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Whatever satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer meant to the slick young smarties who made a cult artifact of his cruel, witty, literate, and intricately structured social and political potshots, I will never know. His fans, after all, were grown-ups. But when Lehrer’s mid-’60s albums were spun in the childhood homesteads of people who, like me, are now between youth and midlife, two things were immediately apparent: This stuff was tremendously funny, and you had to have a highish baseline understanding of the world around you and a cocktail-hour skepticism toward it to get the humor.
So it was that, between An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer and Mad magazine’s parodies of movies we weren’t allowed to see (The Exorcist! Bonnie and Clyde!), a whole post-boomer generation of flashlight readers culled a working knowledge of the socio-cultural-political scene that’s hardly been amended since. Why bother? How many 10-year-olds can give quick and accurate sketches of Wernher von Braun’s contributions to U.S. missile development, the loves of Weimar uber-mistress Alma Mahler, the basic rituals of the Catholic church, and the unscrupulous mathematical innovations of Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky, and can also rhyme “selenium” with “rhenium”? In 1975, hundreds, that’s how many. Not to mention that we all ran out and bought Fanny Hill just as soon as they’d let us in the bookstore.
If Lehrer’s songs seem quaint and hifalutin today, that is as much a matter of style as was his marginalization during his such-as-it-was heyday. What currently passes for satire tends to the earnest or facetious but is rarely satiric. During his composing years—about 1953 to 1967, give or take an Army stint in between and misfired revival attempts by well-padded fans later—Lehrer’s brand of protest music was virtually unrecognizable as such. Although he performed at many college campuses, he attracted the tweedier end of the class, and he alienated activists not least by trafficking in musical forms familiar to their parents—a kind of racy, virtuoso music hall that folded in square genres from Gilbert & Sullivan’s tapestrylike patter numbers to big-warbling Broadway tunes to song-styling japes like the prinking, faux-Latin “Pollution” and the gee-whiz bounce of “The Vatican Rag.” And even if one could get past the essential ell-sevenness of the music, there was that voice—arch, wry, and rich in round, educated tonalities.
But it was the lyrics, and the topics, that attracted the hordes of coiffed young professionals peering at the stage on the cover of An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer, and that, not incidentally, made him persona non grata among the scruffier firebrands of the time. The educated wiseass strain of satire ran strong in midcentury America, when Firesign Theatre and Vaughan Meader and Peter Schickele and Dr. Demento were packing them in, but was always anathema to the kind of parodists who would just as soon have scorched the earth of its past—its dead white Europeans and suffocating academia, to which the likes of Lehrer almost reflexively referred. When Lehrer took direct aim at his
guitar-toting brethren’s faux-naive taste and lack of political focus in “The Folk Song Army,” he irrevocably sundered the connection between the two forms of protest. The song’s subtext—the revelation that hippie-activist style tautologically preached to the converted, whereas making a buffoon of the vice president in front of a concert hall full of voters might actually change some minds—was truly revolutionary, and, of course, went completely unremarked. In addition, the guy accompanied himself on the least folky and least portable instrument in the world—the piano.
So Rhino Records, staffed by just the sort of ill-socialized only children who grew up with this stuff, has released a handsome, damn-near-complete three-CD set of what Lehrer would only with a sneer call his oeuvre: two early albums; two live recordings, including the magnificent An Evening Wasted; songs from That Was the Week That Was, the mid-’60s TV program of political satire; and odds and ends, including Lehrer’s work for the children’s show The Electric Company. Teaching mathematics at MIT throughout—although never, contrary to popular belief, a Ph.D.—Lehrer followed a smooth bell curve in the quality of his work, starting awkwardly but promisingly, peaking with his gaspingly cynical and best-known numbers, and trailing off with some rerecordings and one-off special requests.
