Tom Lehrer is considered one of the most influential figures in comedy – despite a body of work consisting of just 37 pitch-black songs and a career that stopped abruptly when the counterculture he helped spawn eclipsed him. You can ask him why he quit, but good luck getting an answer.
Nearly 25 years ago, Jeff Morris, a high school senior in Jeffersonville, Ind., placed a phone call to his new idol. A skinny music nerd with an easy laugh, Morris was a devotee of the Dr. Demento Show, a long-running collection of brilliant musical oddities, from Frank Zappa to “Weird Al” Yankovic. That’s where he first encountered Tom Lehrer, whose music was a staple and who was, in the reckoning of the show’s eponymous host, the greatest musical satirist ever recorded. Morris had been assigned a first-person interview on the subject of censorship, and Lehrer seemed obvious.
Lehrer had been a sensation in the late 1950s, the era’s musical nerd god: a wryly confident Harvard-educated math prodigy who turned his bone-dry wit to satirical musical comedy. His sound looked further back, to Broadway of the ’20s and ’30s – a man and a piano, crisp and clever – but his lyrics were funny and sharp to the point of drawing blood, and sometimes appalling. One famous ditty celebrates an afternoon spent “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.” Another cheerful number, “So Long Mom,” dwells on the details of nuclear holocaust. “I Got It from Agnes” is an extended joke about sexually transmitted disease.
Many of Lehrer’s fans thought the artist might be dead, a belief Lehrer encourages. (“I was hoping the rumors would cut down on the junk mail,” he told the Harvard Crimson in 1981.) But Morris found him where he had always been, in a modest brown house on Sparks Street in Cambridge, Mass., where a mirrored wall helps Lehrer stay fit with tap-dancing routines and custom-ordered Moxie sodas sit in the fridge.
“Is this Tom Lehrer?” Morris asked over the phone, working to hide his nervousness.
“Yes,” replied a voice some 1,000 miles away.
“The Tom Lehrer who teaches math?”
“The Tom Lehrer that did some records in the ’50s and ’60s?”
Morris apologetically explained his school assignment, worried that Lehrer wouldn’t want to speak to him and self-conscious for having interrupted his day. The retired performer listened patiently to his request.
“Rather than talk to me for very long, just make up anything you want and I won’t deny it.”
In the recent history of American music, there’s no figure parallel to Lehrer in his effortless ascent to fame, his trajectory into the heart of the culture – and then his quiet, amiable, inexplicable departure. During his golden decade, he appeared on The Tonight Show twice, drew a denunciation in Time magazine, and by the early 1960s, seemed poised for a lasting place on an American cultural scene that itself was undergoing a radical upheaval.
Then Lehrer simply stopped performing. His entire body of work topped out at 37 songs. He bounced around Cambridge, never quite finishing his doctorate on the concept of the mode – the most common number in a set – in statistics. He kept the Sparks Street house but began spending most of his time in Santa Cruz, Calif., where he became a beloved instructor in math and musical theater for some 40 years.
“There’s never been anyone like him,” said Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the legendary Broadway producer who created Tom Foolery, a musical revue of Lehrer’s songs, in the ’70s. “Of all famous songwriters, he’s probably the only one that, in the great sense of the word, is an amateur in that he never wanted to be professional. And yet the work he did is of the highest quality of any great songwriter.”
Indeed, Tom Lehrer has done everything possible, short of dying, to vanish from the American cultural scene. Actually, if he were dead, or had gone insane, or had holed up in New Hampshire and burned his later work, his story might carry him more neatly into the canon.
Instead, he’s alive and well at 86. He’s a hard – but not quite impossible – man to reach, and an even harder one to engage in conversation. He’s said he’s glad the Johnny Carson videos were lost, and he gave away the master recordings of his songs to an acquaintance. But he has, over the years, given (and regretted giving) enough interviews, and touched enough lives – from those of his brilliant Harvard peers to his generations of students – to piece together a picture, if not an explanation, of an artist’s strange and indifferent relationship to his own legacy.
