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Tom Lehrer is Still Alive?

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My dad loves Tom Lehrer and played his records often when I was a kid. That old-fashioned patrician Northeastern accent is indelibly imprinted in my brain singing such pointed satiric fare as “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” “Polution” and “We’ll All Go Together When We Go.”

I was mildly surprised to find out he is still alive:

    ‘I’m not tempted to write a song about George W.Bush. I couldn’t figure out what sort of song I would write. That’s the problem: I don’t want to satirise George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporise them.”

    The speaker is Tom Lehrer, arguably the most famous living satirical songwriter. And, in a roundabout way, the New York-born singer, composer and mathematician is explaining why he has been all but silent since 1965.

    ….Lehrer is that rarest of beasts a performer who was never seduced by the roar of the crowd and who rejected show business well before it had a chance to do the same to him. His concert tours were brief and motivated either by a desire to visit a new place (such as Australia, in 1960) or to test and polish material for a recording. Even after his biggest hit, the 1965 album That Was the Year that Was, he quickly returned to academic life rather than cash in with concert tours.

    “I wasn’t really a performer by temperament,” he explains today. “I can’t imagine Rex Harrison doing the same My Fair Lady every night for years. That would drive me crazy.

    “I didn’t feel the need for anonymous affection, for people in the dark applauding. 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.”

    “The record” is a body of work comprising fewer than 50 songs, yet one that has made an indelible impression, not just with the many musicians and humorists who cite him as a hero.

    In 1999, Martin Gilbert, the biographer of Winston Churchill and famous chronicler of the 20th century, named Lehrer as one of the 10 great figures of the previous 100 years. “Lehrer was able to express and to expose, in humorous verse and lilting music, some of the most powerful dangers of the second half of the century … Many of the causes of which Lehrer sang became, three decades later, part of the main creative impulse of mankind,” he said.

    ….Television has taken over the mainstream comedy beat, he says, and generally won’t stand for partisan political humour because it will offend half the potential audience. “One of the problems I see with these comics on television, particularly cable television, is, since you can say anything in terms of sex and scatological references and so on, therefore, you should do it. So they all limit themselves to these subjects and this vocabulary. My objection is that it is a lack of articulateness.”

    He adds that it’s not funny just to say something insulting about the president. “Irreverence is easy, but what is hard is wit. Wit is what these comedians lack.” Lehrer admires Eddie Izzard and a small number of other modern comics, but has no solutions to what he sees as a decline in political satire.

    ….It would be wrong to assume, however, that Lehrer, 74, is bitter and twisted. He proves quick-witted, lively and extremely friendly. He keeps a keen watch on the world from his Santa Cruz beach house and, although he stopped teaching two years ago, he still “hangs out” around the University of California at Santa Cruz.

    He writes songs for friends and special occasions “nothing recordable,” he insists and, for his own pleasure, plays selections from the heyday of the American musical theatre on his piano. That’s no surprise Lehrer’s sense of rhyme and rhythm is as acute as the best Broadway songwriters and, for 25 years, he taught a course on the American musical, alongside mathematics.

    He says Stephen Sondheim “is the greatest lyricist the English language has produced and that’s not an opinion, that’s a fact”. He also reveals a soft spot for The Simpsons, which he calls the most consistently funny show on television.

    ….Sadly, though, Lehrer is of the opinion that while satire may attract attention to an issue, it doesn’t achieve a lot else.

    “The audience usually has to be with you, I’m afraid. I always regarded myself as not even preaching to the converted, I was titillating the converted.

    “The audiences like to think that satire is doing something. But, in fact, it is mostly to leave themselves satisfied. Satisfied rather than angry, which is what they should be.”

    His favourite quote on the subject is from British comedian Peter Cook, who, in founding the Establishment Club in 1961, said it was to be a satirical venue modelled on “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War”. [Sydney Morning Herald]

I am glad to hear Lehrer is alive and well, and I am pleased that he has not become a crazed septuagenarian, holed up in his hovel with cats and newspapers; but I am saddened he doesn’t feel he has a place among our entertainers, although George W. Bush is probably not.

