The Enduring Satiric Genius of Tom Lehrer

My indoctrination into the universe of Tom Lehrer came--as it did for so many of us who still worship him--at an impressionable age. My father first told me about his twisted songs; I heard said songs on Dr. Deeee-mento's radio show; I bought and immediately wore down a copy of An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer (along with my now-battered copy of the songbook Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer); I committed the periodic table spree "The Elements" to memory. **

Well, for those of you still reading...Tom Lehrer turns 83 on April 9th. (Or, depending on when you are reading this, Tom Lehrer turned 83 on April 9th.) And for those of you who know of Mr. Lehrer, this information 1) confirms that, yes, Mr. Lehrer is still alive and 2) probably reminds you of just how old you really are. Though Lehrer has, with few exceptions, not performed or written anything new in almost half a century, his catalog of songs--roughly 50 or so--remains cherished by we few, we lucky few who know them all.

Lehrer was born on April 9, 1928 in Manhattan; he went to Harvard at age 15, where he studied mathematics and, inspired by his love of popular music and Broadway musicals, occasionally wrote and performed original songs on campus and around Cambridge. (Most notably, the genteel football song "Fight Fiercely, Harvard.") In January 1953, while working on his graduate degree in math, he took a bunch of those songs to TransRadio, a recording studio in Boston, and plunked down 15 dollars. About an hour later, he had recorded the 10-inch LP Songs by Tom Lehrer, featuring "His lyrics, his music, his so-called voice, and his piano." (Original pressing: 400 copies.) From the album's liner notes:

"Tom Lehrer, longtime exponent of the derrière-garde in American music, is an entirely mythical figure, a figment of his parents' warped imagination. He was raised by a yak, by whom he was always treated as one of the family, and ever since he was old enough to eat with the grownups he has been merely the front for a vast international syndicate of ne'er-do-wells."

"I was immersed in popular songs of the time, of the '30s and '40s," Lehrer told Roger Deitz of Sing Out!, in 2001. "I was writing songs, making fun of the attitudes of those songs, in the musical style of the songs themselves; love songs, folk songs, marches, football." And in doing so, Lehrer was able to unleash gleefully subversive creations like the very literal ballad "I Hold Your Hand in Mine"; dissect subjects from the Boy Scouts in "Be Prepared" (Be prepared! To hide that pack of cigarettes/Don't make book if you cannot cover bets) to the not-very-hospitable South in "I Wanna Go Back to Dixie" (The land of the boll weevil/Where the laws are medieval); and create an unlikely hero in "The Old Dope Peddler":

Lehrer's lyrics and rhymes were the perfect fusion of his intuitive musical sensibilities, an (inevitably) mathematical approach to writing, and a giddily deviant point of view. Witness the very unromantic "When You Are Old and Gray":

An awful debility
A lessened utility
A loss of mobility
Is a strong possibility.
In all probability
I'll lose my virility
And you your fertility
And desirability,
And this liability
Of total sterility
Will lead to hostility
And a sense of futility,
So let's act with agility
While we still have facility,
For we'll soon reach senility
And lose the ability.

Satire--let alone musical satire--that actually hit hard was surprising at the dawn of the Eisenhower administration, but there was an audience ready to embrace it. Not only did Songs by Tom Lehrer sell well at Harvard, but word spread and orders came in from across the country. Lehrer wound up distributing the record himself and it continued selling even during his two-year stint in the Army. (It eventually sold more than 350,000 copies.) When he was through in 1957, he began making concert and club appearances--this, mind you, before pop or college performing circuits existed--and even toured England, Australia, and New Zealand.

Lehrer was always modest about his singing and performing skills and delighted in excerpting negative reviews on his albums. ("He seldom has any point to make except obvious ones." - Christian Science Monitor; "Vulgarity." - Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph; "Obvious, jejune, and remarkably unsophisticated." - London Evening Standard; "Plays the piano acceptably." - Oakland Tribune) But, his throwaway delivery and whine of a voice only heightened the disparity between the jollity of the tunes he sang and the casual savagery of the messages they often delivered.

