Tom Lehrer - Biography

By Tony Goldmark


Tom Lehrer was never a prolific singer/songwriter – he only recorded three albums, each six years after the last. You could compile the sum total of his recorded work on just a few discs (and Rhino has, in The Remains Of Tom Lehrer, 2000), and for the past forty years has largely avoided public attention. Al Yankovic astutely called Lehrer “the J.D. Salinger of comedy music,” and like Salinger, quality definitely makes up for quantity. Armed with only a piano, his wits, and a singing voice that positively dripped with dry, ironic cynicism, Lehrer almost single-handedly brought musical satire kicking and screaming into the latter third of the twentieth century, combining intellectualism, ribald satire with peppy tunes and dozens of clever multi-syllabic rhymes. He never sought fame, so he never toned his lyrics down for the masses. In his time, Lehrer's music was frequently considered tasteless and offensive for the sake of itself, but in retrospect he was only telling the truth.


Tom Lehrer was born in Manhattan on April 9, 1928, the son of a successful necktiemanufacturer. He took piano lessons as a child, growing up in the heyday of Broadway musicals, and before long idolized Cole Porter and Gilbert & Sullivan for their songwriting and rhyming prowess, and Danny Kaye for his uncanny ability to meld performance charisma with perfect diction, even in the most intricate melodies.


Lehrer skipped enough grades to be accepted to Harvard at age 15, where he majored in mathematics. On his first trip there, the Boston subway stations inspired him to write his first song, an unreleased parody of the Howard Johnson poem “M-O-T-H-E-R,” which pointed out that stations Harvard, Central, Kendall, Charles, Park and Washington spelled “HCKC-PW” (the sound of spitting), “Which is just about what Boston means to me.” Two years later he wrote “Fight Fiercely Harvard,” which juxtaposed the traditional rowdy, warlike sports anthem with Haaaaahvaaaaahd’s renowned gentility (“And DO fight fiercely!”). He stayed at Harvard after graduating, eventually accepting a teaching post, and continued to write songs as a hobby.


Early on, Lehrer’s songs would typically have innocuous titles and equally innocuous first verses, then devolve into brutal mockeries of a song style or social more. In the morbid love song “I Hold Your Hand In Mine,” the hand is disembodied. In “My Home Town,” a wholesome, nostalgia-inducing slice of Americana is filled with child molesters and prostitutes. “I Wanna Go Back To Dixie” insisted that “southern gentlemen” are no more than slave-whuppin,’ lynch-hungry Klansmen (and this was long before the civil rights movement gained national consciousness). And most amusingly, in “The Hunting Song” a noble sportsman ends up committing multiple manslaughters. These songs received incredible response when he performed them at parties and mixers, and by 1953 he had amassed a dozen “keepers.” These being the days when it was easy to do so, Lehrer entered a recording studio on January 22, 1953, paid $15 for an hour of studio time, sat down at a piano and recorded Songs By Tom Lehrer, a 22-minute 10” LP record he intended to sell around campus to make extra money. Slowly but surely, more and more Harvard students took the record home during break, word of mouth spread about this witty Ivy League gent, and decades before the term was coined, Songs By Tom Lehrer became an underground cult hit.


Lehrer tried to get the major labels to notice and distribute the record, but every label passed – the Eisenhower administration was no time to mass-market anything that disturbed the status quo, so Lehrer sold it via mail-order. In 1955 he was drafted into the Army, and there he gave his greatest non-musical contribution to the American way of life: the Jell-O shot, invented by him and a few friends so they could sneak alcohol into a Christmas party. 35 years later, Communism fell. Coincidence?


After the Army, Lehrer continued performing his songs live, and writing new ones when the muse struck him (and ONLY when it struck him). By 1959 he had eleven more “keepers,” including gleeful bouts of nihilistic violence like “Poisoning Pigeons In The Park” and “The Masochism Tango,”; an uplifting hymn about impending nuclear holocaust called “We Will All Go Together When We Go,” and a remarkable parody of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Major-General Song” which dizzyingly lists every element on the periodic table. Lehrer had increasingly begun to incorporate unconventional rhymes into his songs – the opening lyric of “We Will All Go Together,” for example, goes “When you attend a funeral / It is sad to think that sooner’l…/…ater those you love will do the same for you / and you may have thought it tragic / not to mention other adjec…/…tives to think of all the weeping they will do.”