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About Eric Olsen

  • James Russell

    I had a similar reaction to you. Tom Lehrer was interviewed in one of the newspapers here recently and I didn’t think “Tom Lehrer wants to vapourise George W. Bush?”, rather “Tom Lehrer is still alive?”…

  • James Russell

    And of course because I am a blithering idiot, I’ve just realised the interview you cited was the one I was referring to. D’OH! I’ll go now…

  • sahar shalash

    Hi Im a 17 yr old girl named Sahar and Im attending Reynoldsburg high School in Ohio and IM Researching about Tom Lehrers poem tha Nuclear Holocaust and I was wondering if Tom Lehrer could give me some answers such as what does he mean in this poem and why would he put some humor into this poem but anyway i know Tom Lehrer doesnt have time for me but this would mean alot to me thanku, sincerely, Sahar

  • Eric Olsen

    Sahar, I would try the writer of the article in the Sydney paper I linked to, Tony Davis. Try him through the paper. Good luck.

  • Curt Sorteberg

    Thanks much for reassuring me on the health of Tom Lehrer. He is one of my favorite icons of the 1960s, who satirized the pretensions of the powerful, but who also struck a chord with the youth of that day. I still listen to his “folk” songs regularly, and I am in awe of his quick wit and lack of political correctness. Long live Lehrer!

  • Ragabash

    Glad to hear the man born with the Devil’s tounge is still kicking. I’d love to track him down and trip him as he walks by for all the irreperable harm he’s caused me in my youth.

    Or maybe I should just blame my parents and thank him for all his good work, instead. All well; I’ll decide on my way to Santa Cruz.

  • http://www.pippensqueak.blogspot.com gypsyman

    Tom Lehrer, holy shit, talk about blasts from the past. The interview you quote only reinforces my already high opinion of the man.

    From my own few poor attempts at satire, all of which I thought blatenly obvious, people don’t seem to get it. They either take it seriously, or even worse they don’t think it’s about them.

    This is going to sound pompus and arrogant, but satire requires a level of sophistication that is apparently lacking,(and according to Mr. Lehrer been lacking for a number of years)in audiences throughout the world.

    I still recall being amazed at someone saying that something I wrote couldn’t be satire because they didn’t find it funny. There is no prerequisite for satire to be funny. “A Reasonable Sollution” which suggested that Irish people eat their babbies as a solution to the potato famine, was far from funny, but it accurately portrayed British indiference to the plight of the Irish farmer.

    If that were published in present times what do you think the reaction would be?

    But on a happier note, I still find myself singing the “Vatican Rag” and his version of “Dixie” every so often. I agree, I’m sure politicians and others in positions of power are quite grateful that Mr. Lehrer is not working anymore.

    Where ever he is I hope he is enjoying his life, and I must tell him that I will carry to my grave the image of Lena Horne dancing cheek to cheek with a fat redneck sheriff.

    I bet even I could have done well in one of his math classes.

  • David C

    I was surfing the Web to see whether Mr. Lehrer is still alive (HOORAY!) and also to try to send him a brief note of thanks. i just wanted to say that he has enteretained 3 generations of my family and introduced us all to a rare thing that we would not have found without him.

    I now realize that he does not wish to be distrubed and I completely understand. I would have, however, enjoyed telling him how much it has meant to me to hear my fourteen year old daughter leading her friends in a chorus of “Poisoning Pigeons” to the shock (and mild concern) of their parents.

    Mr. Lehrerk, thank you. Live long and die well.

  • GoHah

    It’s good to hear he’s still alive, but I stole one of his lines the other day without crediting him. In a comment to “Sicko Screws Stallion,” I said that the guy “majored in Animal Husbandry–until they caught him at it one day” (from a concert LP, “An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer”). Maybe I thought Lehrer wad dead and the joke was in the public domain or something … I’m so ashamed.

  • http://www.stoc.org Jon Rosen

    Tom remains alive today at 78 (a good speed for a record ;-). My theatre group is doing Tomfoolery, the show based on his music in San Jose in October (just before the 2006 elections). Everyone is invited to attend!