Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday Oddness: Tom Lehrer

Here's something for your Friday, a in depth article about the work and legacy of Tom Lehrer (surprisingly in depth and interesting for a buzzfeed article.)

When Lehrer entered graduate school in 1946 — at 18 — he found himself at the center of a group of friends who called themselves the “Graduate Gang.” They amused themselves with the quizzes, crossword puzzles, and math games they brought to their dinners in the Harvard dining hall. It was, in retrospect, a gilded circle: One member, Philip Warren Anderson, went on to win a Nobel Prize in physics; Lewis Branscomb served as the chief scientist of IBM; and Robinson was an executive director of the Carnegie Corporation.

“Tom was the intellectual leader in the sense that he was the funniest and he would come up with cuter problems,” Robinson said, adding that when Anderson wrote his 50th Anniversary Report for the Harvard class of ‘94, he’d recall: “When I was a student with Tom Lehrer…”
Within the year, though, his graduate group of friends had begun to trickle out of Cambridge, first the chemist, then the physicists, then the historians who took much longer to get a Ph.D. As a souvenir for them, Lehrer decided in 1953 to make a record of the songs he had written at Harvard. He recorded Songs by Tom Lehrer in one session at Trans Radio studios in Boston on a 10-inch LP. He wrote the liner notes himself, called upon the wife of Robinson’s boss to do the illustrations, and had the covers printed at Shea Brothers printers near Harvard Square, just up the street from where he and Robinson shared a room on the third floor of a house.
By 1954 — when he was trying to avoid the draft by working for a defense contractor — he had sold 10,000 records. He had also quickly dissolved Lehrer Music, of which he was president, in December for “various reasons,” among them: “Certain stockholders objected to the president’s face.” He gave up and shipped off to Fort Meade in 1955, an early officer in the National Security Agency. (He is believed, during that time, to have invented vodka Jell-O shots.) By the end of the decade, he had sold 370,000 records.
Yet despite his enormous success, global popularity, and the release of his second album, More Songs by Tom Lehrer that year, it was exactly at this time that Lehrer first told Robinson he wanted to stop performing. Lehrer has told friends and various interviewers that he didn’t enjoy “anonymous affection.” And while his work was widely enjoyed at the time, it was also something of a scandal — the clever songs about math and language were for everyone, but Lehrer’s clear-eyed contemplation of nuclear apocalypse was straightforwardly disturbing....

People would always ask him: “What do you want to do as a career?” Robinson said.
“What’s wrong with graduate school as a career?!” Lehrer would respond. He spent some 15 years working on and off on his dissertation, until he finally gave it up in 1965.
The space for one of the animating forces in Lehrer’s music, his liberal politics, was shrinking too. Lehrer was a hero of the anti-nuclear, civil rights left; he occupied the bleeding edge of the elite liberalism of the day. “I Wanna Go Back to Dixie” minces no words in its scorn for the industry of American nostalgia, and particularly for the American South: “I wanna talk with Southern gentlemen / And put my white sheet on again / I ain’t seen one good lynchin’ in years … The land of the boll weevil / Where the laws are medieval / Is callin’ me to come and nevermore roam.”
But his left was the square, suit-wearing, high-culture left. His circle at Harvard included Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the renowned historian, JFK biographer, and then-nominal chairman of the Cambridge chapter of Americans for Democratic Action. His political hero was Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, the man whom Richard Nixon damagingly dismissed as an “egghead.”
Stevenson’s losing battle marked the end of a political tradition, and also the beginning of the end of a kind of Ivy League liberal intellectualism’s place atop the Democratic Party. What was coming was the New Left and the counterculture, something whose aesthetics Lehrer couldn’t stand, even if their politics weren’t necessarily at odds.
“It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffeehouse or a college auditorium and come out in favor of the things that everybody else in the audience is against, like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on,” he deadpans in his introduction to the whiny “Folk Song Army” on That Was the Year That Was. “We are the folk song army / Everyone of us cares / We all hate poverty, war, and injustice / Unlike the rest of you squares.”
The New Left agreed with Lehrer on Vietnam. His last public performance, in fact, was on a fundraising tour for George McGovern in 1972. But the singer — who saw himself as “a liberal, one of the last” — felt less at home in the new Democratic Party. In the end, Stevenson’s party, and Lehrer’s, lost — and with it, at least to Lehrer’s mind, a prevailing sense of humor. “Things I once thought were funny are scary now,” he told People magazine in 1982. “I often feel like a resident of Pompeii who has been asked for some humorous comments on lava.”
”The liberal consensus, which was the audience for this in my day, has splintered and fragmented in such a way that it’s hard to find an issue that would be comparable to, say, lynching,” he also told the New York Times in Purdum’s 2000 article, which was part of his last round of interviews to promote an anthology of his work. ”Everybody knows that lynching is bad. But affirmative action vs. quotas, feminism vs. pornography, Israel vs. the Arabs? I don’t know which side I’m on anymore. And you can’t write a funny song that uses, ‘On the other hand.”’

