Thursday, April 9, 2015


When I was a kid, I liked to check the same things out from the library so I could enjoy things over and over again. The items I checked out the most? Dr. Demento cassettes. Each one was dedicated to a decade, starting with the 'Fifties and going through the 'Eighties. Great stuff. I found a lot of gems in there.

One of my favorite discoveries, however, was Tom Lehrer. I'd already heard "The Masochism Tango," but I didn't know anything beyond it being a funny song. I didn't know the songwriter or performer or anything like that. And then I found it on one of those cassettes. More delightfully, however, I found "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" on another. Now that I knew Tom Lehrer's name, on a whim I looked him up and found TOM LEHRER REVISITED, which the library luckily had.

And so my life changed.

I can't tell you how wonderful it was to discover this treasure trove of comedic songs about brutal murder, dope peddling, the end of the world and many other topics. Plagiarizing mathematicians, boys pimping out their sisters (for a good percentage of her price, naturally), southerners who haven't seen a good lynching in years, these are the savages that prowl through Lehrer's lyrics, and they're all funny as fuck.

After hearing his music, it's hard to imagine that his true love is mathematics. He attended Harvard at the age of 15, and he worked at Los Alamos during the Cold War. He taught at MIT. Up until recently, he was teaching math in California. This is an incredibly smart dude, and you could see he poured a lot of that into his viciously funny songs.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I've been posting some of my favorite songs of his throughout the day (it's his 87th birthday). Classically trained on piano since the age of seven, he has released songs that sound innocuous enough . . . just so long as you're not listening to the lyrics. Once you tune in to the words, you'd be surprised to find him, say, taking on the Catholic church in a ragtime song. Or maybe you wouldn't have expected to hear the story of a crazy woman who murders her whole family hiding in an Irish ballad. Or the guy, who cut off his lover's hand after murdering her, living in what sounds like a classical romantic tune.

He's also really good at writing songs that are incredibly hard to sing along with, like "New Math." Another song, "The Elements," is a recital of all the elements on the Periodic Table performed in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan. Even so, the songs are catchy as all hell.

He once talked about his humor in these terms (paraphrased, as I don't have the article in front of me): first you throw the baby in the air, and you catch it. And the baby laughs. Then you throw the baby in the air, and you don't catch it. Then YOU laugh. This is very true, and it explains my sense of humor pretty well, too. He was also fond of saying, "If after hearing my songs just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while."

Apparently, he stays pretty current. When 2 Chainz sampled "The Old Dope Peddler" in a song, Lehrer wrote to him, stating: "As sole copyright owner of [the song], I grant you motherfuckers permission to do this." And even though he's retired from music, there is a rumor that he's tinkering with a song about late-term abortion called "Bye-Bye Baby."

I can go on forever about my love of his work, but I think I've gone on enough. If you want to learn more, check this out. And then go out and buy all of his albums. The live ones are best, since he adds commentary in the introduction to each song. Also, on REVISITED, he introduces himself in a most unusual manner. I love the bit about translating THE WIZARD OF OZ to Latin, and his bit on doing impressions of diseases. If you're a sick and classy fuck like me, you will love Tom Lehrer.

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