Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A day (vicariously) spent with Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer: Mathematician turned singer-songwriter turned mathematician again.

"One man deserves the credit. One man deserves the blame."
-Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer would scoff at the idea of being anyone's hero. Of course, this is part of the reason why he's one of mine.

A native New Yorker born way back in 1928 (one shudders to do the grim calculations here), Lehrer was a child prodigy who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard at the age of 19. Since that time, he has spent most of his career either teaching or lecturing about mathematics at some of America's finest academic institutions, including MIT and the University of California at Santa Cruz. He formally retired in 2001, but he's still listed at the Rate My Professors website with a student review as recent as 2005.

Latter-day Lehrer
What sets Tom Lehrer apart from other mathematicians, apart from his claim of inventing the Jell-O shot, is that he devoted much of his time in the 1950s and 1960s to writing and performing some of the darkest, funniest songs I've ever heard -- deceptively joyous musical theater-type ditties with droll, sardonic lyrics which dealt with such topics as sex ("I Got It From Agnes"), drugs ("The Old Dope Peddler"), violence ("The Masochism Tango"), religion ("The Vatican Rag"), death ("I Hold Your Hand in Mine") and war ("So Long, Mom") with a candor which set him far apart from both the singers and the comedians of that era. Today, comedians can joke openly about pornography, incest, cannibalism, bestiality, and necrophilia on prime time network television, but this wasn't true 60 years ago when Tom's records couldn't even be played on the radio during respectable hours.

As with much of the music which now clutters up my brain, the bizarre and sometimes brutal song stylings of Tom Lehrer first entered my life through The Dr. Demento Show. This was back in the 1990s, before the Internet was any damned good, and it was difficult to come by information about Tom's life or career back then. I couldn't even find a picture of the guy! I knew instinctively, though, that he wore glasses. Somehow, that was obvious to me. His myopia was audible. Despite the apparent rudeness of his lyrics, Mr. Lehrer conducted himself with the utmost decorum onstage, using impeccable Ivy League diction, eclectic and impressive vocabulary, and carefully-curated grammar. On his records, he comes across as man far too smart to take life the least bit seriously. Lerher's musical career occurred during the Cold War when it seemed ever-more-likely that mankind would annihilate itself with increasingly-deadly weapons. This looming apocalypse is the topic of several Lehrer songs, and he treats it the way he treats all other subjects: with an air of detached amusement at the absurdity of it all.

Tom Lehrer's 1953 debut
Today, almost two decades after I first heard "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," (the song which made me a fan) I spent some quality time listening to virtually every Tom Lehrer recording available to the public. That's not a great investment of time, honestly. There are roughly three hours of Lehrer audio in total, nearly all of it consisting of Tom singing solo and accompanying himself on piano. His musical output boils down to two brief studio albums (Songs by Tom Lehrer and More of Tom Lehrer), three live albums (Revisited [a.k.a. Tom Lehrer in Concert], An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer, and That Was the Week That Was), plus a handful of miscellaneous recordings. He did record a handful of his most famous songs with a full orchestra, for instance, plus he did a few well-remembered educational songs (like "Silent E") for a PBS children's program called The Electric Company. There are a few good CD compilations out there of Lehrer's work, but buyers should know in advance that the same exact songs from the two studio albums are heard on his first two live LPs as well. And I mean, they're note-for-note the same. If you buy the boxed set with his "complete" recordings, be prepared to sit through the same songs two or even three times.

In all instances, the live versions are superior to their (crude) studio counterparts. For one thing, Tom tends to put a little more oomph into his singing and playing when he's onstage, hamming it up for the benefit of the crowd. Better yet, his between-song monologues are little masterpieces of deadpan, spoken-word comedy. He does long, elaborate intros to his tunes, often going off on absurd tangents which have little to nothing to do with the songs. These little digressions are the source of many of Lehrer's best one-liners and bon mots. A particular favorite, from his description of a fictitious doctor: "His educational career began interestingly enough in agricultural school where he majored in animal husbandry... until they caught him at it one day." The audience roars at that joke, and the reaction of the crowd is another reason why Tom's best records are his live ones. There's palpable tension as the audience members decide how far they're willing to let Mr. Lehrer go in his pursuit of tasteful bad taste. You can practically hear them wince, for instance, when Tom gets to this couplet from "Bright College Days":
Oh, soon we'll be out amid the cold world's strife.
Soon we'll be sliding down the razor blade of life.

I'll leave this little discussion of Tom Lehrer's brilliant career with one of the nastiest, truest, and most cynical songs ever written. It first appeared on his 1953 debut album, and when he reprised it on his first live LP, he dedicated to those in the audience who were still in love. If you are in love, I now dedicate this song to you:

HEALTH NEWS AND NOTES: I haven't done one of these updates in a while because, frankly, there's been nothing much to report. Taking meds and attending therapy sessions no longer feel like digressions from my life anymore. They're simply part of my life, as regular as a job. Speaking of which, my job remains simultaneously stressful and dull. Of course, I am fortunate to be employed at all in any capacity, so I am very grateful to my corporate paymasters. I cannot forget that the insurance I have through my job is what's financing my treatment. Homer Simpson once memorably referred to alcohol as "the cause of and solution to all of life's problems." That's kind of how I feel about my job. It makes me miserable, but I'd be lost without it. My anxiety and depression have tapered off quite nicely over the last month, and the severe gastrointestinal problems which were once a huge part of my life have now disappeared utterly. I'm still isolating myself from the world, and I'm always in danger of disappearing into a sinkhole of solipsism or narcissism. I can spend entire weekends pondering the subjective nature of "truth" and "reality" rather than, you know, talking to other human beings or getting fresh air and exercise. Gotta work on that.


  1. I knew nothing of him. Interesting stuff.

    And glad for the health updates. Please keep it up.

  2. Tom Lehrer is truly wonderful. The video you pulled out was one of my favorite songs, and I once auditioned for a music in high school using "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park". I suppose this makes it not surprising that you and I were friends!

    I don't know if you're familiar with Chris Hardwick's excellent "Nerdist" podcast, but he's told a story on there about how he is in possession of what he believes to be Tom Lehrer's home phone number, but despite looking at it and considering it every few months, he can't bring himself to call it, because he'd probably turn into a real life version of what Chris Farley used to portray on the "Chris Farley Show" skits on SNL. I'd probably do the same if I ever talked to him too.

  3. Emily: I didn't mention it in the article, but there's a stage show which uses Tom Lehrer's songs. It's called Tomfoolery, and it ran off-Broadway in the 1980s and has toured since then. There's at least one cast album, and it's a good "gateway drug" to Tom's music since the songs are performed more like showtunes. If memory serves, Jonathan Adams -- Dr. Scott in The Rocky Horror Picture Show -- sings "The Masochism Tango" on one of those albums.

  4. sTim: I've not listened to the Nerdist podcast yet (shame on me!), but I've heard it referenced many, many times on a podcast I do listen to called WTF. Tom Lehrer is someone I'd like to have a chat with, so I'd be tempted to dial that number.

    And while I've never auditioned with "Poisoning Pigeons," as you have, I've definitely sung along with it in the privacy of my own nest... er, home.