Lehrer’s songs and influence have survived his own indifference, and survived his place in the cultural cul de sac that was the anti-hippie, anti-folk music square left. If your parents went to a fancy college in the late 1950s, they probably played you “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” when you were 7, and “New Math” when you were 11, and blushed trying to explain “I Got It from Agnes.” And if you have kids of your own now, you’re probably playing them the same songs on the radio as you drive them back from a soccer game or over to their grandparents’. “Wernher Von Braun,” implausibly, cracks them up every time.
If you have a “Tom Lehrer” column in Tweetdeck, you’ll see about five tweets with his name an hour.
Lehrer was heir to Gilbert & Sullivan’s light opera; he can be heard today in what’s left of musical satire and in nerd-rock, from the nominally adult They Might Be Giants to the booming new genre explicitly aimed at kids. His latter-day admirers include Daniel Radcliffe. “He’s kind of my hero,” Radcliffe explained giddily, before performing a live rendition of “The Elements” in 2010.
“I wouldn’t call anybody today a modern-day Tom Lehrer,” said Yankovic, enthusing over how “sick and twisted” Lehrer’s work was. “Though he’s been inactive musically for several decades, I maintain that Tom Lehrer is our modern-day Tom Lehrer. However, there are quite a few current artists doing clever, creative musical comedy, including The Lonely Island, Flight of the Conchords, Tenacious D, Ylvis, Garfunkel and Oates, Reggie Watts, Bo Burnham, and (I’d like to think) myself. He set the bar for me – and provided an example of how a nerdy kid with a weird sense of humor could find his way in the world.”
That darkness in Lehrer’s work certainly didn’t come from a difficult childhood. He grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the son of a pioneering necktie manufacturer, James Lehrer, known for his obsessive involvement in every detail of the design and manufacturing process, and for his contributions to the United Jewish Appeal.
In a range of interviews over the years, Lehrer has recalled his childhood as idyllic. He skipped grades, studied math and piano and played with logic puzzles, and immersed himself in pop culture: He bought one or two 78 records every week, and favored the popular comedy show Vic and Sade on the radio. He grew up, most of all, on the Broadway of Danny Kaye and Cole Porter, which seems to have been more or less the equivalent of temple in his secular Jewish home. He spent summers in Maine at Camp Androscoggin, where he rubbed shoulders with a boy two years younger than he who would also eventually become one of his musical idols: Stephen Sondheim. They weren’t close. (“A 9-year-old isn’t friendly with a 7-year-old,” Lehrer’s friend David Robinson recalled him explaining.)
Lehrer was also a true prodigy. He raced through Horace Mann, a private high school in the Bronx, and graduated from Loomis Chaffee, a Connecticut prep school, in 1943. It was at Loomis that he wrote his “Dissertation on Education,” the poem he used to apply to college. Its last stanza:
“But although I detest/Learning poems and the rest/Of the things one must know to have ‘culture,’/While each of my teachers/Makes speeches like preachers/And preys on my faults like a vulture,/I will leave movie thrillers/And watch caterpillars/Get born and pupated and larva’ed,/And I’ll work like a slave/And always behave/And maybe I’ll get into Harvard…”
When Lehrer entered Harvard’s freshman class in the summer, he was 15 years old.
There, among the elite young men of his generation, Lehrer stood out for his wit and brilliance. In his room at Lowell House – a friend, David Robinson, still recalls the room number, M31, Lehrer had a stand-up piano. Lehrer and his friends reserved the evenings and weekends for pranks, insult comedy, and Lehrer just showing off: He once played a Rachmaninoff concerto with the left hand in one key and the right in half a key below.
He earned his first measure of campus fame in 1945 with “Fight Fiercely Harvard,” a song that questioned the toughness of the genteel school’s football team. (“How we shall celebrate our victory / We’ll invite the whole team up for tea!”)
