October 16, 2018

Fast Forward

Tom Lehrer

To some of us who were in college in the early 1960s, the nameTom Lehrer comes, in our pantheon, just below the Almighty andsomewhere above the Beatles.

In 1966, when I was working for the BBC in Northern Ireland, aCatholic friend of mine played me “The Vatican Rag” (“Ave Maria, geeit’s good to see ya”), and I was hooked. Like an addict, I neededmore and still more of this cynical rhymester, whose touch withsatire was as light as his fingers on his honky-tonk piano, his humoras subversive as a flag-burning and twice as deadly. I learned asmuch as there was to know about him — which, by design, wasn’t much.

A child of well-to-do New York parents — his father was a tiemanufacturer, one of the biggest in the business — he had enteredHarvard at 15 to study math. At 17, he penned “Fight FiercelyHarvard,” a spoof of the ra-ra team college song; received his degreeat 18; and stayed on as a graduate student until 1953, by which timehe was becoming a fixture at nightclubs around the Boston area.

In 1953, he self-produced an album, “Songs By Tom Lehrer.” Hisalbum circulated by Harvard students going home for the holidays, hesoon found himself something of a cult hit, selling 370,000 copies.That he would remain a rarefied taste was more or less guaranteed byhis own taste in lyrics in the conformist 1950s. Take “The MasochismTango,” for example:

“Let our love be a flame not an ember;

“Say it’s me that you want to dismember.”

Or “I Hold Your Hand in Mine,” in which it is gradually revealedthat the hand in question is no longer attached to its body; or “TheOld Dope Peddler,” which celebrates the latest neighborhoodcelebrity. (And this was 40 years ago.)

A second and third album — “More of Tom Lehrer” and “An EveningWasted With Tom Lehrer” — and, in 1965, a political collectiontitled “That Was the Year That Was” confirmed his genius. Who elsecould have spoofed the nuclear arms race in “Whose Next?”

“Egypt’s going to get one too,

“Just to use on you know who.

“Now Israel’s getting tense,

“Wants one in self-defense.

“The Lord’s our shepherd says

the Psalm,

“But just in case,

“We’re gonna get a bomb.”

And then Lehrer, at the height of his success, simply upped anddisappeared. Actually, he was still in front of an audience, teachingmath and a course on the American musical theater at UC Santa Cruz.He was what he had always intended to be — an academic. But hestopped writing songs, and he never performed in public again.

So when I heard that Rhino Records had, this summer, reissued thesongs from the first two albums on CD (“Songs and More Songs By TomLehrer”), I had to know more.

David McLees, a Rhino vice president, is 36 years old and a childof the rock generation, but his parents had a closet where he, as a12-year-old, found Tom Lehrer albums. “It was in the middle of thedisco era,” he says. “I would play these records for my friends,between Led Zeppelin, Boston, the Beatles, and K.C. and the SunshineBand. And people always reacted favorably to them, whatever theirbackground. The guy is just a genius.”

On the phone from his summer home in Cambridge, Mass., Lehrersounds, at 69, much as he did at thirtysomething. The first questionwas obvious: How could the man who wrote so gleefully aboutpollution, nuclear proliferation, World War III and politicalhypocrisy resist the temptation to comment on the idiocies of thewaning days of the 20th century?

He explains that he has simply grown up.

“That’s my problem now,” he says. “I like to think it’s maturity,the liability that I can see both sides. You can’t write satire thatsays, ‘On the other hand.'”

This Talmudic reasoning, the unfortunate creeping realization thatthere are lots of shades of gray, he says, has killed his desire topillory.

“For instance, I’m for the legalization of drugs, but you can’twrite a song about that, because I can see the other side,” he says.”I think, in the old days, my view of life was much simpler. Therewere good guys, and there were bad guys. Now, I feel there are badguys and slightly better guys. We don’t have our Adlai Stevensons orJack Kennedys — no more heroes.”

So is he saying that one has to be young to be funny? “I think ithelps,” he says. He started young and finished early, and because hedisappeared at the height of his fame, the rumor mill flourished: Hewas dead; he had committed suicide; he’s had a nervous breakdown;he’d been sued for everything he owned by Werner Von Braun (of whomLehrer had written a ditty) and had to pay him all his futureroyalites.

The rumors were all ways of trying to explain why a successfulperformer would simply quit. He laughs. “I didn’t decide to becomethe J.D. Salinger of music, although I’ve always said that Salingerand Deanna Durbin were my role models,” Lehrer says. “People assumeif you’re a modest success and then you stop, there must be a reason.It was simply that funny ideas occurred to me at a graduallydecreasing rate. So I just stopped doing it.”

Performing had lost its charms long before. “He was just toobright,” says Rhino’s McLees, “for the trained monkey circuit.”

“I’m not a performer,” Lehrer says. “I wanted the audience to gohome, saying, ‘Weren’t the songs funny?’ I think the average stand-upcomedian wants them to go home, saying, ‘Wasn’t he funny?’ Once I hadthe act down, done it for enough audiences so I had the timing right,knew what, in fact, people might think was funny, that was it. Itwould be like a novelist getting up and reading his novel everynight.”

It may be, too, that he simply could not get the same kind ofaudience for his songs that was available then. They assumed a commonphilosophy — one that may have disappeared from the land.

“That’s the whole thing,” he says, “a certain literacy, a certaineducation, and a certain liberal consensus that there was at thattime. There was a general understanding in the ’50s about where westood vis-á-vis Joe McCarthy and Adlai Stevenson. Today, thatdoesn’t exist anymore. The people who would be my natural audienceare split on any given issue — affirmative action, Israel orwhatever.”

And while he admits that there’s more than a little stuff going onin the country today that cries out for satire — even though he oncesaid that political satire became obsolete the day Henry Kissingergot the Nobel Peace Prize — he says: “I get angry rather thanamused, and I believe it’s impossible to be both bitter and funny. Ilook at everything that’s going on, I mean the serious things, notthe Paula Jones things, but the real issues — tax reform and theMiddle East, welfare, health, all this stuff about Mars — and I justdon’t think it’s funny.”

He gets angry too, he says, that in this age of cable, whereanybody can say anything on TV, the opportunity is so often wasted.

“There are virtually no restrictions, and the result is not peoplesaying outrageous things about the world; it’s just more sexualreferences and body parts and relationships. Here’s the chance toreally say something, to take a stand. You can make jokes about PaulaJones and Bob Dole’s age, but you can’t make jokes about Clinton’shypocrisy.”

Sally Ogle Davis is a Southern California-based free-lancewriter whose work has appeared in magazines and newspapers in NorthAmerica and around the world.

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