Tom Lehrer is 93 today!
"Life is like a piano. What you get out of it depends on how you play it." OR:
"Life is like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put into it."
"Be prepared: be careful not to do your good deeds when there's no one watching you." pic.twitter.com/JuDJy8V2zJ
— Steven Isserlis (@StevenIsserlis) April 9, 2021
Happy 93rd birthday to the brilliant musical satirist Tom Lehrer, who said at one of his last shows in 1967, “All of these songs were part of a huge scientific project to which I have devoted my entire life. Namely, the attempt to prolong adolescence beyond all previous limits.“ pic.twitter.com/bSMTAID45D
— Stephen Schwartz (@AtomicAnalyst) April 9, 2021
Last year, Tom generously placed his entire catalog of lyrics and music (including revised versions and some little known and unpublished works) into the public domain for use by anyone and everyone. It's all free to download through December 31, 2024 at https://t.co/wf6LMGsq5n.
— Stephen Schwartz (@AtomicAnalyst) April 9, 2021
West of the Rockies
I’ve admirered this man for his great humor and intelligence for decades
“The Masochism Tango” is a hoot.
Send the Marines!
my kid got extra credit in her high school chemistry class for singing the complete “Elements” song from memory
smart kid, well raised
Get in line in that processional
Step into that small confessional
There the guy who’s got religion’ll
Tell you if your sin’s original.
I have always loved his humor. He’s a national treasure.
@raven: First you get down on your knees
He was a master. Anecdote from Wikipedia, one word master appreciates another:
Such a wordsmith. Happy Birthday, Mr. Lehrer.
“If it is try playing it safer,
“Drink the wine and chew the wafer,
“Two, Four, Six, Eight,
“Time to transubstantiate!”
If you visit American city
You will find it very pretty
Just two things of which you must beware
Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air
Just a brilliant funny man who made my teenage years bearable:
National Brotherhood Week its
National everyone smile at
One another-hood week, be
Nice to people who are
Inferior to you. it’s only for a week so have no fear
Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year”
West of the Rockies
Another erudite musical comedian was Victor Borge. I had the pleasure of watching him perform in about ’85… when he may well have been 85!
He could be savage too
”Like the widows and cripples
Of old London Town
Who owe their large pensions
To Werner Von Braun”
Make a cross on your abdomen, when in Rome do like a Roman.
The Thin Black Duke
Let’s not forget his lovely contribution to The Electric Company on PBS. Hey, get ’em hooked when they’re young, right?
Gee it’s good to see ya
Doin’ the Vatican
Gettin’ ecstatic and
Doin’ the Vatican Rag
@tom: oh yes!
The rockets go up
Who cares where they come down
That’s not my department
Says Werner von Braun
A brilliant man, a treasure. One of my favorite lines, which I quote often, about how to measure one’s achievements in life:
“It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for three years.”
He also wrote a delightful song commemorating the life of Alma Maria Mahler Gropius Werfel – a woman who lived in the very heart of the artistic/intellectual salons in late 19th-early 20th Century Germany, and wound up marrying three of the leading lights of the time.
Alma, tell us,
All modern women are jealous,
You should have a statue in bronze
For bagging Gustav and Walter and Franz.
I was very sad to learn, much later, that she was a horror of a human being, not the Divine Muse the song makes her seem.
Getting extatic and sort of dramatic and doing etc, etc.
The one I thought of first, or in a tie with “Sleep, Baby, Sleep.”
Thanks for running this, AL. Prof. Lehrer shares the date with Paul Robeson.
“I Wanna Go Back to Dixie”
I love Tom Lehrer, what a brilliant, wonderful human being. He and I have a small connection: Irving Kaplansky was one of his mathematics professors at Harvard and Lehrer cites Kaplansky as being a big influence. Kaplansky also played the piano, sang, and wrote humorous songs. Kaplansky is my mathematical “grandfather”, he was my PhD advisor’s PhD advisor.