When Lehrer entered graduate school in 1946 – at 18 – he found himself at the center of a group of friends who called themselves the “Graduate Gang.” They amused themselves with the quizzes, crossword puzzles, and math games they brought to their dinners in the Harvard dining hall. It was, in retrospect, a gilded circle: One member, Philip Warren Anderson, went on to win a Nobel Prize in physics; Lewis Branscomb served as the chief scientist of IBM; and Robinson was an executive director of the Carnegie Corporation.
“Tom was the intellectual leader in the sense that he was the funniest and he would come up with cuter problems,” Robinson said, adding that when Anderson wrote his 50th Anniversary Report for the Harvard class of ’94, he’d recall: “When I was a student with Tom Lehrer…”
In January 1951, Lehrer staged The Physical Revue, a musical drama of 21 songs that he had written and refined throughout his time at Harvard. The show was performed in Room 250 of Jefferson Laboratory for the introductory physics class Branscomb taught, and recorded using wire technology by Norman Ramsey, a young physics professor who would also go on to win the Nobel Prize. The next month, as a result of the success of the Revue, Lehrer and his friends were invited to perform at the Freshman Smoker, a raucous and, according to Robinson, “big-time” event that was described in a 1949 issue of the Harvard Crimson as “sex, beer, and a riot.”
He made it to the front page of the Boston Globe for his ad hoc Arbor Day Festival, calling upon friends to dress up as bulls to be felled by a “priestess,” plant miniature steel trees, and sing, while he presided as master of ceremonies.
Lehrer hadn’t worked at stardom, but he was becoming a star. People had begun asking him to do performances at cocktail parties and private events. “He kept doubling his price and would get half as many [gigs], which was just fine with him,” Robinson said.
Within the year, though, his graduate group of friends had begun to trickle out of Cambridge, first the chemist, then the physicists, then the historians who took much longer to get a Ph.D. As a souvenir for them, Lehrer decided in 1953 to make a record of the songs he had written at Harvard. He recorded Songs by Tom Lehrer in one session at Trans Radio studios in Boston on a 10-inch LP. He wrote the liner notes himself, called upon the wife of Robinson’s boss to do the illustrations, and had the covers printed at Shea Brothers printers near Harvard Square, just up the street from where he and Robinson shared a room on the third floor of a house.
He asked Robinson for advice on how many copies to print. Lehrer had paid full price, $5.59, to buy five for his parents; his father promised to buy another 35 to give away. It would take 250 records to break even. They puzzled over the math, and Robinson suggested he print 300; Lehrer paused for a moment. “I’m going to get the 400.”
A couple of days later, Robinson would receive a telegram from Lehrer while on a trip to California. Lehrer had just finished performing at Dunster House, and had taken his records with him. The message was brief: “They’re all sold.”
Lehrer then incorporated Lehrer Music, bought the rights to the record from Trans Radio, and began selling it by mail order through P.O. Box 121 at the Cambridge post office. He rented an empty room on the second floor of his rooming house, hired Harvard freshmen to help him with packing, and trudged down to the post office every Monday for months to send shipments.
By 1954 – when he was trying to avoid the draft by working for a defense contractor – he had sold 10,000 records. He had also quickly dissolved Lehrer Music, of which he was president, in December for “various reasons,” among them: “Certain stockholders objected to the president’s face.” He gave up and shipped off to Fort Meade in 1955, an early officer in the National Security Agency. (He is believed, during that time, to have invented vodka Jell-O shots.) By the end of the decade, he had sold 370,000 records.
Lehrer had also begun performing at nightclubs, first at Alpini’s Rendezvous on Kenmore Square in Boston and eventually at places such as The Blue Angel in Manhattan and The Hungry i in San Francisco. He also traveled extensively to college campuses, and performed benefits for liberal and anti-war groups.
