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Tom Lehrer Box Set May 2000

Promoting the new box set, and probably nothing new for most of us, but
it's still an interesting read.  From the front page of the Tempo
Section or online at

http://www.chicago.tribune.com/leisure/features/article/0,2669,SAV-0006190026,FF.html

A COMEDY DROPOUT 
SATIRIST LEHRER SEES NOTHING FUNNY
ANYMORE 

By Donald Liebenson 
Special to the Tribune 
June 19, 2000 

If, as Tom Lehrer professes, he really had devoted his
life to "selling out," then he would have eagerly accepted
the many offers he has received over the years to return
to the concert stage, appear on television or offer his
musical take on some current event -- say, the upcoming
presidential race or Elian.

But as Lehrer sings in "Selling Out," one of the precious
few new songs included on a just-released anthology of
his works, "What do you have when there's nothing left
to sell?"

Lehrer, perhaps the premier song satirist of his
generation, has not released a new album since 1965
and has not appeared in solo concert since 1967. He
still has his integrity, which is nice, as he observes in
"Selling Out," because "If you really have integrity, it
means your price is very high."

Despite the macabre title of the newly released 3-CD
box set "The Remains of Tom Lehrer" -- a title in tune
with much of the Lehrer oeuvre -- the esteemed satirist
cum math teacher (not a professor -- he never earned
his Ph.D) is alive and well. He recently turned 72 and
still teaches a course at the University of California at
Santa Cruz.

He is surely the only educator who can also lay claim to
being the second-most-requested artist (after "Weird Al"
Yankovic) on "The Dr. Demento Radio Show." (the
good "Doctor," a.k.a. Barry Hanson, wrote the set's
comprehensive liner notes).

Lehrer began writing songs to amuse himself and friends
while attending Harvard, from which he graduated at the
age of 18. The first tune, penned in 1945, was "Fight
Fiercely, Harvard," a mock football fight song that still,
he marveled in a recent phone interview, is played at
halftime at his alma mater.

In 1953, after compiling 12 songs, he went into a local
recording studio and in 22 minutes, and for a $15 fee,
taped them all. Then for a few more dollars, he had 400
copies pressed on 10-inch LPs, which he titled "Songs
By Tom Lehrer." He intended them for friends. "It never
dawned on me that this was a commercial thing," he
said. "I assumed the disc jockeys wouldn't play it."

Students bought the album in droves, though, took it
home on vacations and played it for their friends. Soon,
orders began pouring in from all over the country and
eventually sales totaled 370,000 copies. Lehrer's career
was launched.

New generations have discovered Lehrer's music on
radio shows such as "Demento" and Chicago's own
"Midnight Special" (Mike Nichols, who founded the
program in 1953, was among the first to play Lehrer's
tunes).

Lehrer's recorded canon amounts to only about 50
songs. Among his best known are "Pollution" ("You can
use the latest toothpaste/Then rinse out your mouth with
industrial waste"); "National Brotherhood Week" ("Step
up and shake the hand/Of someone you can't stand"),
and the religiously incorrect "The Vatican Rag" ("Ave
Maria/Gee, it's good to see ya").

"The Remains of Tom Lehrer," produced by Warner
Archive/Rhino Entertainment, includes "Songs By Tom
Lehrer" and another self-produced album, "More of
Tom Lehrer" (1959). A second disc contains two later
albums "Tom Lehrer Revisited," which features live
performances, and "An Evening Wasted With Tom
Lehrer." Disc three holds Lehrer's best-known album,
"That Was the Year That Was" (1965), a collection of
topical songs he wrote for the TV series "That Was the
Week That Was," and which, after 31 years, finally
achieved Gold Record status.

This disc also includes three tracks recorded exclusively
for the box set, "Selling Out," "Trees" and a Hanukkah
song to put Adam Sandler's to shame, "(I'm Spending)
Hanukkah in Santa Monica," as well as the rarity,
"That's Mathematics," which had been a "Dr. Demento"
exclusive.

But the unearthed treasures of the set may be the five
songs Lehrer created for the '70s PBS children's series
"The Electric Company."

"I have a real fondess for these songs," Lehrer said. "I
did them because they didn't ask if I would write a funny
song or a political song, but a song about vowel
combinations or silent  .' What a challenge that was. I
loved it."

