Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Rediscover: Tom Lehrer - Songs and More Songs by Tom Lehrer

Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.

There are actually some people who will feverishly argue that Tom Lehrer is the best musical satirist to ever walk this mortal coil. These people are, of course, completely right. Though musical comedy is often saddled with stigmas of imbecility, bad puns and obvious punch lines - thanks Weird Al and Stephen Lynch - Lehrer's brand of humor still challenges such notions. In one of music history's more bizarre careers, Lehrer relied on his fairly unspectacular voice and nondescript piano playing to create some of the most humorous, biting and caustic songs of this genre. While not as shocking or subversive they must have sounded back in the day, his first two 1950s studio albums - 1953's Songs by Tom Lehrer and 1959's More of Tom Lehrer - are still funny as hell and culturally relevant. Repackaged and reissued with extras as Songs and More Songs by Tom Lehrer in 1997, both albums are essential listening for fans of music comedy at its most observant, irreverent and politically incorrect.

Lehrer's back story doesn't read like the stereotypical music biography. Before the age of 20 he had graduated from Harvard with an MA in mathematics and began a teaching career that lasted far longer than his dalliances into the world of music. He worked as a researcher at Los Alamos and spent a few years in the Army in the 1950s, experiences that he'd later incorporate into some of his best songs. The story behind his first album offers more of the DIY aesthetic than countless punk bands in all their raging histrionics; after radio stations refused to play Lehrer's songs due to their perceived risqué subject matter, Lehrer sold the album on his own label around Harvard. Eventually record stores and mail order services picked up the album and its popularity spread.

Several of Lehrer's songs remain firmly rooted in the cultural and political atmosphere of the 1950s. The segregationist South is mocked in "I Wanna Go Back To Dixie," with Lehrer occasionally slipping into an exaggerated good ole boy honky accent as its narrator catalogs his homeland's virtues, at least as he sees them: corn pone, pellagra, poll taxes, medieval laws and "whuppin' slaves and sellin' cotton." Homesick for that land of grits and boll weevils, the narrator looks back to a simpler time as Lehrer uses this fond longing to comically address racial prejudice: "I wanna talk with Southern gentlemen/ And put my white sheet on again/ I ain't seen one good lynchin' in years." The decade's nuclear dread is morbidly addressed in the jaunty "We Will All Go Together When We Go," where Lehrer envisions the mass destruction of humankind as universal bereavement/ An inspiring achievement." The song plays like a bastardized religious revivalist sing-along, with Lehrer ironically singing about communal "complete participation/ In that grand incineration" and summarizing its victims as "three billion hunks of well done steak." Lehrer could be as contemporary and topical as any folksinger, with his brand of humor conveying a message far better than any acoustic guitar-wielding folkie ever did - and without any preaching or overwrought philosophizing.

Like all singer-songwriters, Lehrer wrote his fair share of love songs, but these rarely contained puppy dogs and flowers. When they did, the dog was named Rover and got splattered by a Pontiac and the flower's thorns cut into the skin of an overly-enthusiastic masochist. There's nothing even faintly romantic or sentimental in a Tom Lehrer love song. The twittering-hearted couple of "In Old Mexico" has their trip south of the border derailed by wrecked bowels - "The mariachis would serenade/ And they would not shut up till they were paid/ We ate, we drank and we were merry/ And we got typhoid and dysentery" - while sexual indulgences are taken to an extreme in "The Masochism Tango." Set in that dance's tempo, the song's narrator begs his tormenter to dismember him, fracture his spine, give him a black eye, kick him and "bash in" his brain. Lehrer's incredibly skewed view of love is nowhere more apparent than in "When You Are Old and Gray." Like countless other such songs its sex-crazed and smooth-talking male begs his woman to give it up because they're both young and attractive. And, oh yeah, because, in the man's most heartfelt words: "Say you love and trust me/ For I know you'll disgust me/ When you're old and getting fat." What follows is a rhythmic and lighthearted piano romp in which Lehrer describes all the great things old age offers, including senility, impotence, sterility, expanded waistlines and pretty faces going to shit. Whether the man's heartless and fatalistic ploy helped seal the deal is never disclosed. The songs show Lehrer at his finest: the sentiments expressed are as nasty and cold as they come, but it's impossible not to laugh.