He began performing internationally in 1959, when the Palace Theatre in London asked him to perform the first two Sundays in May. “In England in 1959, you couldn’t put on a play, [on Sunday] so the theaters were closed,” Robinson recalled. “But you could put on a concert.”
Lehrer filled the 1,400-seat theater both weekends and was a big enough hit that they kept him on through the end of May, after which he booked several more performances throughout England in June and early July.
Yet despite his enormous success, global popularity, and the release of his second album, More of Tom Lehrer that year, it was exactly at this time that Lehrer first told Robinson he wanted to stop performing. Lehrer has told friends and various interviewers that he didn’t enjoy “anonymous affection.” And while his work was widely enjoyed at the time, it was also something of a scandal – the clever songs about math and language were for everyone, but Lehrer’s clear-eyed contemplation of nuclear apocalypse was straightforwardly disturbing.
And amid the clever songs about math and language, and confrontational politics, a distinct lack of prudishness: There’s BDSM, promiscuity, gay Boy Scouts. “If you’re out behind the woodshed doing what you’d like to do, just be sure that your companion is a Boy Scout too,” Lehrer advised in “Be Prepared.” (He later changed that lyric to involve a Girl Scout in a futile effort to get a mainstream record deal.) Lehrer’s father, whose New York circle included figures like the lyricist Irving Caesar, had connected him with every prominent record producer in town. But though he drew their interest, he had too much edge.
“They were all afraid of the sick humor,” Robinson said. Goddard Lieberson, who would later become president of Columbia Records, gave the most generous estimate for Lehrer’s sales. He told him he would never sell more than 40,000 records.
In July 1959, Time featured Lehrer alongside Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl as the avatars of a new “sick” comedy, which it played as the symptom of a sick society. “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,” the magazine wrote.
It was a dated indictment, naive in light of what the next decade would bring. But it also captured something that remains disturbing and compelling about Lehrer’s work. Years later, when Lehrer collaborated with Mackintosh on Tom Foolery, he gave the director a note: “The nastier the sentiment, the wider the smile.” In 2000, the New York Times’ Todd Purdum reported that Lehrer was still playing around with the occasional political tune, including one, on the subject of late-term abortion, called “Bye-Bye, Baby.”
“Done right, social criticism set to a catchy tune always makes politics easier to digest,” said Lizz Winstead, creator of The Daily Show and a women’s rights activist. “You add a layer of humor and you can break down two barriers: One, singing a song over and over leads to repetition of a message, and two, humor creates likability. The more polarizing the issue, no matter what you say, you will have people who do not think you should use humor. He went for the jugular when it was desperately needed [yet] was always hilarious and poignant.”
Sick comedy was, in retrospect, a sign of artistic life in a conformist era. Lehrer ate up the notoriety, but he did not so easily find a place in the era that replaced it. He all but stopped performing concerts domestically in 1960, though he was happy to re-avail himself for a slew of international gigs in 1965 and 1967. “Here was a way for him to travel and get all his expenses paid,” Robinson recalls of the decision. He also had a brief stint on That Was the Week That Was, an early NBC precursor to Saturday Night Live. He spent the bulk of his time in Cambridge, where he’d been from the beginning, teaching math at Harvard and MIT. But he couldn’t, it seemed, quite finish his doctorate.
People would always ask him: “What do you want to do as a career?” Robinson said.
“What’s wrong with graduate school as a career?!” Lehrer would respond. He spent some 15 years working on and off on his dissertation, until he finally gave it up in 1965.
The space for one of the animating forces in Lehrer’s music, his liberal politics, was shrinking too. Lehrer was a hero of the anti-nuclear, civil rights left; he occupied the bleeding edge of the elite liberalism of the day. “I Wanna Go Back to Dixie” minces no words in its scorn for the industry of American nostalgia, and particularly for the American South: “I wanna talk with Southern gentlemen / And put my white sheet on again / I ain’t seen one good lynchin’ in years … The land of the boll weevil / Where the laws are medieval / Is callin’ me to come and nevermore roam.”
