Monday, April 09, 2018

April 9, 2018 - TOM LEHRER is 90


What a surprise. TOM LEHRER was trending on TWITTER today...not because he died, but because it's his 90th birthday. 

Lehrer was a pioneer of "sick" comedy back in the early 50's, and his work is, happily, as disturbing now as it was then. And just as funny. A bit more disturbing is that there will not be another like him, and the odds of independent singers of ANY type having fame and success continues to shrink like the polar ice cap. 

Tom Lehrer had some places to play. He didn't pay to play. He was good, so he got some bookings. The audience was response was good. He decided to pay somebody to record his songs. He decided to pay somebody to press some albums. He sold his albums at his gigs and by mail. He got reviewed not by blogs, but by REAL columnists who mattered. When his albums sold out, he printed more, and then got a deal with Reprise. 

What's the alternative now? A budding Tom Lehrer tosses his files on Spotify and YouTube? He "networks" on Facebook with a million others? If he's "lucky" he makes a few pennies in royalties before self-entitled hipsters start giving away his work? When Tom Lehrer started, he didn't have self-entitled egotists and parasites copying his songs and either demanding "tip jar" payments or "nice comments" to give it away. ("Copyright remains with the artist. And, by the way, copyright IS copy WRONG. Har har. Pirates, if you LIKE it, buy it. Maybe. Nah.") Yeah, some gas bags, losers and senile fools like to pretend they're in show biz by giving shit away. They will never meet Lehrer, or any other performer, so they won't be in a position to say, "Hey, I am a real fan, I gave away all your music via Fuckheadshare! I got some nice comments, too! Owwww....."

An irony with Tom Lehrer is that he always had a day job, and he preferred teaching to performing. Not everybody is a natural ham, and Tom didn't even bother to put his picture on his album covers. He told me that after he got his laughs in nightclubs, and on a few TV shows, that was enough. Another factor was that his main interest was in parodying music genres. Eventually, he ran out of them. He destroyed folk, waltz, lullabye, tango, march, country, ragtime, etc. As The Beatles and rock became popular, he slipped into Academia and stayed there.

He had modest tastes and a professor's salary was fine. Besides, a professor gets a pension. How fortunate he wasn't like hundreds of others who thought, "I'll just keep singing and touring, and I'll always have my health, and always have royalties coming in for my music..."

Lured out of retirement once in a while, he recorded some whimsical stuff for Public Television (including "LY" and "Silent E" for the kiddies). He also recorded "Chanukah in Santa Monica" for his people, most of whom unaware of his Jewish heritage. He left the field to Weird Al who switched words on rock songs. Rock didn't interest Tom. In fact, he told me that folk rock wasn't interesting to him either. His parody "Folk Song Army" was, he said, aimed squarely at a certain folkie popular in 1965, named Phil Ochs. You might recall Tom's realist final line to that song: "Ready, Aim, Sing!" Maybe Phil would've been amused and even complimented, knowing it was he, not Dylan, that pissed Tom off the most!

Tom, like most everyone who has recorded, and actually been IN the business, is aware that just as songs don't really change the world, nobody can change the attitude of the dopey Dutch, the sleazy Swedes, the creepy Communists in Croatia and Russia, the jerks in Germany, the tiny-dicks in South America or the ladyboy fuckers in Asia who regularly throw entire discographies around by the torrent, offer goody bags on their blogs, and are happy Santas who want a "nice" comment or a "Paypal tip" for giving away music. Irony that it's not really the Americans or the Brits who give away the American and British music as much as the world's least hip people in the world's shittiest lamest countries. What can be said when "We like FREE" says it all. Fuck the record companies, record stores, music studios, artists and the dwindling venues, too. Stay home and download it ALL.

No, there's no discography of Lehrer here, no "sure, buddy, you got it" response to any "please upload every Tom Lehrer song, best regards." The question: what should be a sample for the uninitiated, or those who need a reminder? From the reminder, hopefully there will be the desire to actually buy the boxed set, or a few of the CDs that eBay sellers are now desperately pricing at only a few bucks. Tom was beyond having a good "batting average" on his records. He was more like an MMA fighter. Find his first 30 songs, and you can say he's maybe 24-4-2, with 24 ko's 4 ordinary draws, and maybe two clinkers. That's impressive.

 Unlike Weird Al, Tom Lehrer had a brilliant ability to mimic genres. His "Masochism Tango" is a great tango. His "Vatican Rag" is great ragtime. The lyrics were almost always delightedly evil. The best way to make fun of sentimental waltzes, love songs, college drinking songs etc. was to make the lyrics as sick as possible. And this was before Lenny Bruce. This was when sick humor was confined to some fringe magazines that often had girlie pix in them, and cartoons with captions like, "Drink your soup before it clots." Tom sang about boy scouts pimping their sisters, pigeons being poisoned in the park, and the comforts of "powdered happiness" courtesy of a dope peddler. His march song was for his cause: "Smut...and nothing but!" Equal to Cole Porter, Lehrer's rhymes were witty and unexpected ("try and hide" with "cyanide") and he'd drop classical and pop in-jokes into the melodies, too. So, which song...hmm....

Since it’s his 90th Birthday, he’d probably not say “HAPPY” birthday, and instead hope that when he goes, everyone else goes, too. Nuclear disaster is STILL on the table, after all. So down below, the choice is “We Will All Go Together When We Go,” which is an example of just about everything Tom Lehrer did so brilliantly. You'll hear an original melody AND clever rhymes (including some internals -- wait for "funeral" sneaking into "sooner or later..."). A true musician, he changes tempo (and works in a fine pun on "Down By the Old Mill Stream.") Most of all he's on target with his chosen weapon for the kill: brutal satire. 

Tom Lehrer





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