Lehrer said it is these ditties that seem to resonate more
with younger fans. "Sometimes I've been at a party with
students," he said, "and they may or may not have heard
of oisoning Pigeons in the Park,' but when I play
ilent E,' it's as if I wrote ilent Night.' They are aghast
because that's what they grew up with and they didn't
know I wrote it."

"Poisoning Pigeons," by the way, is the most requested
Lehrer song on the "Dr. Demento" show. "People keep
sending me news clippings whenever there's a pigeon
poisoning, of which there are quite a few," he said.

Lehrer once explained his art by saying that he delights
in taking various popular song forms to their logical (and
illogical) extremes "to arrive at almost anything, from the
ridiculous to the obscene, or as they say in New York,
'Sophisticated.'"

He has subverted icons of Americana. In "My Old
Hometown," he waxes nostalgic about "the little girl next
door" who "sure looked sweet in her first evening
gown," and who charges now "for what she used to give
for free." His "A Christmas Carol" doesn't exactly ring
with "It's a Wonderful Life" sentiment: "Angels we have
heard on high/Tell us to go out and buy!"

Then there are the twisted and macabre love songs, such
as "The Masochism Tango" and "I Hold Your Hand in
Mine," which, yes, is to be taken literally.

"I wasn't really trying to be sick," Lehrer said. "There
was a category called ick humor' in the 1960s. I was
linked with Lenny Bruce and other people, but that
wasn't really appropriate. But that's probably the second
easiest way, after sex, to get a cheap laugh, because it's
sort of forbidden and naughty, but not as naughty as sex.
I tried to avoid sexual references because I didn't want
to be put in the arty Records' bin with Rusty Warren."

Nor does Lehrer consider himself as a cynic. "I think of
myself more as a skeptic," he said. "A cynic thinks that
everything sucks, and a skeptic says, aybe it does,
but let me check it out.'"

Lehrer anticipated the "going too far" humor of Baby
Boomer comedians. But, Lehrer observed, going too far
in those days was not really going very far. Nowadays,
when you can say anything, going too far isn't funny. It's
just vulgar, as opposed to being deft. Wit has died and
mere irreverence has replaced it."

And while "The Remains of Tom Lehrer" reminds us of
what we're missing, Lehrer isn't moved to resume his
performing career. Nor is he inspired to write new
topical songs. Where Elvis Costello once sang, "I used
to be disgusted, but now I'm just amused," Lehrer used
to be amused, but now, he says, he's not just disgusted,
he's angry.

Besides, though some contain dated references, Lehrer's
songs are still relevant because of the issues they
address. "I really believe that nothing is worth making
fun of unless it is worth taking seriously," he said. The
real subject of the song "Wernher Von Braun," for
example, was not so much the former Nazi rocket
scientist whose "political allegiance is one of
expedience," but the hypocrisy of Americans who
accepted him as long as he was on our side.

A coda: Years later, Lehrer learned that Von Braun's
daughter was applying to college and during the
interview unwittingly echoed the song's chilling final line
when she said that her father was presently learning
Chinese. "The dean of admissions," Lehrer said, "who
knew my songs, practically fell off his chair."

Lehrer does not believe his songs changed the world.
He agrees that he was preaching to the converted. "Not
even preaching," he amends, "but titillating the
converted. Preaching implies that you're giving them the
message they hadn't already gotten. I never expected
people to say, , I used to think war was good, but
now that I hear your songs, I realize it's bad.'"

In his brief performing career, Lehrer performed only 15
nightclub engagements and 104 solo concerts. He
performed in Chicago at Orchestra Hall, but never at the
legendary Mr. Kelly's nightclub. He wears this like a
badge of honor. "Oscar Marienthal, who was in charge
of the booking, took me to Mr. Kelly's to convince me
to play there," he recalled. "Anita O'Day was singing. It
was during the dinner show. Not only was the owner not
shutting up [the audience members] who were making
noise, but he was talking to me over them so he could
be heard over the noise of the patrons. And I said, I'm
never going to work here.' It gave me great pleasure, as
he kept increasing his offer, to say no."

The box set, Lehrer said, "is beyond my wildest dreams.
I've compared it to looking at your baby pictures. You
say, , what a cute baby.' I'm very pleased. I don't
say that every note or word is perfect, but there's
nothing I'm ashamed of. That's the highest compliment I
can pay myself."
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