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Tom Lehrer Is Dead...Er...Alive And Well And Living In Cambridge, Mass.
April 10, 2014 2:55 PM   Subscribe

I know what you thought -- you saw the name Tom Lehrer and thought "Shit! Obit thread! I loved that guy!" Well, sailor, it's your lucky day because he's not dead yet, he's 86 years old and still hanging in there. At least that's what this surprisingly in-depth and clickbait free article at BuzzFeed has to say. He's notoriously shy of interviews and did not do one for the reporter here, nevertheless you'll learn all about his brief-but-illustrious career and why he tossed it all away at a relatively young age.

I shouldn't have to tell people here much about Tom Lehrer, we've mentioned him plenty of times before. Many of you will know him from being featured frequently in the Funny Five on Dr. Demento's radio program. Those broadcasts leaned more toward his so-called "sick" humor songs like "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" and "Masochism Tango", so you may be less familiar with his topical tunes from the 1960s such as "Werner Von Braun" and "So Long Mom, I'm Off To Drop The Bomb", or maybe you didn't even know that he wrote songs for the 1970s PBS series The Electric Company like "Silent E" and "L-Y".

Because he *is* 86, it probably won't be much longer before there is an actual obit thread for him, so don't let your finger get too far away from the ".", but that day is not today.
posted by briank (64 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite

 
I <3 Tom Lehrer. I recently realized one of my teachers would have been in the MIT political science department around the same time as Tom (both teaching mathematical modeling I think); been meaning to ask him about it.
posted by grobstein at 2:59 PM on April 10 [3 favorites]


Tom Leher is Dead! [more inside]

Dead tired of doing interviews!
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 3:01 PM on April 10 [12 favorites]


Since he is not dead yet, I will leave this here:

,
posted by Quasimike at 3:10 PM on April 10 [11 favorites]


I'd love to discuss this, but...

Spring is here!
Spring is here!

Life is skittles, and life is beer!
posted by ocschwar at 3:13 PM on April 10 [14 favorites]


That's quite a lot of previously! on the Meta. What an amazing man... and musician!
posted by surplus at 3:13 PM on April 10


As I mentioned on Twitter last night, there's a bit of exaggeration in that piece as far as how rare and sparing interviews with him are, such that they have to be pieced together bit by bit to form any sort of coherent story. He spoke at great length, in great detail, to The A.V. Club in 2000.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 3:15 PM on April 10 [10 favorites]


So I've listened to Tom Lehrer on repeat for basically my entire life since the age of maybe 15 or 16 when a friend of mine introduced me to his music. I can recite (at least) the content of An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer and That Was the Year That Was practically verbatim, and by now I'm pretty sure I've looked up all the jokes on the latter that I didn't get (e.g. Massachusetts having three senators.) So, by this point, his songs are more comforting than they are witty and entertaining, but that's only because I know all the jokes.

So I sort of relied on that comforting aspect of them when my mom was dying and I was spending 12+ hours at the hospital and spending that time basically sitting in silence and occasionally bothering nurses or taking a walk around the floor.

At one point, probably at like 3 AM, I took a walk to get air and more cigarettes and I put on An Evening Wasted... just because I wanted to hear something that I knew well. And (of all things) Oedipus Rex came on and by the time the song got to the part where the tempo kicks up, I was laughing my ass off. I knew this song, every line, every beat of it, and, yet, right at that moment in the middle of this totally dead Manhattan street, it was the funniest fucking thing I had heard in my life. And it helped. A lot.

So, uh, thanks Tom Lehrer.
posted by griphus at 3:16 PM on April 10 [39 favorites]


You know how pulp genre stuff will take historical characters like Tesla or Poe or Turning and say they where REALLY working for this secret magical/occult/spy/super science deal?


