Thursday, November 28, 2013

Hanukkah in Santa Monica

by Paul Lukas

Musical comedy usually ends up failing on both the musical and comedic fronts. Once you learn all the words, there's rarely any need to listen again -- and that's assuming there was any reason to listen in the first place.

But Tom Lehrer remains the great exception. He wasn't just a humorist — he was a satirist, and a scathingly effective one. And he wasn't just a musician — he taught musical theater on the university level, where he also taught political science and, to greater acclaim, mathematics. He is almost certainly the only person with this background to become the subject of a Rhino box set. Or to put it another way, Tom Lehrer was a pretty unusual cat.

Lehrer was born in Manhattan in 1928. He took piano lessons as a child and later, while in his 20s, began writing satirical songs as a hobby, some of which he ended up performing in nightclubs. His shows were enthusiastically received, so in 1954 he booked some studio time and recorded a 10" album, Songs by Tom Lehrer, featuring such titles as "Be Prepared" (which advised Boy Scouts on the best ways to smoke a joint while the Scoutmaster wasn't looking), "I Wanna Go Back to Dixie" (an ode to lynching, poll taxes, and the like) and "The Old Dope Peddler" (self-explanatory). Initially issued in a pressing of 400 copies on the artist's own Lehrer Records, it marked the beginning of Lehrer's reluctant engagement with the music biz.

After releasing a follow-up record, More of Tom Lehrer, Lehrer had become enough of a cult phenomenon to secure a contract with Reprise, which issued a live LP, An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer, in 1959. But it wasn't until his 1965 album, That Was the Year That Was, that Lehrer broke through to the mainstream. The LP hit No. 18 on the Billboard album chart and eventually went gold — not bad for a guy who's main gig was as a math professor.

I discovered That Was the Year That Was at age 11, when I found it in my parents' record collection. (It was one of maybe three non-classical LPs in the house.) It was filled with topical songs and one-liners, most of which I was too young to understand, but I wasn't too young to recognize intelligence, rhythm, or timing, all of which Lehrer clearly had. Even without fully comprehending all of his material, I was hooked.

Turns out I chose the right record, because That Was the Year That Was contains the cream of Lehrer's recorded output. Among the highlights: "Smut" (a paean to pornography that avoids the typical clich├ęs), "Wernher Von Braun" (a hilarious assessment of the Nazi-turned-American rocket scientist), "New Math" (a simple arithmetic problem set to music — first in base-10 and then in base-8), and "The Vatican Rag" (which I once played for a seventh grade schoolmate who happened to be Catholic, not realizing the extent to which the song was mocking his religion).

Despite the LP's success, it marked the end of Lehrer's recording career. He dabbled in industrial musicals and children's music for a bit, at one point writing songs for the PBS show The Electric Company, but for the most part he returned to academia, citing a distaste for touring and a sense of tedium from playing the same songs over and over (although one suspects that the growing 1960s counterculture had eclipsed his once-radical positions). His songs have been repackaged and reissued many times over the years, and Rhino gave him the box set treatment in 2000 — a testament to the lasting impact of his brief career.

Lehrer was raised Jewish, and you can definitely hear hints of Yiddish theater in his vocals. You can also sense, or at least imagine, the underlying plight of the Jewish nerd — I mean, a satirical musician who's also a mathematician seems bound to be a bit of a misfit in both fields, right? But Lehrer rarely addressed Judaism in his material. One exception is the fairly pedestrian "(I'm Spending) Hanukkah in Santa Monica," which is little more than a series of rhymes. A better example comes in one of his best songs, "National Brotherhood Week," the third verse of which goes like so:

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Muslims,
And everybody hates the Jews!

Lehrer sings this progression not with self-pity, and certainly not with self-loathing, but with sardonic glee. It's the kind of line, and the kind of delivery, that only a Jew could pull off.

Lehrer, now 85, is still living, but he no longer performs and rarely gives interviews. Happy Hanukkah, Tom.


"National Brotherhood Week" mp3
by Tom Lehrer, 1965.
available on That Was the Year That Was

"Wernher Von Braun" mp3
by Tom Lehrer, 1965.
available on That Was the Year That Was

"The Vatican Rag" mp3
by Tom Lehrer, 1965.
available on That Was the Year That Was

"(I'm Spending) Hanukkah In Santa Monica" mp3
by Tom Lehrer
available on The Rest Of Tom Lehrer


Jeff Gee said...

Seem to be some odd glitches in the mp3's of 'Vatican Rag' and 'National Brotherhood Week.' Towards the end of both. Is it just me?

Ted Barron said...

Fixed, Jeff. Thanks for the heads up.

WhatTS said...

Suspense is getting very high about nights 3-5...

Let's Find H-Man A Wife said...

National Brotherhood Week rates a full four stars. It's terrific.