I first heard Mr Lehrer played on the Dr Demento show, what a brilliant and timeless performer
(Dammit, the edit window closed on me while I was swatting data mice.) That second is better known as “The MLF Lullaby.” Nowadays our allies are more likely to be giving us (that’s US) the side eye.
@CaseyL: Each of the breaks between verses in this song is a quotation from a Mahler symphony. Delightful!
@raven: When in college, I remember borrowing a set of Tom Lehrer records and playing them at a party. When we got to “The Vatican Rag” you could easily pick the Catholics out of the crowd: They were the ones writhing on the floor laughing so hard they were losing sphincter control. They were the only ones who really understood what a completely brilliant sendup it was. How a nice Jewish boy like Tom managed to absorb so much about The One Holy Catholic And Apostolic Church and its customarily absurd dogma boggles my mind to this day…
@K488: I didn’t know that! Adds another layer to Lehrer’s artistry.
I got it from Agnes.
Lehrer was right up there with Steve Allen and Mad magazine for this 50s boy who came of age in the 60s. Then came Firesign Theatre, George Carlin and so many others to help my development.
@Mary G: Bite your tongue. “Ike” was no “word master” – his prose style was the equivalent of a hippopotamus trying to tapdance in hip boots. “Nightfall” was about the only prose he ever wrote that rose above the level of “journeyman.” His schtick was ideas.
(Oh, and just FTR, when I was attending SF conventions he was a notorious girl-grabber, though there weren’t that many around in those daze. I recall the 1981 Disclave where he was GoH – my female friends in fandom had a lot to say about his “hands-on approach,” none of it complimentary, and made strenuous efforts to stay out of his reach. Which was easier than you’d think because Asimov was kind of small – with his large head he resembled nothing so much as a Jiminy Cricket with longish hair, sideburns and glasses…)
FTFY. From memory. As a teenager I could only borrow the records & had no way to tape them. So I memorized them. (Everything but “The Elements” – I considered that cheating because he’d pulled an Allan Sherman and stolen the music. Also it was too hard…)
I’ve always loved Tom Letter, can’t remember where I first heard him. I got to introduce my math major roommate to “Lobachevsky,” and being a proper math geek, he went and looked up the actual scandal of plagiarism accusations that inspired the song.
And of course the classic quip, “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize,” though the story about that being the reason he retired is apparently not true.
Just FTR another memorable takedown came from comedian Mort Sahl, after Disney had produced the adulatory biopic “I Aim At The Stars,” starring Curt Jurgens as WvB:
@Uncle Cosmo: Likewise, from memory and subject to all the vagaries thereof.
“If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend or, perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.” -Tom Lehrer
@CaseyL: There is in fact a biography (in English) of Alma, which my Significant-Ex found in a local library before our first trip to Yerp. And a few weeks later, we took a tram from our room in Vienna to the cemetery in Grinzing**, where Alma and her daughter Manon Gropius lie not far from Gustav Mahler. (Somewhere in the mass of old photos I have the one she took of me next to Gus’s stone, and the one I took of her beside Alma’s.)
** NB we were nearly fined for miscancelling our tickets, and only the decency of the inspector – who decided I’d made an honest mistake & showed me the proper procedure – saved us a hefty chunk of schillings.
So I have a Tom Lehrer story.
I used to do public speaking competition when I was in college. A friend of mine did a speech on Lehrer because she loved his music. She won a competition with that speech. We were hanging out afterwards and it got it into her head that she ought to call him that night (it was around 10:00 or 11:00 Eastern at this point) to tell him about it. His number in Cambridge, kind of shockingly, was listed. So she called, and got the house sitter, who explained that he taught half of the year at Harvard and half of the year at a California school (I want to say Santa Cruz, but I don’t really remember). Even more shockingly, the house sitter gave her Lehrer’s number in California.