I've always wanted to do that for Lehrer. The "music tour" was always just a cover.
posted by The Whelk at 3:16 PM on April 10 [15 favorites]


The Onion AV Club conducted a nice interview with him back in 2000 (previously), in which he gave as good a response to the question of why he quit his career as a musical satirist/humorist:

"No, it's the wrong question, really, because there wasn't really a career to speak of. I figure I wrote 37 songs in 20 years, and that's not exactly a full-time job. It wasn't that I was writing and writing and writing and quit. Every now and then I wrote something, and every now and then I didn't. The second just outnumbered the first."

He went on to explain that, simply, he doesn't have the temperament of a performer. In our show biz– and celebrity-obsessed age, one has to admire someone who decided it wasn't fair to a paying audience for him to be singing his silly songs and playing a piano while what he was really thinking about was his dinner.

(On preview, curse your fleet fingers, Linda_Holmes!)
posted by Doktor Zed at 3:17 PM on April 10 [3 favorites]


My stepdad, who studied math at Harvard in the 60's, talks about him like he already is dead, since he thinks that Lehrer squandered his mathematical talents on his music career. He talks about him as if the man became a child pornographer instead of finishing his PhD.
posted by thelonius at 3:17 PM on April 10 [13 favorites]


P.S. The part of that A.V. Club interview where he quotes UHF? It is the best thing ever, except where he goes on to say he watches Sports Night.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 3:20 PM on April 10 [3 favorites]


He claims he is the inventor of the Jell-O shot. I do not care if it truth or mere truthiness, I assume it must be true.
posted by Mad_Carew at 3:21 PM on April 10 [8 favorites]


Oh, and a few years back, when I was visiting some friends in Denmark, we spent a day with said friends and one friend's dad, driving to Sweden to see Swedish things. I made some mix CDs for a road trip we took the week prior and I was asked to put it on and I did, and there was a Tom Lehrer on there ("Smut") I think. And it turns out he's familiar with Tom Lehrer -- literally the first adult I had ever met familiar with Tom Lehrer -- and it turns out he had seen him live when he came to Copenhagen at some point in decades prior. And I was all :O! Because if there's one thing I wish I could do it is go see Tom Lehrer live. When that DVD of him performing in Norway came out, I scooped it up as fast as I found out it existed.

(Also, at some later point, said dad went off about Danish society and how much bullshit ethnic nationalism is and how it's awful that Muslims encountering so much prejudice in Danish society and I spent the whole time going just nodding mostly. The next day, my friend said "my dad called and he really wanted to apologize for going on a rant like that. It wasn't appropriate and he wanted to say he was sorry." And I'm like "what? No. I completely agree with him." Mainly because when I've been in confined quarters where a white person went off on a rant about The Muslims, it was usually not in support.)
posted by griphus at 3:25 PM on April 10 [6 favorites]


He claims he is the inventor of the Jell-O shot. I do not care if it truth or mere truthiness, I assume it must be true.

He tells the full story in the booklet for the 2000 box set The Remains of Tom Lehrer
I went into the Army for two years: January 1955 to January 1957. Believe it or not, I enjoyed it ... The only thing I did contribute to the war effort was vodka Jell-O. I was assigned to a naval base, even though I was in the army. We wanted to have a Christmas office party, but the rules forbade all alcoholic "beverages," so a friend of mine and I decided to confront this challenge. Of course there's plum pudding and the like, but you have to eat too much to produce any effect. So she and I experimented with various flavours of Jell-O, various alcoholic ingredients, and various proportions. Obviously, you can't experiment too extensively, because you soon lose your powers of discrimination, but we settled on vodka in orange Jell-O -- same recipe as on the box, only with vodka instead of the cold water. I have heard that daiquiris are good in lime Jell-O. We filled little paper cups with the final product, took them into the base past the guards, and nobody said anything. It was a very nice party.
Also, another gem in that AV Club interview:
O: Is comedy important?