But his left was the square, suit-wearing, high-culture left. His circle at Harvard included Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the renowned historian, JFK biographer, and then-nominal chairman of the Cambridge chapter of Americans for Democratic Action. His political hero was Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, the man whom Richard Nixon damagingly dismissed as an “egghead.”
Stevenson’s losing battle marked the end of a political tradition, and also the beginning of the end of a kind of Ivy League liberal intellectualism’s place atop the Democratic Party. What was coming was the New Left and the counterculture, something whose aesthetics Lehrer couldn’t stand, even if their politics weren’t necessarily at odds.
“It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffeehouse or a college auditorium and come out in favor of the things that everybody else in the audience is against, like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on,” he deadpans in his introduction to the whiny “Folk Song Army” on That Was the Year That Was. “We are the folk song army / Everyone of us cares / We all hate poverty, war, and injustice / Unlike the rest of you squares.”
The New Left agreed with Lehrer on Vietnam. His last public performance, in fact, was on a fundraising tour for George McGovern in 1972. But the singer – who saw himself as “a liberal, one of the last” – felt less at home in the new Democratic Party. In the end, Stevenson’s party, and Lehrer’s, lost – and with it, at least to Lehrer’s mind, a prevailing sense of humor. “Things I once thought were funny are scary now,” he told People magazine in 1982. “I often feel like a resident of Pompeii who has been asked for some humorous comments on lava.”
”The liberal consensus, which was the audience for this in my day, has splintered and fragmented in such a way that it’s hard to find an issue that would be comparable to, say, lynching,” he also told the New York Times in Purdum’s 2000 article, which was part of his last round of interviews to promote an anthology of his work. ”Everybody knows that lynching is bad. But affirmative action vs. quotas, feminism vs. pornography, Israel vs. the Arabs? I don’t know which side I’m on anymore. And you can’t write a funny song that uses, ‘On the other hand.”’
By the late 1960s, Lehrer had no clear direction. His musical career was over, as far as he was concerned. His academic career had stalled. He didn’t like the cold. So he found a new home, perhaps surprisingly, at an institution that embodied the radical spirit of the 1970s, and rejected the conventional liberal consensus he was mourning. The University of California at Santa Cruz had embarked on an experiment in multidisciplinary education that appealed to Lehrer. The motto, recalled Dr. Tony Tromba, a UCSC professor who was on the hiring committee that brought Lehrer to campus in 1971, was “Distilling truth in the company of friends.”
Contrary to many colleges in the UC system, Santa Cruz eschewed the word “department,” favoring the idea of its professors teaching on “boards of studies.” Some of Lehrer’s best songs are about math and science – “New Math,” “The Elements,” and “Lobachevsky” are as funny, and educational, now as they were 50 years ago, and heralded the rise of cultural touchstones like Sesame Street. (In the 1970s, Lehrer wrote briefly for the educational show The Electric Company.) Lehrer was hired to teach a musical theater class in the history department, though he would eventually teach math at the university as well, spending winter semesters at Santa Cruz, yet continuing to be in Cambridge in the spring.
“He created an enormously positive experience for students,” Tromba said. “I don’t know of a single person who didn’t love him.”
Lehrer would teach and loosely direct his favorite musicals, one from each decade up to the ’70s, every two weeks, which the students would then perform in a campus lounge. Throughout the incredibly laid-back and casual course (Lehrer would admit in a 1980 BBC radio interview he was surprised the university even gave credit for it), he’d also expose students to his vast knowledge of musical theater history, lyricism, and composition.
“He would tell us the historical relevance of the musical we were doing,” said Kim Leatherman, who was in Lehrer’s class in 1988. “We did The Pajama Game, so he would tell us the relevance of the 7 1/2 cent wages and [what] the workers were saying. It was like a history lesson as well as a musical theater class.”
