THOUGH I dined with Tom Lehrer a couple of times I had not spoken with him for 17 or 18 years. When I last saw him, around 2000, he was playing and singing songs from Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” in the music recital hall at UC Santa Cruz, whose faculty he joined in 1972 as a part-time mathematics professor.
But when I phoned him last week to ask for an interview, he turned me down flat. “I’m just a boy who can’t say yes,” he said, anxious that one interview would open a floodgate to similar requests. Since I’ve loved the guy’s gleefully outrageous songs since my late teens I could hardly presume to infringe his privacy now. But I certainly can indulge my impressions and recollections of the 87-year-old Living Legend.
Despite having collected LPs of him singing those wonderful iconoclasms, I snapped up the definitive Rhino release in 2000 of the complete songs, in three CDs, and a hardcover booklet of equal dimensions—but unequaled added value—under the title “The Remains of Tom Lehrer.” (It’s now out of print and you can’t have mine.) Some of the material on the CDs is repeated; the original LP recordings date from 1953, ’59, ’60, ’65 with orchestra, and ’70-72. Later studio recordings date ’93, ’97 and ’99. They include live concerts and studio sessions.
Since he first came to Santa Cruz, Lehrer has regularly divided his year into two halves: six months here and the other six—more or less—in Cambridge where he has lectured in math and statistics at Harvard. He also taught at Wellesley and MIT. At UCSC he taught math “for non-mathematicians” and, for a few quarters, a popular course in musical theater that culminated in mounting a small production.
To say Lehrer’s a very private person is an understatement. In a 2008 interview, given to Dan White at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, UCSC colleague John Dizikes, with whom Lehrer has collaborated musically, observed, “I wouldn’t say I know him well. I don’t think most people do.”
When he’s teaching, Lehrer doesn’t want the subject of his performing ‘career’ to be brought up in class. When that has happened his typical response is to ignore it. Even in social gatherings, the subject has made him uncomfortable, unless the situation was oriented toward American musical theater, in which case he has allowed himself to be coaxed into taking a chorus or two. But there are a couple of places that his two worlds intersect: “New Math” from 1965 and “That’s Mathematics” from 1993.
Lehrer told White that he dislikes the suggestion that he abandoned a career. “The question is the wrong way around,” he said. “I wrote 37 songs in 20 years. I wouldn’t call it a career.” He also filled in another gap: “I did 104 concerts, of which little more than a half were not in the U.S.” (You can watch his 1967 concert—his last—at Copenhagen on YouTube. Click HERE)
As a youngster Lehrer studied piano. He didn’t especially like classical music and, in response, his mother found him that rarest of teachers who taught popular-song piano. Finding his left hand didn’t enjoy the same facility as his right, he went instead for stride, which, history has confirmed, was perfect for writing, playing and singing his songs. And also a perfect fit for his take-no-prisoners lyrics and sharp-edged rhyme schemes. If you should happen to inhabit any of them you’ll soon find your world razed to the ground.
“The Vatican Rag” is a good—well maybe not good for everyone—example: Do whatever steps you want if, You have cleared it with the Pontiff, Ev’rybody say his own, Kyrie eleison, Doin’ the Vatican Rag.
“Alma” tells us about the prolific Alma Schindler, who couldn’t stay out of some man’s bed. She married three of her lovers: Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel. Alma, tell us, all modern women are jealous. You should have a statue in bronze, For bagging Gustav and Walter and Franz.
“The Irish Ballad.” About a maid I’ll sing a song, Sing rickety tickety tin, Who didn’t have her fam’ly long, Not only did she do them wrong, She did ev’ryone of them in, them in, She did ev’ry one of them in.
From “When You Are Old and Gray.” An awful debility, A lessened utility, A loss of mobility, Is a strong possibility. In all probability, I’ll lose my virility, And you your fertility, And desirability, And this liability, Of total sterility, Will lead to hostility, And a sense of futility, So let’s act with agility, While we still have the facility, For we’ll soon reach senility, And lose the ability.
The first time I dined with Tom Lehrer he admitted that his songwriting ‘ability’ had gone south. Yet he bounced back briefly for some more ditties, not so much skewering mockery as clever word games, and the silly giggle, I’m Spending Hannukah in Santa Monica.
Long may the Living Legend keep living!