TL: Comedy is very important, yes. For one thing, it keeps you sane. But it's not really a conversion. I mean, it's marginally a conversion, because if people tune in or go to a nightclub or even watch television, and hear that a lot of other people are laughing at something you thought was not funny, at least it'll force you to reconsider. I know people who've heard "The Vatican Rag" and then converted, so to speak. They'd think, "Hey, wait. There are actually people who take that as funny. I'm not the only one." I've always done some good along those lines. Many people over the years have said, "Oh, 'The Vatican Rag' changed my life." It's not that they were convinced of something they weren't convinced of before; it's just that now they realize it's okay to laugh. They're not the only ones.
On the day that Stephen Colbert the Character effectively announced his retirement, this reads like a reminder of satire's true purpose in life.
posted by Doktor Zed at 3:29 PM on April 10 [14 favorites]


86, eh? So when Mozart was his age he'd been dead for 51 years.
posted by yoink at 3:40 PM on April 10 [17 favorites]


I've long been a fan of Tom Lehrer and just about all of his songs are important to me in one way or another, but the one that often trips into my brain for no apparent reason is Alma.

I mean, he rhymes Gropius with copious, Mahler with holler and Bauhaus with chow house!
posted by chavenet at 3:57 PM on April 10 [5 favorites]


Hurl that spheroid down the field, and fight! fight! fight!
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:58 PM on April 10 [2 favorites]


Wow, I ride on the bus right past his house every single day. Now I'm going to have to chant to myself, "Horace, no stalking. Horace, no stalking."
posted by Horace Rumpole at 4:00 PM on April 10 [8 favorites]


I was introduced to Tom Lehrer by my mom, back in elementary school, as she had a copy of That Was The Year That Was on vinyl. I recall getting in trouble in school for bringing that album in for a thing about satire and trying to play National Brotherhood Week. Because according to the music teacher, it was racist.

That quote from the AV Club spurred me to look up The Vatican Rag, to re-listen to it, and linked off of what I found was what appears to be a full video of his Live In Copenhagen performance. So, that's a thing, and I am joyous.

Lehrer is also the first, but thankfully not only, person I've ever heard do one of my absolute favorite things in lyric-writing, which is the mid-word rhyme.

When you attend a funeral
It is sad to think that sooner or l-
ater those you love will do the same for you.

And you may have thought it tragic
Not to mention other adjec-
tives to think of all the weeping they will do.


And the like. Nobody does that! It upsets me! That's so brilliant 100% of the time when you make it work.
posted by kafziel at 4:05 PM on April 10 [18 favorites]


I <3 Tom Lehrer.

You nutsack Tom Lehrer?
posted by srboisvert at 4:16 PM on April 10 [1 favorite]


does 86 mean he's outlived the old dope peddler?
posted by bruce at 4:17 PM on April 10


grobstein> I < 3 Tom Lehrer.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I am less than a single Tom Lehrer.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 4:17 PM on April 10 [18 favorites]


Why am I reading all of the comments in this thread in his voice?
posted by maryr at 4:18 PM on April 10 [4 favorites]


Nobody does that!

That's a pretty common trick among the great writers of American popular music from the 20s and 30s (your "Great American Songbook" types). Consider this familiar example from "Manhattan" by Rogers and Hart:

Summer journeys to Niagara
And to other places aggra-
vate all our cares
We'll save our fares.

I've a cozy little flat in
What is known as Old Manhattan
We'll settle down
Right here in town...

As a lyricist Lehrer's actually looking back to writers like Cole Porter et al. for quite a lot of his verbal play.
posted by yoink at 4:19 PM on April 10 [9 favorites]


.

He said if I announced he was dead, he wouldn't contradict me.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:20 PM on April 10 [1 favorite]


I have fond memories of listening to Lehrer in the attic of a high school friend's house - I think it was the only time I went to her house and she was one of those people I always wanted to be closer friends with and never quite was. I think it was just too late in high school to work new people into set social circles. I always think of sitting up in that attic in a confederacy of dorkiness listeining to The Hunting Song.

