December 1997

REVISITING TOM LEHRER

By Paul D. Lehrman

I'm going to depart from my usual format here (i.e., ranting and raving), because I want to tell you about meeting a legend. Deep in the bowels of my consciousness echoes a nasal, lilting, wonderfully cynical voice belonging to a former graduate student in mathematics at Harvard named Tom Lehrer. Lehrer is a legend for many reasons, one of which is that it could be argued he invented the self-produced hit record. Like many legends, he has a new record out. Unlike many legends with new records out, however, Tom Lehrer is not dead. Which is one of the reasons why I got to meet him–and have a conversation with that voice, right there in the same room.

For the benefit of those to whom the name is unfamiliar, Lehrer hit a nerve in the '50s by writing, performing and recording ditties and parodies like "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" and "The Old Dope Peddler." His songs were clever, literate and just naughty enough that those who heard them knew they were in on something special. I first heard his records when my older brother, who was all of ten, brought them home one day.

I didn't understand a lot of the lyrics: "Don't solicit for your sister, that's not nice/unless you get a good percentage of her price" (from "Be Prepared," his lampoon of the Boy Scouts) remained beyond my comprehension for quite a few years. But I listened, and I memorized. As apparently did many others: With just three albums in his catalog, Lehrer has sold something like a million-and-a-\thalf records in the U.S. alone, and thousands more overseas. A quick search for his name on the Internet reveals more than 600 sites, most of which are personal home pages from people (almost all of whom were born after he stopped recording) who list Lehrer as one of their primary influences.

Lehrer stopped writing songs for public consumption 30 years ago, but he is still very much alive and well, migrating with the seasons between Cambridge, Mass., where he just "hangs out, puttering and frittering," and Santa Cruz, Calif., where he teaches a few college courses. He is a private person, who surfaces rarely for interviews (print and radio only–he won't do television because "I don't want to be recognized walking down the street,") and then only "when I've got something to sell." The last time was some 15 years ago, when British theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh (Miss Saigon) put together a revue of Lehrer's songs called Tomfoolery, which eventually played all over the world. "I thought it would be easy to get the rights to perform Lehrer's songs," Mackintosh said at the time. "I figured he was dead."

The rest of this column, as well as a full-text transcript of my interview with Lehrer, and 56 more Insider Audio columns, PLUS over 100 of my favroite music, audio, and technology jokes, are now available in The Insider Audio Bathroom Reader, published by Thomson Course Technology PTR.

Copyright ©2006 by Paul D. Lehrman