Tom Lehrer at his house in Santa Cruz, Calif., July, 2000. He says political satire has become "obsolete."
Tom Lehrer, in 1967: A song satirist with a gently whimsical voice.
Still a Sly Wit, Now Mostly for Himself
By Todd S. Purdum, 16 July 2000
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. -- His songs are the stuff of your fondest adolescent imagination, subversive send-ups of the Boy Scouts, religion, college cheerleading, pollution, plagiarism, prudishness. They are twisted, erudite parodies of the perverse: a necrophiliac's love song, a "Masochism Tango," a nuclear military march. Acid attacks on political expedience: "'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department,' says Wernher von Braun."
So it is a bit of a surprise on meeting Tom Lehrer, the Harvard-trained mathematician-cum-musician whom the disc jockey Barry Hansen has called "the most brilliant song satirist ever recorded," to learn that he seems a lot more like the gently whimsical voice behind his children's songs for the television series "The Electric Company" (about adverbs, spelling and selfishness) than the sick-genius author of "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park."
Smiling, elfin, a bit stooped but slim and spry at 72, Lehrer is nothing so much as sweet. Oh sure, he confesses to still composing such questionable ditties as "Bye-bye, Baby" (about "partial-birth" abortion), though now strictly to appall himself. He bemoans the decline of civility and grammar and the collapse of the unifying liberal political consensus that made his songs of the '50s and '60s seem daring and safely hilarious at the same time.
But he pines not at all for the performing career that made him a sensation in nightclubs and concert halls (his last major paid appearance was 33 years ago). He mourns not the muse that mostly seemed to desert him after Vietnam and assassinations and Watergate made it harder to be funny about serious things. Or, as he once put it: "Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize."
Why should Lehrer be glum? He still spends the cold half of the year in this beautiful college town at the edge of the Pacific, teaching math for non-mathematicians ("math for heads," he called it in the '70s) at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he has taught since 1972, after earlier stints at Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Wellesley College. He still spends the warm half in Cambridge, Mass., where he first went to Harvard as a precocious 15-year-old.
And Rhino Records has just issued a lavish, three-disc boxed set of his career oeuvre (R2 79831), including a handful of previously unreleased recordings like "I Got It From Agnes" (you guessed what "it" is) and "Hanukah in Santa Monica," a hymn to Jewish holidays that rhymes "Shavuos" with "East St. Louis." (He decided against a line that rhymed a body part with Passover).
"Amazing," Lehrer says modestly of the enduring appeal of his songs, which first saw the light in informal performances in Cambridge, then on a 10-inch, self-released LP in 1953 and later in the best-selling 1965 album "That Was the Year That Was," and have now been embraced by at least three generations of devoted fans. "When I made that first record, it was just to sell around Harvard," he said. "It never dawned on me that all these years later, well, I wrote 'Fight Fiercely, Harvard' in 1945 and the band plays it at half-times now, 55 years later."
Professor Lehrer may stick to the blackboard and not the microphone these days, but his gift for verbal distillation has not deserted him. "When I was in college, there were certain words you couldn't say in front of a girl," he writes in liner notes for the new collection. "Now you can say them, but you can't say 'girl."'
Lehrer is not a recluse, though he resists all publicity unless he has something to sell, refuses television interviews (because he'd be asked to perform and then might be recognized in airports) and acknowledges having encouraged rumors that he was dead, in the vain hope of cutting down on his junk mail. Other rumors are equally false, like the one attributing the end of his performing career to a successful libel suit by von Braun, the German-born rocket scientist whose ideological flexibility he mocked so devilishly on "TWTWTW."
No, Lehrer is a man who had his moment, enjoyed it, banked his royalties and moved on.
"I don't feel the need for anonymous affection," Lehrer said. "If they buy my records, I love that. But I don't think I need people in the dark applauding. It's nice to be reassured once in a while, but a real performer has to do it over and over again. I can't understand the Yul Brynner phenomenon, 'The King and I' night after night."
Besides, Lehrer added: "I'm not interested in promoting myself, or revealing to total strangers anything about me. That's not my job. I read some of these things with people who will tell you all about their abortions, and their affairs and their divorces and their nervous breakdowns and their parents, and why are they doing that? And I'm sure if you asked them how much money they made last year, they'd tell you it's none of your business."
For the record, Lehrer, a lifelong bachelor, grew up in New York, where his father manufactured ties and his mother took him to musical theater, igniting a passion that has never wavered. He went to camp with a pretty fair songwriter named Stephen Sondheim, whom he calls "the greatest lyricist the English language ever produced" but whom he wasn't especially close to at the time. "I'm two years older, and when you're 10, you don't hang out with 8-year-olds," Lehrer explained.
Lehrer was also good at math, not uncommon for musicians. Asked why, he replied: "I could make something up. I think it has to do with abstraction. I think music is the most abstract of the arts; it's not representational. There's something mathematically satisfying about music; notes fit together and harmony and all that. And mathematics has to do with abstractions and making connections."
Formalities like a Ph.D. and tenure eluded him, but Lehrer had a gift for pastiche, borrowing and echoing musical styles and sources from Gilbert and Sullivan to Danny Kaye. Indeed, "Lobachevksy," his paean to plagiarism featuring the name of a real, dead, nonplagiarist Russian mathematician, is itself one big inside joke: "A direct plagiarism," Lehrer said, of a Danny Kaye routine about Stanislavsky.
The Lehrer canon, only about 50 recorded songs, falls into three basic clumps: his first two albums from the '50s, with black-comic parodies of various song styles and genres; the overtly political satire of "That Was The Year That Was" (a collection of songs contributed to the television program and recorded live at the Hungry i. nightclub in San Francisco), and everything else, including "Silent E," his tribute to the transformative powers of orthography ("Who can turn a can into a cane?").
The early, risque songs were well ahead of their time. "Be Prepared," his goof on the Boy Scouts, for example, ends:
If you're looking for adventure of a new and different kind,
And come across a Girl Scout who is similarly inclined,
Don't be nervous, don't be flustered, don't be scared.
Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations
© 2000 by Neil Mishalov