So if you're out there, Marga, I had fun. I wish we'd hung out more. Sorry about that.
posted by maryr at 4:24 PM on April 10 [1 favorite]


I don't know if I've shared this here, but my stage acting career consisted of one college production of "A Man For All Seasons" in which I portrayed Cardinal Wolsey (who was played by Orson Welles in the movie). Easy gig, had one scene early in the play where I sat down and argued with the title character, then a couple scenes later took off my Cardinal's robe and tossed it on stage to signify the death of my character. That cheaply-made robe got a workout over 4 performances, especially during a break in dress rehearsals when I and the student playing Archbishop Cranmer did an impromptu performance of "The Vatican Rag", which we both knew by heart thanks to its popularity on the Dr. Demento Show. The Professor serving as Director did reject our offer to do it between acts of the play, which did help aim me toward other avenues of self-expression.
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:31 PM on April 10 [4 favorites]


I was once teasing a friend in college, back in the days of PINE e-mail, by saying "You're such a nerd, I'll bet your password is 'hen3ry'." She turned pale.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 4:42 PM on April 10 [8 favorites]


Can't wait to read all this. I was just wondering this morning how he'd been doing lately. Aside from growing up with his albums ("That was the Year that Was" is just an awesome title) I had a girlfriend in Santa Cruz in theatre and we used to go see some of his musical theater productions. Very fun stuff.
posted by emmet at 4:45 PM on April 10


Plus, I dated Mahler's granddaughter for a while, and it was always fun to think of Alma.
posted by emmet at 4:51 PM on April 10 [2 favorites]


"Smut" has Lehrer's usual clever mid-word rhyming, but placed at the end of stanzas with perfect comic timing. He sings ". . . if it is swill / and really fil--" with gusto, then almost apologetically tosses out "--thy." It's a trick I haven't seen replicated except soooort of by Jean-Ralphio on Parks and Rec.
posted by knuckle tattoos at 4:53 PM on April 10 [2 favorites]


He's the mathematician who others all quote.
posted by dannyboybell at 4:55 PM on April 10 [1 favorite]


N'T is my jam. I'm less mathy and more wordy.

I first heard it when Jim Boyd and Lee Chamberlin sang it on The Electric Company when I was a girl. I didn't know Lehrer'd written that until high school, and I heard The Vatican Rag and thought, "Wait, that voice sounds familiar..." looked him up at the library and put it all together. Then I heard his version. These talented folks aside, I like the original much better. I'm glad to know he's alive and well.
posted by droplet at 4:55 PM on April 10


I'm not sure I'd ever seen a photo of Tom Lehrer until I read this article, and yet I've listened to enough of his music often enough that I did read much of the thread in his voice.
posted by immlass at 5:10 PM on April 10 [1 favorite]


"Smut" yt has Lehrer's usual clever mid-word rhyming, but placed at the end of stanzas with perfect comic timing. He sings ". . . if it is swill / and really fil--" with gusto, then almost apologetically tosses out "--thy."

Oh my god, how good is
As the judge remarked the day that he acquitted my Aunt Hortense
To be smut
it must be ut
terly without
redeeming social importense
.

I would basically give him a Nobel Prize for Literature for that alone.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:33 PM on April 10 [13 favorites]


He was great on Newshour.
posted by Sphinx at 5:36 PM on April 10 [2 favorites]


maybe you didn't even know that he wrote songs for the 1970s PBS series The Electric Company like "Silent E" and "L-Y".

I use these in my first- and second-grade classrooms, and the kids LOVE them.

His most topical (educational) song right now, though, is New Math, which is strikingly similar to criticisms of the new common core math.
posted by Huck500 at 5:41 PM on April 10 [4 favorites]


He spoke at great length, in great detail, to The A.V. Club in 2000.

Pssst: That was 14 years ago.
posted by mhoye at 5:53 PM on April 10 [6 favorites]


What the sickniks dispense is partly social criticism liberally laced with cyanide, partly a Charles Addams kind of jolly ghoulishness, and partly a personal and highly disturbing hostility toward all the world

Paging Stephen Colbert on line one ... we have a potential band leader for you ...
posted by kanewai at 5:59 PM on April 10 [5 favorites]


I knew him when I was in college at Santa Cruz and auditioned for but failed to get into his American Musical class. A real mensch -- very, very shy, and very much a musical theatre nerd. Like, seriously.