So she called that number. Lehrer answered and actually chatted with her for about five minutes. Among other things, she found out that he had a musical in the works that I think eventually showed up off Broadway. As the conversation was winding down, she asked him what she should tell people about what he was doing. And he said, “Tell them I’m dead.”
Gin & Tonic
@Uncle Cosmo: The Gropius House is an interesting attraction up here in New England (Lincoln, MA, to be precise.) My DIL is an architectural historian, which is why I went there, as I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.
I’m surprised, given how often his name has come up over the decades.
Lehrer managed to appeal to my very young self even if I got (charitably) a third of his references at the time. Then as one grew up relistening would be like unwapping another layer of gift paper because there would be new a-ha moments each time. (Rocky and Bullwinkle was similar). I’d rank Professor Tom alongside Bob Newhart and Nichols and May as comedians who wrote and performed on an completely different level to anybody else of the era.
My brother attended MIT while he taught there but never took one of his courses. The fool. I love that he later taught “Math for Tenors” at UC Santa Cruz.
I always will remember, twas a year ago November
I went out to shoot some deer, on a morning bright and clear.
I went and shot the maximum the game laws would allow:
Two game wardens, seven hunters, and a cow.
Two, four, six, eight
Time to transubstantiate
As a Lut-ren kid I didn’t quite understand but did manage to learn the word correctly.
“and everybody hates the Jews!”
In the last verse of Lehrer’s magnum opus “Lobachevsky” the narrator mentions the reviews of his “feerst book”. The one from Pravda is a quote from Mussorgsky‘s Song of the Flea: “Once there was a king who had a pet flea.” (Which he translates as: “Eet steenks.”)
This expression (I am going where even the Tsar goes on foot!) is an idiom for heading for the toilet. Once I learned this I nursed the knowledge in silence until I was sitting in a pizza joint in the Prague suburbs with my Czech friend Milan (who’d been to “Sankt Leningrad” many times in his academic career, is fluent in Russian and well aware I am not). I got up to “pay the rent”*** on some excellent local beer**** and declaimed this phrase and he nearly fell on the floor. He was still laughing when I returned. Good times! (I await the chance to declaim it yet again in The Epicenter Of Beerdom…)
** “Metro Goldwyn Moskva buys movie rights for seex million rubles, changing title to The Eternal Triangle, with Ingrid Bergman (originally; later Brigitte Bardot or Doris Day) playing part of hypotenuse!”)
*** In the immortal words of Archie Bunker: You can’t buy beer, you can only rent it.
**** Oxymoron: What “local beer” in the Czech Republic (that has been on the market for more than 5 days) is not excellent?
I can’t stand his ass, but I am sorry that Dan Crenshaw is going through severe medical problem:
Incredibly brilliant and extremely warped—everything I look for in a satirist. I’ve always enjoyed his work and was disappointed when he stopped performing, but I’m pleased he’s still with us. I can’t even imagine what he’d do with the material the world would provide him now.
You’ve given me an earworm. Maybe writing it down will banish it.
When the air becomes uranious
We’ll all go simultaneous
@Mary G: You’re a better woman than I Gunga Din.
@HinTN: The first time I heard a Tom Lehrer song it was this one, “Pollution” sung by Nancy …. (can’t remember the last name)*
* Wikipedia sez Ames
Lehrer’s true tour de farce is “Clementine,” in which he asserts that
& proceeds to present four verses of the example in question (“In a cavern, in a canyon, ya-da-da da da-da-da…”) if they had been written by (respectively) Cole Porter, Mozart (“or one of that crowd” – a baritone aria in an Italian opera), a “Cool School” composer ca. 1960, and…
That I missed her, depressed, her young sister named Esther,
This mister to pester she’d try.
Now a pestering sister’s a festering blister,
You’d best to resist her, say I!