He followed with more songs and albums--An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer was even nominated for a Grammy--but, by 1960, he had lost interest in performing and returned to Harvard Graduate School (and later taught at MIT and the University of California at Santa Cruz). A few years later, he contributed songs to the TV show That Was the Week That Was (although he did not sing them on the air) and recorded the songs himself for the album That Was the Year That Was. (This album--some thirty years after its release--eventually sold 500,000 copies.)

These were his most topical and politically/socially-oriented tunes, tamer but still relevant and amusing today, and covering everything from pornography in "Smut" (Who needs a hobby like tennis or philately?/I've got a hobby: rereading Lady Chatterley) to nuclear proliferation in "Who's Next?" (Luxembourg is next to go/And (who knows?) maybe Monaco/We'll try to stay serene and calm/When Alabama gets the bomb) to the idea of secularizing liturgical music in "The Vatican Rag":

By the mid-60s, he had stopped writing and performing almost completely. (A few exceptions: he contributed songs to PBS' children's show The Electric Company and to Garrison Keillor's American Radio Company.) In later years, he would (repeatedly) tell interviewers that he simply grew tired of performing and that his musical "career" was hardly a career to begin with. "I didn't feel the need for anonymous affection, for people in the dark applauding," he told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2003. "To me, it would be like writing a novel and then getting up every night and reading your novel. Everything I did is on the record and, if you want to hear it, just listen to the record." In his book Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Gerald Nachman wrote about Lehrer's description of people asking him to perform again as "'The Lenin's Tomb Phenomenon'--a morbid desire to see the remains of anything once famous."

More importantly, Lehrer would also (repeatedly) note that times had, indeed, changed and that finding humor in serious situations was more difficult. (In 1973, he famously said that political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize.) Add to that, an increasingly fragmented audience and one that had grown increasingly unresponsive to the demands of his kind of humor. In a recent interview for the book ¡Satiristas!, Lehrer told its co-author Paul Provenza: "I always prided myself on at least trying to be literate and use the right words, and if the audience didn't get it then they could go home and look it up. I don't think that's true anymore...Irreverence is easy. What's hard is wit."

Which is why Lehrer's work holds up so well: not as "daring" or "shocking" but as enduring, sophisticated satire and as a singular model of clever, funny songwriting and why--especially, in a world of Capitol Steps--his absence has made our hearts grow fonder. (Though, it is fun to think about what songs he would spin about Gaddafi or WikiLeaks or the Tea Party or, well, anything.) But, his work always maintained interest. In 1980, a pre-Cats Cameron Mackintosh produced a London revue of his songs called, appropriately, Tomfoolery. And over the years, comprehensive CDs of his work have been released, like The Remains of Tom Lehrer in 2000 and The Tom Lehrer Collection in 2010. In 1999, British historian Martin Gilbert proclaimed Lehrer one of the ten greatest figures of the previous 100 years, noting, "Lehrer was able to expose, in humorous verse and lilting music, some of the most powerful dangers of the second half of the century." Below, Lehrer in a very rare public performance at a 1998 celebration for producer Mackintosh, and introduced by no less than Stephen Sondheim:

I actually spoke with Mr. Lehrer on the phone more than 20 years ago, for some publicity he provided when friends of mine produced Tomfoolery at their theater in Miami, Florida. I asked the usual questions about his career, his legacy, why he left. (I remember him saying, "I loved high school but I wouldn't want to do it again.") For the article you may yet still be reading, I again contacted him but he politely declined an interview, noting that he had pretty much answered every question there was to answer. (A flash of the Lehrer wit: When I told him I wrote for The Huffington Post, he said, "Well, nobody's perfect.")

This seems absolutely correct. As he told Sing Out: "I wanted people to say 'weren't those songs funny,' not 'wasn't he funny.' That's not modesty. I just sat there at the piano...dead pan, sang the songs, delivered the lines...I wasn't trying to be ingratiating. My attitude was, 'How could you people be so sick as to like these songs?'"

Last November, Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe appeared on Britain's The Graham Norton Show, declared his admiration for Lehrer and then sang "The Elements." It is heartening to see that younger generations are embracing, and presumably will continue to embrace, Lehrer's work. As he wrote on the liner notes of several albums: "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." And if this article has inspired someone to check out those songs that lead to nastiness and striking loved ones, then it, too, has been worth the while.

** And I can still sing it.