But I can't thank him enough for introducing me to Sondheim. And the silent 3.
posted by allthinky at 6:16 PM on April 10


I would basically give him a Nobel Prize for Literature for that alone.

I would as well, but despite of rather than because of. I've always thought it was one of his weaker lyrics, a standout because it is so rare, kind of desperate use of the name because he needs a rhyme. Aunt Hortense/importance - no, no, no, not the stuff at all. Fully as bad as Cole Porter's surprisingly lame-o:

So Missus R., with all her trimmin's,
can broadcast a bed from Simmons
'cause Franklin knows
anything goes!

(Unless of course there is a smut related Aunt Hortense I've somehow missed, in which case, do tell!)
posted by IndigoJones at 6:55 PM on April 10


Hooray for enjamb-
Ment!
posted by griphus at 7:09 PM on April 10 [3 favorites]


I first heard Tom Lehrer's stuff when I was a kid, and loved it even then, although I felt a little guilty about also being a fan of the space program and yet still digging "Wernher von Braun."
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:29 PM on April 10 [2 favorites]


You can't take three from two, two is less than three...
posted by Windopaene at 8:05 PM on April 10 [2 favorites]


Best quote: "If you get hooked on Tom Lehrer as a kid, it’s not because you think he might be a sweet old man. It’s because beneath the cheerful tunes is an edge, a sheer nastiness and even sadism, that kids have always loved. It’s the same edge that makes Roald Dahl so appealing to children and disturbing to their parents."

I was introduced to Tom Lehrer by a boyfriend. Later, my cousin came to visit and both of them serenaded me with "I Hold Your Hand In Mine." I'll always remember that special moment.

Also, if a showing of Tomfoolery is ever anywhere near you, GO. I don't normally like plotless jukebox musicals, but that one is worth it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:14 PM on April 10 [1 favorite]


Re: Jello shots. I don't doubt that he independently came up with the idea, but he wasn't the first.
posted by Shmuel510 at 9:29 PM on April 10


Also, he did an interview with the BBC last year, though it is not currently available for streaming.
posted by Shmuel510 at 9:41 PM on April 10


They put fucking everything in jello in the 50s. Even sandwiches.

I'm not joking.
posted by maryr at 9:45 PM on April 10 [2 favorites]


I am just so amused that the Buzzfeed writer couldn't understand why Lehrer wasn't interested in fame and fortune. that someone might simply not have the interest in being a performer seemed to be a totally alien concept.

That said, I at least got from that article a good sense of why Lehrer choose the life he did. I wish more talented people chose the life of being a teacher.
posted by happyroach at 10:43 PM on April 10 [2 favorites]


I admire Tom Lehrer for so many things, but especially for going back to the lyrics of 'Old Mexico' and replacing the lines 'How I wish I could get back / to the land of the wetback / and forget the Alamo' with 'To the land of mañana / and cheap marijuana / It's so easy to grow'.

That's the measure of his brilliance as a songwriter -- he had the decency to get rid of the word 'wetback' even though it's one of his most perfect rhymes, and then the genius to come up with something equally good.
posted by verstegan at 1:19 AM on April 11 [6 favorites]


My parents had all his records. I believe they even saw him at The Hungry I. His 'Periodic Table of the Elements' was pretty funny, in fact all his stuff is pretty funny.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 3:01 AM on April 11


Although, verstagan, 'Forget the Alamo' is something I wish more people would do!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 3:03 AM on April 11


I am pretty sure I came to Lehrer through my dad's record collection, when I was a kid. I know so many of his songs by heart, and just the names are enough to bring a smile to my face.

Lehrer is a great song-writer, but he also plays piano really well, and the combination is unique. (I am looking at you, Madk Russel of the 1980s, and your ham- fisted rhymes.)

Finding out that he invented the jell-o shot is barely surprising: I bet that man could do anything he pleases.
posted by wenestvedt at 3:26 AM on April 11 [1 favorite]


I am never forget the day I first meet the great Lobachevsky. In one word he told me secret of success in mathematics: PLAGIARIZE!