The mister resisted, the sister persisted,
I kissed her, all loyalty slipped –
When she said I could have her, her sister’s cadaver
Must surely have turned in its crypt! Yes, yes, yes, yes,
For I love her and she loves me,
Enraptured are the both of we –
Yes I love she and she loves I,
and will through all eterni-tie!
(“See what i mean?”)
For diehard mathletes.
Odie Hugh Manatee
Day One, post Covid shot… I’m feeling fine so far, arm is not sore. Only thing of note is that every time I pass a mirror for a split second I think I see Bill Gates in it, rubbing his hands together while laughing like a maniac.
Also, an urge to buy some J&J products.
Here’s a cute music video from Anthony Fauci’s boss, Dr. Francis Collins, who managed to stay under the radar during TFG’s rampages and is obviously happier with the current situation. Note the double helix in his guitar fret’s board, the special guest appearance very appropriate to the song at about 1:38, and the surprise socks at the very end.
Guaranteed to banish any other earworm.
Gin & Tonic
Curious who’ll get this.
@Mary G: ugh, should’ve been guitar’s fretboard.
@Gin & Tonic: Much reverse, much Polish.
@Gin & Tonic: Shouldn’t it be Matter Polish Lives??
@Gin & Tonic: HP calculators.
Gin & Tonic
@Uncle Cosmo: Czechia has a plethora of local breweries; I regret I couldn’t visit every one. But I do recall having dinner in one, we might have been the only non-locals there, and I ordered a “pig’s knuckle” which was probably enough food for a family of six for a week.
Dorothy A. Winsor
Genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!
Gin & Tonic
@Another Scott: I wonder if my 41C still works, so I can check?
@CarolPW: Substitutes negate accept.
So old can remember someone who was a very senior engineer at a cement plant showing off his Hewlett-Packard scientific calculator. In the 1970s. For which he shelled out $450.
@NotMax: My first one was $350 because I needed to do square roots.
@NotMax: Craziness. That probably doesn’t crack $100 these days.
Part of me, thinking about the inflation conundrum all these years, made me wonder if the fact that so much spending by everyone goes to technology these days, and technology is inherently a deflationary product (things always get faster and cheaper) that I wonder if that is the primary root cause for why inflation has gone nowhere meaningful over the past 40 years – and not the Fed being hypervigilant about it once Volcker killed the beast in the early 1980s.
@Gin & Tonic: Android – go41c
Works very, very well. :-)
I loved TL so much. I can’t remember a think about so much, but I remember lyrics to many of his songs, 60 years later.
There one was a man named Oedipus Rex
He had a very, very odd complex
His name was listed in Freud’s index,
‘Cause he LOVED his mother,
His rivals, they had quite a fit
they said, as a monarch he was most unfit,
but still and all, they had to admit,
That he LOVED his mother.
One of his last concerts, in Copenhagen, has been broadcast on PBS off an on during pledge weeks over the last year or two. I recommend it.
Inertia in electronics is going both ways, what with an increasing regiment of laptops and Chromebooks blasting past $2000.
@Uncle Cosmo: My husband and I got totally blotto on the new wine one night in Grinzing. I wish we’d know Alma and Gustav’s graves were there. He would have sung about everyone down at the Bauhaus. Loudly.
probably has more to do with spending power.
In the late 70’s, adjusted for inflation, UI paid me more than my current retail job.
I’m at the symphony waiting for the concert to start. I’m so glad they’re having a season this year! Even though they’re probably going to lose money, I think they bought a lot of goodwill. They said they’re probably going to continue doing the livestream even when they go back to doing regular concerts, which means more people can attend. It’s a Strauss and Brahms program.
The one that really grabbed me first was “I hold your hand in mine,” a real gem. I recall that being performed in our school talent show by a 9th grader around 1960 or so, though how it got past the guardians of the gates is a bit mysterious.
And “We Will All Go Together When We Go,” seemed like a suitable anthem for the period. The tl;dr of Herman Kahn’s treatise.
“Lobachevsky” is very nice.