Lehrer tossed plenty of his satirical jabs in the direction of cultural traditions and various institutions throughout these first two albums. In "Be Prepared" he upends the Boy Scouts' "solemn creed" by offering the boys helpful advice like not smoking joints in front of the Scoutmaster - "for he only will insist that they be shared" - and not pimping out their sisters unless they get a cut of the take. With similar panache, in "In Old Mexico" Lehrer uses his deadpan voice to great effect as he tersely reduces the tradition of bullfighting to nothing more than "a lone man facing single-handedly a half a ton of angry pot roast," with its narrator failing to see the beauty of such an event and instead shouting with glee every time a picador is gored.

Lehrer's time in academia likewise inspired some of the albums' best songs. Lehrer isn't much for academic nostalgia on these first two records; if anything, the past is almost always compromised by an individual's beer and Benzedrine-soaked faulty memory. Thus, he needles the college alma mater song in "Bright College Days," reducing the collegiate experience to little more than Chevrolet backseat sex, rampant cheating on papers and exams and incorrectly remembering athletic defeats as noble victories. The typical violent and macho college fight song is turned into a dainty ode to wussiness in "Fight Fiercely, Harvard," where the team is implored to win with a sense of decorum and a flair of sissy: "Let's try not to injure them/ But fight, fight, fight/ Let's not be rough though." Lehrer satirizes academics like himself in "Lobachevsky," where he adopts an exaggerated Russian accent, sets the song to a can-can melody, and tells the story of a mathematician whose mentor informs him of the best way to succeed in mathematics: "plagiarize." The mathematician applies this advice to his first book, which is soon purchased by a movie studio and turned into a film called The Eternal Triangle, "with Ingrid Bergman playing part of Hypotenuse." Slight subject matter with more than a hint of silliness to be sure, the songs offer a nice change of pace from Lehrer's topical songs.

Of course some of Lehrer's songs sound tame by 2009 standards, especially since he never uses those fancy four-letter words to make his point. Still many songs from these albums are as politically incorrect and borderline tasteless today as they were in the 1950s. Perhaps Lehrer's most infamous song, "I Got It From Agnes" is a lovely paean to venereal disease without actually calling it out by name, a frolicking piano line used to tell a curiously upbeat tale of how "it" was spread. Written years before the advent of HIV and AIDS, the song is now both grimly and uncomfortably humorous; in two consecutive lines, Lehrer manages to tie its spread to incest and bestiality: "Max got it from Edith, who gets it every spring/ She got it from her daddy who just gives her everything/ She then gave it to Daniel/ whose spaniel has it now..." If "Agnes" doesn't make modern listeners squirm, "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" and "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" likely will, the former song a heartwarming tale of a murderous necrophiliac who just can't let that special woman go, the latter a sprightly ditty about, well, poisoning pigeons in the park. Of course Lehrer isn't serious in this song - one hopes - but its humor is of the blackest kind and likely to offend those who can't accept it as comedy. "We'll murder them all amid laughter and merriment/ Except for the few we take home to experiment/ My pulse will be quickenin'/ With each drop of strychnine/ We need to a pigeon/ It just takes a smidgen," Lehrer says in a forced rhyme scheme, its narrator growing excited as the birds drop. If you ever want to gauge someone's sense of humor, play them these three songs and see what type of reaction you get.

Lehrer essentially took topics that most people were uptight about and pointed out their inherent absurdities; put into a modern perspective, his lighthearted yet keenly observant approach to social commentary wouldn't be out of place on The Daily Show. In many ways no topic was safe from Lehrer's wit on his first two albums, with Lehrer singing about serious subjects without taking them too seriously. Sanctimonious folk music is lampooned in "Irish Ballad," with Lehrer sporting a truly heinous Irish accent as his macabre tale of a psychotic little girl unfolds; "Old Dope Peddler" plays like a loving if sarcastic tribute to the entrepreneurial spirit; "Elements" simply sets the names on the periodic table to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Major-General's Song" and manages to suggest that it doesn't take much to appear educated; "Christmas Carol" anticipated that holiday's crass consumerism decades before such sentiments became in vogue. Though in recent years Lehrer has maintained that his songs amounted to little more than "titillating the converted," with only an average voice and decent piano skills he managed to humorously comment on nearly every mundane detail of life. His songs suggest that, despite the intervening years between the 1950s and today, certain aspects of the country haven't changed much - Lehrer's liars, cheaters, perverts, smut pushers and raging racists are still around - and that no aspect of life is off limits for being mocked or satirized.

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