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.