@The Thin Black Duke: In case no one else already beat me to it, he had two: -LY, the one in your link, and Silent E.
West of the Rockies
That Twitter threads stinks.
But I hope Crenshaw recovers and becomes a better person.
Ooh, I’m envious.
I’m not normally an opera fan, but I’m very enthusiastic about the upcoming LA Opera season. Trying to talk a friend of mine who likes light opera into season tickets. (She says she’s not interested in depressing Verdi and heavy Wagner).
@West of the Rockies:
I still watch Victor, absolutely love him.
Here’s some music youse all will enjoy.
It’s a new genre, pig-calling Metal
@Fair Economist: They did Der Rosenkavalier Suite for the first half, and Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major for the second half. I’ve never been a big opera fan, but I love the symphony. To each his own. I know I’m lucky, few symphonies were able to have a season this year.
...now I try to be amused
I was told that my grandfather, while he lived a modest life, never did anything he didn’t want to do. I admire that. Tom Lehrer is like that too.
And, huh, nobody did beat me to it. Here’s the YouTube video for Silent E: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91BQqdNOUxs
And this is what he said on
his way to Armageddon…
I grew up ignorant of Tom Lehrer; ours was an Allen Sherman household. I did hear him on The Electric Company, but never knew his adult material, then. When I discovered Lehrer, I found his music hysterical and, in some places, upsetting — as it was meant to be.
Later, I adored his coming out of retirement for this appearance on a show called Hey, Mr Producer!, which was a tribute to Cameron Mackintosh. A total diversion from the actual show tunes (which I also love) that made up the remainder of the show.
R. Jamie Langa
As sole copyright owner of ‘The Old Dope Peddler’, I grant you motherfuckers permission to do this. Please give my regards to Mr. Chainz, or may I call him 2?
@R. Jamie Langa: Hehe.
@Jay: Somehow I wasn’t quite ready for that…..dialogue.
A woman from anywhere (formerly Mohagan)
@pajaro: From the Bible to the popular song
There’s one theme that we find right along
Of all ideals they hail as good
The most sublime is motherhood
There was a man though, who it seems
Once carried this ideal to extremes
He loved his mother and she loved him
And yet his story is rather grim …
[And then the piano breaks into a jaunty ragtime style tune – that always slayed me when I was a kid … ]
There once lived a man named Oedipus Rex
You may have heard about his odd complex
His name appears in Freud’s index
‘Cause he loved his mother
His rivals used to say quite a bit
That as a monarch he was most unfit
But still in all they had to admit
That he loved his mother
Yes, he loved his mother like no other
His daughter was his sister and his son was his brother
One thing on which you can depend is
He sure knew who a boy’s best friend is
When he found what he had done
He tore his eyes out, one by one
A tragic end to a loyal son
Who loved his mother
So be sweet and kind to mother now and then have a chat
Buy her candy or some flowers or a brand new hat
But maybe you had better let it go at that
Or you may find yourself with a quite complex, complex
And you may end up like Oedipus
I’d rather marry a duck-billed platypus
Than end up like old Oedipus Rex
Soon we’ll be out amidst the cold world’s strife.
Soon we’ll be sliding down the razor blade of life… Eww.
@raven: my personal favorite, with “The Masochism Tango” in second place.
The portland water is pretty damn awesome.
...now I try to be amused
I love that bit. He paused to wait for the audience’s “ewws” to subside and then asked, “Ready?”
My favorite section of “Bright College Days” is the Gilbertian rhyme:
@cain: In 1965?
Has the blog died? No posts since late afternoon and only two comments in the last hour. It’s barely 10 o’clock on the West Coast!
Vaccine erases the knowledge of how to type.
Not just you. Fresh west coast threads have become scarce.
Okay, a little recipe humor.
And for a deep dive . . .
Our party in the Zoom RPG I’m on on the other monitor are facing a bunch of rat creatures who have gorged themselves on the gunpowder in the ship’s hold.
