“Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.” —Tom Lehrer
In a monologue preceding one of his songs Tom Lehrer once said: “I wonder how many people here tonight remember Hubert Humphry, he used to be a senator. Every now and then you read something about him in one of those ‘where are they now’ columns. This became quite an issue last winter at the time of Winston Churchill’s funeral when President Johnson was too ill to go and somebody suggested that he send Hubert. And he said ‘Hubert who?’” Now it seems it is ‘Tom who?’
Lehrer was an American satirical song writer who recorded 37 songs between 1953 and 1965, many of which were considered unfit to be played on the radio. He was considered the epitome of satirical bad taste. However, his three albums are still available in the United States and have sold over 1.8 million copies in total. Yet in Britain he seems in danger of being forgotten though in the ’60s playing one of his records at a late night party was considered a sure sign of intellectual maturity.
Lehrer hates to give interviews, “unless I’ve got something to plug” and tells journalists: “Make it up, you do that anyway don’t you?” adding: “It’s okay, I won’t sue.” And he still has that smooth voice that lulls you into a false sense of calm. Though he grew up in Manhattan he has spent most of his life in Cambridge, Massachusetts and has lived in his present house there for over 30 years.
With titles such as Poisoning Pigeons In The Park, a song about the joys of spring, Lehrer has always appealed to something of a select audience. The New York Times said: “Mr. Lehrer’s muse (is) not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste” and the Evening Standard called him “obvious, jejune, and remarkably unsophisticated.” Lehrer says he has not been spoiled by this critical acclaim. Indeed he once remarked: “If, after hearing my songs just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”
Speaking years ago on BBC Radio 4, Lehrer recalls a performance of a song he wrote about the boy scouts called Be Prepared: “I sang it in a night club and this marine came up afterwards, and speaking in his native language, Neanderthal, he said, ‘You shouldn’t make fun of the boy scouts, they’re the marines of tomorrow.’ And he was perfectly right.”
Between 1946 and June 1953 Lehrer was a teaching fellow in mathematics as a graduate student at Harvard University. During that time, if you believe the album notes, he “supplemented his meagre income by regaling local degenerates with songs of his own devising.” Lehrer never received his PhD, and would be a graduate student today “if it wasn’t for those silly rules.”
After spending two years in the army as an enlisted man, in 1957 Lehrer returned to academic life. However, having already released his first record, he found he was in demand for engagements in “hot, fetid, smoky, and uncomfortable” night clubs. At this time he also performed a number of one-man show in concert halls and theatres.
In 1960, after a four-month concert tour of Australia, New Zealand, and Britain, he retired from performing and returned to academic life. Again he was brought out of musical retirement for NBC’s version of That Was The Week That Was, which he thought would be a perfect outlet for his musical work. He has since also appeared in Canada, New Zealand, Germany, Denmark and Norway.
Lehrer gave up writing songs in the late ’60s saying: “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. How do you top that?” But he was coaxed back to do some non-satirical songs for the Children’s Television Workshop, producers of Sesame Street. That was in 1972 for a programme called the Electric Company which was designed to teach children to read. “It’s always exciting to do something quite different.” says Lehrer.
After this brief ‘come back’ Lehrer went through a further revival in the ’80s with the launch of the London West End production Tomfoolery, a collection of some of his best known numbers performed by an all English cast. That show has since gone on to see nearly 200 productions around the world.
Ask his health, and he replies: “Actually this is a recording, I passed away some time ago.” It sounds like the record and for half a second you believe him. In a 1994 article in Harvard Magazine he said: “The main thing is my mind has deteriorated,” adding “Twenty-two years in California have turned my mind to Jell-O, imitation flavour at that. And my attention span has atrophied. I used to have a long attention span but it was shot off in the war.”
His albums are still available on compact disc from Warner’s Reprise label. They are Tom Lehrer Revisited (originally Songs by Tom Lehrer), An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer, and That Was The Year That Was.