|Tom Lehrer: Mathematician turned singer-songwriter turned mathematician again.|
"One man deserves the credit. One man deserves the blame."
Tom Lehrer would scoff at the idea of being anyone's hero. Of course, this is part of the reason why he's one of mine.
A native New Yorker born way back in 1928 (one shudders to do the grim calculations here), Lehrer was a child prodigy who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard at the age of 19. Since that time, he has spent most of his career either teaching or lecturing about mathematics at some of America's finest academic institutions, including MIT and the University of California at Santa Cruz. He formally retired in 2001, but he's still listed at the Rate My Professors website with a student review as recent as 2005.
As with much of the music which now clutters up my brain, the bizarre and sometimes brutal song stylings of Tom Lehrer first entered my life through The Dr. Demento Show. This was back in the 1990s, before the Internet was any damned good, and it was difficult to come by information about Tom's life or career back then. I couldn't even find a picture of the guy! I knew instinctively, though, that he wore glasses. Somehow, that was obvious to me. His myopia was audible. Despite the apparent rudeness of his lyrics, Mr. Lehrer conducted himself with the utmost decorum onstage, using impeccable Ivy League diction, eclectic and impressive vocabulary, and carefully-curated grammar. On his records, he comes across as man far too smart to take life the least bit seriously. Lerher's musical career occurred during the Cold War when it seemed ever-more-likely that mankind would annihilate itself with increasingly-deadly weapons. This looming apocalypse is the topic of several Lehrer songs, and he treats it the way he treats all other subjects: with an air of detached amusement at the absurdity of it all.
|Tom Lehrer's 1953 debut|
In all instances, the live versions are superior to their (crude) studio counterparts. For one thing, Tom tends to put a little more oomph into his singing and playing when he's onstage, hamming it up for the benefit of the crowd. Better yet, his between-song monologues are little masterpieces of deadpan, spoken-word comedy. He does long, elaborate intros to his tunes, often going off on absurd tangents which have little to nothing to do with the songs. These little digressions are the source of many of Lehrer's best one-liners and bon mots. A particular favorite, from his description of a fictitious doctor: "His educational career began interestingly enough in agricultural school where he majored in animal husbandry... until they caught him at it one day." The audience roars at that joke, and the reaction of the crowd is another reason why Tom's best records are his live ones. There's palpable tension as the audience members decide how far they're willing to let Mr. Lehrer go in his pursuit of tasteful bad taste. You can practically hear them wince, for instance, when Tom gets to this couplet from "Bright College Days":
Oh, soon we'll be out amid the cold world's strife.
Soon we'll be sliding down the razor blade of life.
I'll leave this little discussion of Tom Lehrer's brilliant career with one of the nastiest, truest, and most cynical songs ever written. It first appeared on his 1953 debut album, and when he reprised it on his first live LP, he dedicated to those in the audience who were still in love. If you are in love, I now dedicate this song to you:
HEALTH NEWS AND NOTES: I haven't done one of these updates in a while because, frankly, there's been nothing much to report. Taking meds and attending therapy sessions no longer feel like digressions from my life anymore. They're simply part of my life, as regular as a job. Speaking of which, my job remains simultaneously stressful and dull. Of course, I am fortunate to be employed at all in any capacity, so I am very grateful to my corporate paymasters. I cannot forget that the insurance I have through my job is what's financing my treatment. Homer Simpson once memorably referred to alcohol as "the cause of and solution to all of life's problems." That's kind of how I feel about my job. It makes me miserable, but I'd be lost without it. My anxiety and depression have tapered off quite nicely over the last month, and the severe gastrointestinal problems which were once a huge part of my life have now disappeared utterly. I'm still isolating myself from the world, and I'm always in danger of disappearing into a sinkhole of solipsism or narcissism. I can spend entire weekends pondering the subjective nature of "truth" and "reality" rather than, you know, talking to other human beings or getting fresh air and exercise. Gotta work on that.