Sunday, April 21, 2013

Tom Lehrer

No prophet is accepted in his own country, it's said -- and yet oddly enough, nearly fifty years ago there once was a man by the name of Tom Lehrer -- erstwhile Harvard mathematics professor, wry songster, and television parodist -- who managed to make music out of some of the most irksome and intractable issues of his day. Racism, pollution, Jim Crow, pornography, the nuclear arms race, the Second Vatican Council, and even World War III were all fodder for his astonishing show tunes, and there often seemed to be scarcely any line of propriety he wouldn't cross. And yet, since he sung every one with such verve, he managed to make nearly everyone laugh at their own folly, rather than throw rotten vegetables at the stage. By the late 1960's, his songs were the stuff of legend, exchanged by high school and college students like a sort of secret code: do you know "The Vatican Rag"? "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park?" "Smut?" At my high school, all the cool kids (that is, all the geeks, since I went to an alternative hippie Quaker school) had at least one of his songs memorized.

It was amazing to me and my friends in the late '70's and early '80's to think that many of these songs were first heard on network television in 1964 and 1965 on a program called That Was the Week that Was. You'll have to remember, this was a long, long, long time before Stephen Colbert.

Lehrer retired from comic songstering for more than 25 years, re-emerging briefly at a concert in 1998, where he was introduced by his old friend Stephen Sondheim, and performed a lovely redux of his famous anthem Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.

Since then, he seems to have re-retired, though I have it on good authority that he still lives in -- or at least is occasionally seen near -- Cambridge, Massachusetts. Asked in an interview some years ago why he wasn't writing songs satirizing our present moment, he observed that these days,  "everything is so weird in politics that it's very hard to be funny about it." True enough.

1 comment:

  1. I grew up with two 10-inch LPs of his songs and for a while could recite all the lyrics pretty much by heart. A scintillating lyricist and apparently effortless musician.