As of 9 April this year Tom Lehrer reached the age of 85, and is apparently doing fine in retirement – I wish him well. He managed the rare feat of being supremely clever and talented in a variety of fields, a true polymath, mathematician, pianist, writer and singer of wickedly satirical and unusually witty and intelligent songs at a time when American audiences were used to vaudeville and knockabout slapstick gags.
He used songs to say the things nobody else dared say, but in such an off-hand way that people rarely took offence. He sent up, among other topics, killing pigeons (Poisoning Pigeons In The Park), nuclear war (We Will All Go Together When We Go), the army (It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier), the Vatican, drugs, death and murder, relationships, BDSM (Masochism Tango) and other sexual mores and diseases among many others – often writing his words to well-known tunes (eg. Irish Ballad, which still makes me laugh out loud after all this time), often satirising multiple musical genres in the process. You may know him best for his wonderful reimagination of the great Gilbert & Sullivan number I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General by listing The Elements at impossible speed.
In the 50s and 60s the key to covering taboo topics was to do it in such a disarmingly simple and deceptive way that people barely realised how near to the knuckle Lehrer truly got. For example, his song about the passing of venereal diseases (as they were called in those days, if indeed anyone ever referred to them) came in the form of I Got It From Agnes. At the time I wonder how long it took audiences to realise what it was about, but the words were sung with such elegance nobody could seriously object – thus demonstrating that going for shock value can be counterproductive at getting your point across with charm, grace and style. For all that, Lehrer sings the more bloodthirsty lines with such zest, relish and irony you can’t help but smile.
The occasional appearance notwithstanding, Lehrer retired from music in 1973 and went back to teaching maths – though he never really left academia (how nice to have different careers on the go at the same time!) Satire died, he allegedly declared (but denied), the day Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – and even if he didn’t say that, I think he should have done.
Nevertheless, his songs remain enduringly popular and have been revived in shows ever since. That they are still fresh and relevant getting on for 60 years later speaks volumes for how well written they were. How I long for modern writers and performers who can match Lehrer for wit and verve.
Happy Birthday Tom – and thanks for many wonderful memories! 🙂
PS. As a friend reminds me, Lehrer likes his age in centigrade, so that makes him 29!