Unsure at first whether he wanted his next album recorded live or in a studio, he did both and released two albums that year, the live An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer and the studio recording More Of Tom Lehrer, with identical track lists. The following year he recorded a live version of his first album and released it as Tom Lehrer Revisited, and signed with Unicorn Records to record four songs with an orchestra. Alas, the 45 single of the orchestral “Masochism Tango” and “Poisoning Pigeons” didn’t sell well, so the orchestral “Hunting Song” and “We Will All Go Together” fell by the wayside until the 1990s, when they became bonus tracks on Lehrer’s CD reissues. In 1960 An Evening Wasted got nominated for the “Best Comedy Performance – Musical” Grammy award.


By this time, Lehrer wasn’t sure if he was cut out to perform. His mind tended to wander during songs he had long since memorized, and one night while performing at Town Hall in New York he completely forgot the lyrics to “Fight Fiercely Harvard” mid-song. Ever the perfectionist, he decided to call it quits, ready to return to teaching undergraduate math for good.


Or so he thought. In 1964, an American adaptation of the satirical British show That Was The Week That Was premiered on NBC, consisting of topical songs and sketches. Lehrer, whose muse was starting to awaken again, submitted nine tongue-in-cheek songs, but was largely unsatisfied by how they were presented – either the censors would jettison the funniest lyric, or the actor singing it wouldn’t get the joke. So Lehrer recorded all nine songs, plus five he didn’t submit, live at San Francisco’s legendary hungry i, and convinced Warner’s Reprise Records to release it as That Was The Year That Was. Though most of the album is dated (topical material about Hubert Humphrey and Wernher Von Braun), it also contains some of his most enduring pieces, like the environmentalist anthem “Pollution,” the Catholic Church evisceration “The Vatican Rag” (a satire so sublime it’s almost a religious experience itself) and Lehrer’s contribution to the counterculture war “The Folk Song Army,” in which he rhymes the word “line” with “And it don’t even gotta rhyme…excuse me, rhyne.” Since then, the word “rhyne” has become unofficial shorthand for when a songwriter ALMOST rhymes a lyric. By 1965, with the counterculture starting to rise and cruel irony slowly entering American comedy, the world was ready for Tom Lehrer, and the album peaked at #18 in Billboard. Reprise reissued Songs and Evening Wasted to capitalize, but Lehrer refused to record a fourth album, claiming he had run out of ideas. He also refused an American tour, though he did tour Scandinavia in 1967, and in Copenhagen on September 12 he performed his last-ever public concert, then took a job teaching political science at MIT and resumed academia as though nothing had happened.


In the early seventies, he managed to escape the Massachusetts winters by taking a winter teaching job at UC Santa Cruz. He’s only been aroused back into songwriting once since – in 1971 he was coaxed into writing educational songs about the alphabet for The Electric Company, including “Silent E” and “L-Y.” In 1980, stage producer Cameron Mackintosh produced a musical revue of Tom Lehrer’s songs, Tomfoolery, for the British stage. In 2000, after several piecemeal releases, Rhino compiled the definitive Lehrer box set The Remains Of Tom Lehrer, with Grammy-nominated liner notes by Barry “Dr. Demento” Hansen.


Lehrer retired from teaching in 2001, and has lived comfortably in Santa Cruz since. His decision not to perform is just that – his decision. Without needing to promote himself at all, Lehrer has seen each generation of musical satire fans discover his catalog, through their parents or “The Dr. Demento Show” or just a search for comedy that doesn’t sacrifice intelligence. He doesn’t regret his non-involvement in the last forty years of political satire, once commenting that it died the moment Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, and recently stating “I don’t want to satirize George W. Bush…I want to vaporize him, and that’s not funny.”

It’s damn hard to argue.







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