When I was young, my family had a copy of "An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer", and I used to listen to it often, belting out Poisoning Pigeons in the Park and The Masochism Tango in childish tones. I'd never particularly noticed Lehrer's politics, though as a kid and listening forty years after his heyday, that's hardly surprising.


Joseph Moore said...

Back in the 60s, when I was a kid, Tom Leher was a slightly guilty pleasure (he did write "Vatican Rag" after all). But, yea, never thought of him as particularly liberal, as he was just curmudgeonly and hilarious.

Oddly, I think I had an experience similar to his, on a much more modest scale: I created a character for an on-line humor magazine, which turned out to be by far the most popular thing I've ever done - this guy was a parody of a barbarian warlord, an outrageous supporter of Democratic candidates, wrecking murder and mayhem on his opponents - and my biggest fans were people who *identified* with this character, oblivious to the *slight* issue of resorting to physical violence to resolve problems. Behead Rush Limbaugh? Right on! Lead a horde to sack the Republican convention? Absolutely! Eventually, I couldn't come up with anything vile enough to turn these people off, and had only a few people catch the broad sarcasm and irony that was, for me, the whole point of the exercise. It was flabbergasting.

I eventually lost interest, and the zine folded. But it was eye-opening to me, at least, how impervious some people - well, the people that wrote me fan email, anyway - were to irony. Didn't Leher say something like: Once Kissinger wins the Nobel Peace Prize, irony is dead?

Darwin said...

"Oddly, I think I had an experience similar to his, on a much more modest scale..."

That's a fascinating story.

Joseph Moore said...

This was back at the Bush/Gore election. All the political double-speak and dishonesty appalled me. So, I was inspired to create someone who would fearlessly speak the truth, and then some: a barbarian warlord's take on modern American politics. He just naturally assumes that all the empty talk was prelude to *real* political action: slaughter, pillage and conquest.

I decided to have him support Gore - "Gore the Merciless" - because Gore seemed the more limp-wristed, and therefore funnier, candidate for a barbarian to support. I could have just as easily chosen the the GOP candidate - that wasn't remotely the point to me.

So, the humor, such as it was, centered around having him speak barbarian realpolitik: "The merciless iron of Gore shall fill the streets of the D.C. with entrails of Republican dogs. He shall set the head of Bush the Babbler upon a pike!" and so on, the wailing of their women, you know the drill. I had him form a willing grassroots horde from rank and file Democrats, who then engage in slaughter and mayhem - nobody blinks. I even got complaining emails from Republicans....

But when I had him hack reporters to death for daring to criticize Gore - boom! Anytime I had him taunt Bush or murder Republicans, people loved it. All the time, I'm putting what I think trenchant political criticism in his mouth and - very few people got it.

It was a little scary. These are odd times we live in.

Banshee said...

Well, there was Jenny Lind. She retired from opera in her twenties, at the peak of her career, for reasons she apparently never explained even in her memoir. Barnum persuaded her to tour in the US, and a few people after that persuaded her to do concerts (often for charity), and she became a music professor later in life. But mostly she just got married and stayed married, and raised kids, and helped the careers of some folks and the memory of others.

Jenny Lind, the honey badger of sopranos. She don't care. :)

Otepoti said...

I clicked on to the Copenhagen concert linked by the Buzzfeed article, one of the last he gave, and listened all through. I was struck by the fact he said, at the end, introducing "Vatican Rag", "this is one I like to finish with." Or words to that effect. I asked myself, why? Why does he like to finish with that? It's as crude a piece of Know-Nothing Anti-Catholicism as ever there was, not funny or even particularly clever. Lehrer must have seen that the Church deserved more than cheap scorn. So in fact, he must have been asking his audience, what do YOU think of the Church? And when they went along with it, fell for his bait and joined in the laffs, he decided he didn't want to be part of a society that would laugh at serious and important things, and withdrew from it.

I hope, in his private life, he didn't stop asking the question about the Church, though.