Thursday, 20 June 2013

Noted badass: Tom Lehrer

Sometimes you discover something so incredibly awesome that you're surprised you've survived so far without knowing about it. So you rant about it, spend hours on the internet learning more about it, and shout at people until they realize how awesome it is.

And eventually you have to move on with your life, because that kind of excitement is hard to sustain. It doesn't mean you love the thing any less. It just means that life happens, and you have to create space in your mind to appreciate even more awesome things.

In the spirit of spreading the epicness, I've decided to start sharing some of the things I have loved fiercely (and still do love, just with less active intensity).

So please, Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce the undervalued genius of Tom Lehrer:

"All the world seems in tune, on a fine afternoon, when we're poisoning pigeons in the park."

The thing about Tom is that he's so fucking great, I don't even know where to start. And the biggest tragedy is that almost nobody knows who he is.

So, who is he? 


Tom was born in 1928 and received his Masters in mathematics from Harvard in 1947. I'll point out that he was just about nineteen years old at the time. Nineteen fucking years old, guys.

Then again, by the time I was nineteen I had memorized the entirety of the dialogue, music and choreography of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I think it's clear who the winner is here. (It's me.)

From then on Tom taught classes at, among others, Harvard, MIT, and Wellesley.

He also somehow found time to invent the jello shot.*

But while he might have been a respected Harvard Professor by day, he was a brilliant nightclub satirist by night.

How it went down:


Tom wrote songs for fun while he was teaching at Harvard. He performed them a few times and received such a positive reaction that he paid $15 to record an album. He printed 400 copies and sold them informally, mostly to students.

Word of mouth did him a spectacular turn, though, and after a few months he was getting mail orders from all over the country. Then Princess Margaret in the UK mentioned that she liked him, and suddenly the world was aware of his existence.

He became massively popular for a while and toured a bit, but he quit after 109 live shows because he felt like it. You gotta give props to the man for not being a fame-whore.  I mean, at one point, he faced the question: I'm kinda tired. Do I keep on performing for adoring masses who laud my genius? Or do I go back to lecturing at Harvard?

And he chose Harvard.

The goods:


Tom Lehrer wrote satirical, black-humor songs about the world and times he lived in (America in, mainly, the fifties). Despite this, his most well-known song today is this one, which kids in classrooms are still given extra credit for memorizing:

 While it's a cool song, in a science-geek kind of way (which is the coolest cool there is, yo,) it's not at all representative of the bulk of his work.

His songs were about sexually transmitted diseases, nuclear bombs, pornography, commercialism, killing your family, and pretty much all things dark or scandalous.  It's impossible to describe them. So, in an attempt to sell you on his awesomeness, I'll give you a few excerpts instead. The bits in bold are the spoken introductions from the live album An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer.

{Bear in mind that he wrote and performed these songs during the fifties, a decade basically famous for conformity and repression.** I want everybody to just consider the caliber of brass balls that required.}

Here are a few bits from 'Smut':

"I do have a cause, though; it is obscenity... I'm for it. Thank you. [...] Anyway, since people seem to be marching for their causes these days, I have here a march for mine. It's called:

Give me smut and nothing but!

Stories of tortures
used by debauchers,
lurid, licentious, and vile,
...make me smile.
Novels that pander
to my taste for candor
give me a pleasure sublime.
(Let's face it, I love slime.)

All books can be indecent books
Though recent books are bolder,
For filth (I'm glad to say) is in
the mind of the beholder.
When correctly viewed,
everything is lewd.
(I could tell you things about Peter Pan,
And the Wizard of Oz, there's a dirty old man!)"

A few stanzas from The Masochism Tango (which has a trope named after it.): 

"I ache for the touch of your lips, dear,
But much more for the touch of your whips, dear.
You can raise welts
like nobody else,
As we dance to the masochism tango.

Say our love be a flame, not an ember,
Say it's me that you want to dismember.
Blacken my eye,
Set fire to my tie,
As we dance to the masochism tango."

Fifty Shades of Grey ain't got nothin' on this Harvard professor.

A little bit from The Vatican Rag (in which Tom attempts to help the Vatican 'sell their product' by re-doing their music in popular song forms.):

"First you get down on your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And: genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

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.
If it is, try playin' it safer -
Drink the wine and chew the wafer
Two, four, six, eight-
Time to transubstantiate!"

{There would have been a picture here, but for some reason there are no GIFs of the Pope dancing anywhere on the internet. I'm disappointed.}

I'm sold! He sounds awesome. What do I do now?


I'm glad you asked. You can get his music. ALL of it.

Get An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer first, though. It's a live recording from 1959, and it's the best thing ever because of the little anecdotes he has in between songs. They're just as genius as the songs themselves.
Here's his iTunes page.
 This page has some great quotes by and about him, plus some amazon links to his best albums.

For more information on the man himself:
 His Wikipedia Page is good.
Here's an interview with him from 2000.
This page has pretty much all his lyrics, as well as transcriptions of the anecdotes on An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer. 
Here's an informative article about his current whereabouts. (He's still alive, y'all!)

I'll leave you with some words from the man himself:
"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."

 Thank you.
Go forth and spread the Lehrer word.

P.S. Tom: In case you're the kind of person that Googles themselves, and you've found this article, I really only have one thing to say to you:

Oh, and I hope you don't mind that I called you "Tom". In my mind, we're on a first-name basis.


* The invention of the jello shot is a contentious subject. The fact is, many people 'invented' it independently of each other.

Because, you know, humans have jello, and we have vodka, and it's only natural that it would occur to more than one person to mix the two.
Tom's story is particularly badass: 
He was in the Army for two years. Once they were having a 'Christmas office party'. However, they weren't allowed to have any booze because army rules stated that "alcoholic beverages" weren't allowed on base. So Tom and a friend came up with the idea of the jello shot, since jello, technically, isn't a beverage. They rocked up at the party with alcoholic jello.
And it worked.

**  A few years after Tom quit Lenny Bruce was arrested (and eventually literally prosecuted to death) just for swearing on stage.

1 comment:

  1. Tom Lehrer is just my kind of guy! I've heard his name before, but I've never really known what he stands for. That is, before now. I really respect his modesty, and the fact that he stopped at the peak of his career. He's a rare one. Thanks for introducing me, girl. The knowledge you fill us with here, is just that kind of knowledge I've always wanted to contain and develop. Sometimes it's just hard to know where to start, and I really appreciate how you push me - not literally of course - to get started. I like to expand my knowledge. It makes me understand and able to use more references. Keep it coming girl!