Perhaps revealing Lehrer’s proclivity for those, like him, who don’t have to try too hard, Leatherman auditioned for his class on a complete whim and was accepted at the expense of friends who had been dying to get in. And in addition to the lasting fondness his students expressed for their onetime teacher, they also all mentioned in interviews one of the characteristics that continues to make Lehrer such an enigmatic figure among his fans.
“He was one of the most private people I’ve ever met,” said another former student, Jamey Harvey, adding that it was an unspoken rule in Lehrer’s class that you didn’t mention his career as a performer. “It would have felt very intrusive to ask, between the warnings we got from our friends and the body language you got when you asked him about it. My sense was he thought it was embarrassing.”
His personal life, too, has been off limits, even to friends. Asked once by Jeff Morris if he’d been married or had children, he replied: “Not guilty on both counts.”
And rather than accept any admiration those around him might have had for his past successes, Lehrer was content to be proud of the work of his students, and of his colleagues who did theater. “He was a fan of us, the theater people there, which is just remarkably generous and humble of him,” recalled Danny Scheie, a drama professor at Santa Cruz who first met Lehrer in the early ’90s in Santa Cruz’s musical theater crowd.
Yet despite his retreat into a comfortable, bicoastal existence as an instructor on two college campuses, Lehrer has maintained an uncanny popularity, especially for a performer whose career totaled only a few years.
Around the time Lehrer was hired at UCSC, Mackintosh approached him with the idea to produce Tom Foolery. The show opened in London in 1980 and was by and large a success, eventually touring in Canada and produced for far-reaching audiences in South Africa and China. The show, slated for performances in Michigan and Washington later this year, continues to reward Lehrer with royalties. To date, he has sold more than two million records.
Between 22 years on The Simpsons and co-creating This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind and having his own radio show for 30 years, Harry Shearer knows a lot about the nexus of pop music and comedy, and cites Lehrer as one of his “principal inspirations,” particularly in the way he wrote and performed original music – and expertly – rather than just adding parody lyrics to known songs.
“Had he not withdrawn from the field,” said Shearer, “I suspect he’d still be at the top of his class.”
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.
Lehrer saw this Peter Pan in himself, joking about it before one of his last performances, in Copenhagen in 1967. “All of these songs were part of a huge scientific project to which I have devoted my entire life,” Lehrer said. “Namely, the attempt to prolong adolescence beyond all previous limits.”
But when Lehrer is the nostalgic music of your childhood, you want to like him. He always replies politely to his fans, no less when they are journalists seeking to profile him. Earlier this year, he put up with a brief telephone conversation with a BuzzFeed reporter, whom he referred to “Mr. Google” for further research. Told that search results concerning him are full of gaps and contradictions, he just laughed. “It doesn’t matter if the answer is correct – who cares?” he said. “And I lie a lot too.”
He then replied to our letter full of nostalgia and curiosity with a genial dismissal. “You seem to have devoted so much thought to the questions you ask that you should perhaps just write what you think is the truth, even if it’s just speculation, which – judging by today’s commentators on TV – is the easiest and therefore the most common form of punditry. I neither support nor encourage your efforts, but I shall not try to thwart them,” he wrote. And he was true to his word. He didn’t respond to a second letter, nor to a fact-checking email sent to his AOL email address; his email handle includes a phrase along the line of “living legend.” When we stopped by his Sparks Street house on a cold night in February, a light was on and a Prius was in the driveway, but nobody answered the door and Lehrer wrote that he had left town for California. (One underrated classic: “Hannukah in Santa Monica.”)
Why would an artist care so little about his own legacy? Is it a different kind of egotism? That lack of a need to be loved? Sheer laziness? A fellow teacher at UCSC, Michael Edwards, described Lehrer as a man who looked for the path of least resistance: He “found a way to avoid the harshness.”