Rat creatures dispatched without any explosions. Gathered them up in cargo nets and pitched ’em overboard.
No explosions? What fun is that??
Really, really, really don’t want explosions in a ship’s hold stuffed with gunpowder barrels, totaling 300 tons. Trust me on this.
C’mon, somebody needs to Leeroy Jenkins that situation.
We’ve got L. Jenkins’ red-headed step-child in the party, thank you very much. Group managed to talk him down. Tonight.
I suggested our musician try playing his flute, Pied Piper style, to lure them into a trap. Afterwards the GM said in Zoom chatbox that would have worked like a charm.
I saw Tom Lehrer in a house concert in Lincoln, Massachusetts, in 1967. It was a fundraiser for Gene McCarthy; I was 9. He was a brilliant performer with a sense of comic timing that has never been surpassed. I count myself lucky to have heard The Master in person.
@…now I try to be amused: For all his outrageous rhyming and sly digs at convention, Lehrer got it right so often – or he wouldn’t have remained so damn funny over so many decades. Among other things, “My Home Town,” “Bright College Days,” “I Wanna Go Back to Dixie,” and “A Christmas Carol” may be the most honest and viciously effective demolitions we have of the nostalgia associated with of place of origin, undergraduate years, antebellum racism, and US-style Christmas, respectively.
Remember when he spoke of his friend Hen3ry (“the 3 was silent”) who was independently wealthy (having inherited his father’s tar and feather business) and devoted his time to “more esoteric pursuits, like writing” – ?
And when half the audience roared while the other half went “huh??” he paused just long enough for the sound to subside, then said,
Brilliant. Just brilliant.
I used to know somebody who owned a house on Boston’s Beacon Hill, where the rich Brahmins live. She described how at Harvard cocktail parties, Lehrer would sit down at the piano and entertain, with uproariously scurrilous songs satirizing their various management honchos, often rudely. None of these were ever published. Clearly Lehrer wrote more than 37 songs, those were just the ones he could admit to without attracting unwelcome attention from someone in a position to mess with his career.
Although that apparently happened anyway. It has been reported that every time he was being considered for tenure, he’d released a record (twice on his own nickel, the original indie artist!) recently enough that the trustees voted him down. The last time, after the collection of songs he’d written for That Was the Week that Was, he both vowed not to release any more records, and to leave Harvard. I once found a story on the intertubes titled “I was Tom Lehrer’s Last Student,” by someone who had to reschedule his final exam in Lehrer’s last course year at UC Santa Cruz, but I don’t know if it’s still around.
My own introduction to Lehrer: at about eight years old, I had a friend in the neighborhood who shared my affection for things scientific. His parents had the album with “The Elements” on it, and they played it for me, and then noted how many of the other songs were not suitable for children! But they did let me hear “I Hold Your Hand in Mine.”
As a working musician I once had a dinner-theater gig (most lucrative ever!) playing on an Irish-American farce called “Dinky Murphy’s Irish Wake.” Among the (stock) characters was the Catholic Priest with the Aran Isles accent, who is asked by the Hooker with the Heart of Gold how he chanced to become a priest. His answer included “Vatican Rag.” They’d performed the play every Saint Patrick’s Day weekend for a couple decades, and never had any musicians who knew that tune, until I came along (he said with all due humility HA HA HA).
And I was actually singing a lot of Lehrer yesterday, chiefly “Be Prepared,” for my wife (not the dead one, obviously) and my favorite in-law. Didn’t know it was his birthday! Serendipity!
@Gin & Tonic:
Saw this belatedly – and had to scroll down one to see the t-shirt.
@prostratedragon: mkf lullaby
In the summer of 1973 I dated a girl and we spent our first date lying on the floor listening to Tom Lehrer albums at one of her friends house. We broke up later, but in 2008 she emailed me and eventually we got married a few months later. Both of us recalled during our further correspondence of that first date of singing Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.