I've always wanted to do that for Lehrer. The "music tour" was always just a cover.

The word is he worked at the NSA from 1955 to 1957, although it was long before the internet existed so they were mostly codebreakers back then.
posted by JHarris at 4:01 AM on April 11 [2 favorites]


N'T is my jam. I'm less mathy and more wordy.
posted by droplet at 7:55 PM on April 10


Who can turn a can into a cane?
Who can turn a pan into a pane?
It's not too hard to see,
It's Silent E.

Who can turn a cub into a cube?
Who can turn a tub into a tube?
It's elementary
For Silent E.

He took a pin and turned it into a pine.
He took a twin and turned him into twine.

Who can turn a cap into a cape?
Who can turn a tap into a tape?
A little glob becomes a globe instantly,
If you just add Silent E.

He turned a dam - Alikazam! - into a dame.
But my friend Sam stayed just the same.

Who can turn a man into a mane?
Who can turn a van into a vane?
A little hug becomes HUGE instantly.
Don't add W, Don't add X, And don't add Y or Z,
Just add Silent E.
posted by magstheaxe at 6:39 AM on April 11 [2 favorites]


I feel like his disappearance from the public stage is his last lagniappe to the audience; it allows everyone who discovers him now to hold the warm glow within of feeling they are the only one, that his songs are their secret vice.

While at the same time, knowing there was an audience for his stuff back in the 50s lends a little racy edge to that stodgy era, like a fillip of a cloth coat that gives you a glimpse of a garter...
posted by Diablevert at 6:43 AM on April 11 [2 favorites]


So I just learned that Tom Lehrer lives around the corner from me... from buzzfeed.

I think this day is going to be weird.
posted by atbash at 7:20 AM on April 11 [7 favorites]


. . . favored the popular comedy show Vic and Sade on the radio

I am in love.
posted by JanetLand at 8:45 AM on April 11


knowing there was an audience for his stuff back in the 50s lends a little racy edge to that stodgy era

The 50's were much more interesting than the lazy stereotype would have us believe.
posted by thelonius at 8:57 AM on April 11 [4 favorites]


> I've long been a fan of Tom Lehrer and just about all of his songs are important to me in one way or another,
> but the one that often trips into my brain for no apparent reason is Alma.

This may interest you, chavenet. It's an 1887 painting of Dubrovnik by Emil Jakob Schindler. The two people standing on the terrace looking out to sea are Schindler's wife (the singer Anna Bergen) and their little girl. Alma.
posted by jfuller at 10:34 AM on April 11 [1 favorite]


The 50's were much more interesting than the lazy stereotype would have us believe.

Yeah, the Boomers think of the 50s as stodgy and innocent because they were children. For grown-ups, it was very different.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:34 AM on April 11 [4 favorites]


They put fucking everything in booze in the 50s. Even sandwiches.

I'm not joking.

I am joking.
posted by maryr at 1:12 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


I was a student of the Boston Math Circle right around when it started up in the mid 90s. Every week (the classes were Saturday morning) after the two standard classes, they would have someone visit and give a lecture. I was in sixth grade at the time, and the lectures tended to be aimed at the older students. So I, with the rest of the kids my age, tended to daydream, doodle, or think about the stuff I did understand from the classes I was taking.

One day, as I was being picked up, my dad asked how it was. I answered that it had been fun and somehow got around to mentioning the guest speaker's name. Who was, given this thread, Tom Lehrer. Parents were allowed to attend the lectures and I think that is the only one my dad is sorry he missed. I on the other hand, to my eternal shame, sat in a math lecture by Tom Lehrer and promptly forgot all of it. I do know there was no singing involved, that I would have remembered.

I met the man. I may have shaken his hand. I saw him teach. But I don't remember it in the slightest. This is not to say he is boring, but instead to say that I never payed attention to those lectures. This is something I will probably always regret.
posted by Hactar at 1:57 PM on April 11 [3 favorites]


MetaFilter: sailor, it's your lucky day.
posted by homunculus at 6:59 PM on April 12


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