Fans who grew up with him hear him now through the gauze of nostalgia, his cold edge dulled a bit by memory and repetition. But Lehrer isn’t the warmhearted old guy who fans – and profile writers – go looking for. With his polite demurrals and genuine indifference to his legacy, is he an anomaly in the famously narcissistic comedy world? Or maybe his is the most narcissistic posture of all: He really doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.
It’s a question that the truest fans see as beside the point. While Lehrer has made startlingly little effort to ensure a future for his work, a handful of superfans have filled in the gap. One is Erik Meyn, a Norwegian who manages the Tom Lehrer Wisdom Channel on YouTube, a feed of performance videos and playlists that has received more than 10 million views since 2007. Meyn originally posted content to the channel without Lehrer’s permission and called him from overseas in December 2008 to apologize, a conversation he later posted on the “Tom Lehrer!” Facebook page. An excerpt:
TL: Well, you see, I’m fine with that channel.
EM: You’re very kind. But my question is: Who in your family will take care of your copyright and your songs in the distant future?
TL: I don’t have a family.
EM: OK, but what do you think will happen to the channel and your songs? And if you have someone who will act on your behalf, could you give them my name in case they’d want the channel taken down?
TL: Yes, but there’s no need to remove that channel.
EM: I was just wondering what will happen in the future, because you’re certainly going to continue to sell records.
TL: Well, I don’t need to make money after I’m dead. These things will be taken care of.
EM: I feel like I gave away some of your songs to public domain without even asking you, and that wasn’t very nice of me.
TL: But I’m fine with that, you know.
EM: Will you establish any kind of foundation or charity or something like that?
TL: No, I won’t. They’re mostly rip-offs.
Jeff Morris, who has been working as Dr. Demento’s archivist in addition to being a full-time computer programmer at Indiana University for the past 20 years, has stayed in touch with Lehrer since their initial contact in 1990. Morris has even visited Lehrer on three occasions; he proposed writing an authorized biography, which Lehrer, unsurprisingly, declined.
In 2011, Morris was rummaging through the Sparks Street basement, and alongside the collection of books and records Lehrer referred to as his “Noel Coward shrine” were two boxes marked “masters.” They were, to Morris, “the holy grail.” These were the original recordings of the 1959 album More of Tom Lehrer: the orchestral session and outtakes and Lehrer’s recordings. Morris offered to help Lehrer remix them from half-inch tapes into stereo recordings.
“Well, why don’t you just take them with you?” Lehrer said.
“I was like, ‘Are you kidding?! These are the master copies!’” Morris recalled. “I was just trying to reassure him, I’ll be very careful with them, I won’t let them fall in the wrong hands, I’m not going to distribute copies to anyone without your permission.”
“I don’t care!” Lehrer told him. “They’re not worth anything to me.”
It’s tempting to see such profound apathy to one’s own work – work that has managed to affect and influence three generations and counting, despite him – as a poignant mystery. What’s missing from Lehrer’s story that could explain it? What aren’t his old friends – none of them evidently surprised by a life spent teaching at a state school and tap dancing for the mirror – saying? But the real answer might be the simplest: It’s easier to not care. Music and math had come easy, and Lehrer was able to become a star without caring much.
But the challenge of recontextualizing your politically charged songs for a wider but more radicalized audience is a hard one, and it’s easier to not bother. When the anti-establishment mean streak that defines you becomes the cultural norm, it’s easier to not compete. You cannot leave your singular career trapped perfectly in amber if people keep asking you to dig it out and inspect it. We have been conditioned by years of tortured artist narratives to find this kind of complacency alien, or offensive, or at best unsatisfying, but what could be more human?
In 2007, long after Lehrer had shot down Morris’ idea of a biography, he took his fan out to dinner in Santa Cruz. At the end of their meal, Lehrer reached for his wallet, to which Morris quickly protested, “Oh, no! I can pay!”
“I will pay,” Lehrer responded. “It’s the least I can do, and that’s why I’m doing it.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the semester Lehrer began at Harvard and his dorm room number. (4/10/14)
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