymous said...

Never knew.
Interesting what he said about applauding, but not laughing.
Great voice and tone.
My opinion...definite lessons to be learned from his satire.
Thanks for bringing him to my attention!

Craig said...

I've had only pretty tangential exposure to Tom Lehrer. But that 'Oedipus Rex' is pretty funny ('course, my history with mothers is pretty, uh, checkered, so. . .)

For many years, I've been sorta the 'Camp Musician' at a kids' summer camp every year. I've done things like 'Octopus's Garden', and 'Puff the Magic Dragon' in the past, and 'The Unicorn' is one of the kids' favorites. We've occasionally gone to the 'dark side', with stuff like 'Our House' (of Muppet-ish provenance). One year, we had a group of folks from Pittsburgh join us, and they brought a musician of their own, and he played 'Poisoning Pigeons'. The kids' nightmares subsided in only a day or two. . .

Jeni said...

Hmmm. I confess that I have never heard of this fellow or his music but after listening to him (via the clips you provided) he reminded me of a guy who used to perform all the time at the Blue Room of the Shoreham Hotel in D.C. (I saw him there on a couple of occasions.) He was a well-known musician/political satirist too and very good at it as well. (I later saw him on a couple specials now and again on PBS but right now, I can not for the life of me remember his name! ARRGH! Hate when that happens! But, I'm going to have to check out the online videos of your guy here as it sounds quite tantalizing to me!

Suldog said...

Jeni - That was probably Mark Russell. I used to enjoy him, too. I found Lehrer a bit more to my taste, though, as he wasn't always political, which Russell was.

stephen Hayes said...

I'm not familiar with Tom Lehrer but based on your post I think I'll check him out. He sounds interesting.

Daryl said...

I LOVED TWTWTW .. I need to download some Tom to my iPod

messymimi said...

Yes, to Lehrer, as well as Weird Al and Dr. Demento. My eldest son learned "O Little Town of Destrehan" before he learned the correct words to "O Little Town of Bethlehem."

Glad your parents did this to you, it brought you up just right.

Anonymous said...

I admit I'd never heard of him, but I have to say, this explains a lot :)
"So Long, Mom" is indeed, sadly, timely.

(not necessarily your) Uncle Skip, said...

I was going to mention Tom Russell and, also, Stan Freberg. They weren't quite up to Lehrer's standards and Russell came along a lot later anyway.

The records my brother and I listened to were by Oscar Brand, but that's an entirely different type of music ...wink, wink, nudge, nudge [giggle]

If I were God... said...

Sometimes you're funny, and sometimes you're one of the few remaining bridges to gems of the past. I never heard of this Lehrer before today, but I have now and I thank you.

Jinksy said...

Here's to poisoning pigeons in the park! LOL

Buck said...

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...

Well... yes. I HAD noticed the similarities. That's a GOOD thang.

IT (aka Ivan Toblog) said...

I always thought that was just folk music

Er... wait, it is folk music!

Cricket said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cricket said...

Amen and amen.

...if you're looking for adventure
of a new and different kind,
and you come across a Girl Scout
who is similarly inclined,
don't be nervous, don't be flustered,
don't be scared, BE PREPARED!


Kat said...

So now we all know why you are such a twisted individual. ;) I love satire. I think I have that twisted sense of humor too. I think the world would be a better place if more people did. Humor is invaluable.

Love the poisoning pigeons in the park song. I often think of that same topic when I watch people feeding the geese breadcrumbs at the lake. Breadcrumbs are actually bad for geese (and seagulls) in larger quantities and can make their stomachs explode. But, since I dont' like the beach covered in bird poo I've never stopped anyone from doing it. heh heh

Anywho, thank you for the lovely comment on my blog! I am jealous of Lime's visit to you and your bride. I imagine you all will have so much fun! :)

lime said...

i was introduced to the wonderful mr lehrer via the dr demento show. i remember thinking the juxtaposition of the sweet tune with the macabre idea of poisoning innocent pigeons was absolutely hilarious.

i did not know he wrote for electric company and since i loved that show as a kid i now wonder which songs they might have been.

thanks for this fun post, which was a nice little bit of icing on the cake after a FABULOUS evening. (oooooooo aaaaaaaa p-p-p-p-p huh-huh-huh-huh)

Ericka said...

dr. demento introduced me as well. "The Masochism Tango" was mind blowing, and i still love him today.

thanks for the walk down memory lane!

Jenn Flynn-Shon said...

Thanks for the reminder that I don't currently own any of his music because I will be making a healthy music purchase at some point in the near future on iTunes or otherwise and it would be a complete shame not to own "Masochism Tango" or "The Vatican Rag"...or seriously any of his insanely clever tunes. My mom used to play him a lot and he was always a favorite. Thanks for the trip back on memory lane :-)

silly rabbit said...

Thank you for an introduction to someone that I will enjoy exploring.
I have not heard of Tom Lehrer, though I have heard of The Hungry Eye and used to listen to a radio show from there... so I may have hear Tom Lehrer play after all and don't remember. My folks loved that radio show!

Hilary said...

What a great tribute. I so enjoyed listening to the videos and your memories, as often, make me feel as if they're my own.

Shammickite said...

There was a political TV show in England in the 60s called That Was The Week That Was, nicknamed TW3, was that the same show?

Shammickite said...

just reading the comments... did he write that BE PREPAREED boy scout song? I haven't heard it for yonks but it's such a great song, very clever lyrics

Suldog said...

Katchic - Just to be clear, in reality, I like pigeons. I used to feed them a lot when I was a kid. But something about the idea of two lovers skulking around a public park poisoning pigeons (and squirrels) just tickles me. I think I might really be sick :-)

Caryl Traugott said...

My first introduction to Tom was in the 50's while attending Wheaton College, MA. We all played his record over and over again. I adore the man. Wrote to him and asked where I could get sheet music for the piano and he wrote back a nice letter with the information. I wish he were still performing. Unfortunately, his witty satire is over the head of most audiences. He certainly has a cult following and I am delighted whenever I find another Tom Lehrer fan. I might have been a better math student if I had had Professo L. as a teacher.

Anonymous said...

Not to diminish Mr. Lehrer, but to couple his genius with Flanders and Swann who were from the same genre and period. Some Folkies used to do their 'Have Some Madeira.' Lehrer was a guest on Chris Lydons WBUR show in 1997 discussing and playing recorded examples of others. You could purchase airchecks back then, so it must be around. . . .Cambridge Dave