The early stuff shows musical sophistication but a wobbly topical promiscuity. If some of the targets are easy, Lehrer’s precision is not—the blue-blood prissiness satirized in “Fight Fiercely, Harvard” may not have shattered the halls of ivy at Lehrer’s alma mater (in fact, the band still plays the song during games—clueless toffs or good sports? You be the judge), but the mad Nelson Eddy warble in his voice is unspeakably cutting. Songs like “Be Prepared,” a raucous advisory to Boy Scout naughtiness, “My Home Town,” and “Bright College Days” expose as unsavory, wicked, or miserable those aspects of American life that are traditionally viewed through a roseate haze. But the gruesome payoff to “I Hold Your Hand in Mine” isn’t much more clever than “Weird Al” Yankovic’s ’50s prom spoof “One More Minute.” “A Christmas Carol” isn’t the nastiest anti-Christmas song ever written—Bob Dorough’s “Blue Xmas” still wins on points—but it does prove that Lehrer’s characteristic mix of erudition and lightly drawn poopie humor translates to any topic.
But the bull’s-eyes do sting—perfect alignments of form and function, music and lyrics, subject and style. “I Wanna Go Back to Dixie” should be played at every meeting wherein South Carolinians insist on the Confederate flag as representative of their precious “heritage.” And “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”—elegant, restrained, and emphatically what we now call politically incorrect—remains a classic. Then there are the baffling targets: What is the point of the zany Russian romp “Lobachevsky”? It’s a funny Danny Kaye tribute; it allowed affected Americans to have an opinion—scorn!—toward a scientist they wouldn’t otherwise have heard of; and it teaches you how to pronounce “Dnepropetrovsk.”
The dead giveaway that Lehrer was not cut out for the stranger-love and artistic-expression joneses of a born performer is “Clementine.” Lehrer was a dabbler, a glorious one, whose tastes both popular and obscure happened to dovetail with, if not the tastes of, at least the pretensions of a generation of hi-fi-owning, martini-swilling, Levittown-bohemian American salarymen. (I picture them as drawn by Jack Davis, but that’s just the Mad magazine hangover.) An unapologetic snob about the supposed integrity of unschooled art, Lehrer reimagines a creaky folk song in the styles of what he calls “professional songwriters.” A Cole Porter sendup features the rapturous couplet: “Oh Clementine, can’t you tell from the howls of me/This love of mine calls to you deep from the bowels of me.” (It is often a temptation to quote Lehrer’s lyrics, but they don’t translate to the page—Clementine’s flights are an exception.) His “Mozart” sniggers in Italobabble (“Herring ba-ha-ha-hoxes senza ta-ha-ha-hopses/Sandale per Clementina”), and a Gilbert & Sullivan-style piece betrays Lehrer’s artistic bloodlines as accurately as if he’d printed baby pictures in place of the lyrics.
Gilbert & Sullivan surely stand as Lehrer’s most direct antecedents, despite his own aside that one can count on them for “a rousing finale full of words and music…signifying nothing” (hey, pal, who wrote a song set to a G&S tune rhyming the periodic table?); on the other end of the chronological continuum, the pickings are slim indeed. Political satire, such as it ever was, is dead; drag out your old LP of Meader’s The First Family again if you don’t believe me—its naivete, its softballs, and its dependence on Naomi Bossart’s priceless cultured-baby Jackie voice for laughs are astounding in their sweetness and lack of significance. This is the kind of Kennedy sendup our parents were falling down with giggles over in 1962; it took me 20 years to figure out what Lehrer means in his intro to “George Murphy” when he notes dryly that “Massachusetts is the only state with three senators.”
Perhaps the culture could not sustain a Tom Lehrer today—even the one it’s got. (He’s still kicking and still funny, but hasn’t performed in 33 years.) About every other line on Remains prompts the awed supposition “You could never say that now”—not because the things he says are what is inaccurately called offensive, but because we don’t talk that way about our world anymore. And don’t talk to me about Mark Russell, the gamy old-boy insider who’s chosen lunches at the Palm with his purported targets over staying home with his piano and learning something other than the calcified autistic ragtime he sets each and every song to. I think it’s safe to say that when the White House itself releases a satirical video of a lame-duck wife-free president bumming around the laundry room, the stake has been driven officially through the heart of the genre. A mixture of a gullible love for the powerful, dead-eyed cynicism, and a sappy false optimism that we call environmentalism or correctness—we used to call those last two, respectively, “the ecology” and “not being an asshole”—has effectively killed any chance for satire to take root as firmly as it once did. Lehrer’s real descendants are South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut’s composer and librettist Trey Parker and Marc Shaiman, and look what the Oscars did to them. CP