UCSC math lecturer Tom Lehrer revives recordings for re-release
DAN WHITE - Sentinel staff writer
Article Launched: 04/10/2000 4:00:00 AM MDT
When they see me coming, the birdies all try and hide
But they still go for peanuts when coated with cyanide
Tom Lehrer, "Poisoning Pigeons In The Park"
By DAN WHITE Sentinel staff writer
SANTA CRUZ Tom Lehrer still has it in for all the dirty, smelly pigeons more than 40 years after his signature song came out.
"It just amused me that people thought pigeons were worthy of life," Lehrer recalled in an interview last week. "People think pigeons are birds. But really, theyre vermin."
The filthy American pigeon is just one of Lehrers many targets. In the 1950s, he gained a national following as a political satirist, a piano-playing lampooner of bloated politicians, academia and Cold War paranoia.
Lehrer has been somewhat reclusive since turning his back on those days and taking a job as a UC Santa Cruz math lecturer in 1972. But he agreed to an interview to plug "The Remains Of Tom Lehrer," a three-CD box set from Rhino Records due out in May.
The political songwriter and part-time Santa Cruzan who turned 72 Sunday had politely but firmly rebuffed a Sentinel reporter trying to interview his idol in 1984.
"I really dont like people to know Im in town," he told the crushed reporter.
But last week, speaking from his home in Cambridge, Mass., Lehrer was happy to talk about the new release.
The Remains of Tom Lehrer, a release by Rhino Records, includes Lehrer standards as well as rarities and three newer tunes. Photo provided by Kellar Autumn. Lehrer enjoyed helping Rhino make the selections.
"I sit there and chuckle at individual lines," he said.
He wouldnt name a favorite. "It would be hard to single them out," he said with mock grandeur. "They are all so brilliant."
Fans should expect standards ("The Old Dope Peddler," "Smut") rarities ("I Got It From Agnes") and three newer tunes ("Im Spending Chanukah In Santa Monica," "Trees" and "Selling Out.") The $49.98 package also includes songs from the Electric Company childrens show, including "Silent E."
Starting in the early 1950s, Lehrers performances were a strangely hilarious spectacle a skinny, smug-sounding Harvard math fellow singing jaunty little toe-tappers about oversexed Boy Scouts, imperialism and nuclear incineration.
The never-married Lehrer also penned such love songs as "The Masochism Tango" and "I Hold Your Hand In Mine," (in which the lovers hand is no longer attached to her body.)
With deft wordplay and nasty punchlines, Lehrer came across as gleefully misanthropic in his songs. No subject was off-limits, including Christmas.
"Hail our dear old friend Kris Kringle driving his reindeer across the sky. Dont stand underneath when they fly by."
But he was friendly and self-effacing during the interview, while showing his thorny wit hadnt changed.
"A lot of things I think about are so nasty, I wouldnt even dream about putting it on a record," he said. "Dont ask me what I think about the Pope, for example."
In his heyday, Lehrer tweaked sensibilities at a hypersensitive time. When Americans were freaking out about the bomb and the Russians, Lehrer lovingly reminded them that "well all fry together when we fry. Well be french-fried potatoes bye and bye. There will be no more misery when the world is our rotisserie ..."
His material was considered so touchy that he had to release it on his own record label and, at first, hand-deliver his product to stores.
Big labels passed him by, even when he got big. Yet his work remains in print.
"Ive sold respectably over the past 40 years," he said. "But not like N Sync."
While he seemed a little shy about the newer material "I dont want to sell the (box set) with the new stuff" the new contributions should put an end to stories that hes dead.
"Oh, how he loved that," said Susan Morgenstern, one of Lehrers first students at UCSC, referring to premature rumors of his demise.
Far from deceased, Lehrer has been very active, wintering in Santa Cruz and teaching a UCSC "math course for non-mathematicians."
His career also got an unlikely burst of energy in the early 1970s thanks to Los Angeles-based syndicated radio host Doctor Demento, a longtime Lehrer fan. " The Old Dope Peddler went over really well in 1970," Dr. Demento said in an interview with the Sentinel last week.
On Dr. Dementos show, Lehrers songs found an unlikely place beside such songwriting giants as ex-wrestler Freddie Blassie ("Pencilnecked Geek") and Barnes and Barnes ("Fish Heads.")
Lehrer still scores big on Dr. Dementos weekly countdown.
"I usually make the Funny Five, right up there with Dead Puppies," Lehrer said dryly, referring to the best known song by one Ogden Edsl.
"(Lehrer) is pretty steadily No. 2, right behind Weird Al Yankovic," said Dr. Demento. "No. 3 is Frank Zappa."
Some recording artists hate talking about their signature tunes. Once, during a Sentinel interview with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, the temperature dipped to zero when Yarrow was asked, once more, to talk about "Puff The Magic Dragon."
But Lehrer didnt mind delving into "Pigeons," the first song on his 1959 album, "An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer," which reached the half-million sales mark in 1996.
You could say "Pigeons" is Lehrers "American Pie," or even better, his "Free Bird." The song doesnt have any message except pure birdie loathing.
"I always thought (pigeons) were disgusting, and I lived in New York City," he said. "If I wrote a song about poisoning dogs and I dont like dogs either nobody would have thought of it as funny. Pigeons are just on the borderline for people who really dont like them but dont wish them ill, or do wish them ill but wouldnt necessarily poison them themselves."
Lehrer once played the song for a roomful of UCSC students just to see how theyd react, said colleague John Dizikes, an American studies professor.
"Some were amazed and shocked," Dizikes said. "Did he really hate birds?"
It was an example of Lehrers piercing style, Dizikes said.
"Hes a mortal enemy of political correctness of any kind," Dizikes said. "What he is against is the complacent, smug sense of Im right, of course, about everything.
At his most recent public appearance in 1998, Lehrer performed "Pigeons" in London at a gala honoring famed producer Cameron Mackintosh, who put on a revue of Lehrer tunes in the late 70s.
How appropriate that the performance, featuring a song about doing questionable things to birds and squirrels, took place in front of the Queen Of England herself.
Born in 1928 in Manhattan, Lehrer grew up in a family that was Jewish but had "more to do with the delicatessen then the synagogue," he told Rhino Records. In his home, according to Lehrer, "God was primarily an expletive."
One of his early tunes, "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" was a deliberately snooty, wimpy twist on the traditional macho football song. "Wouldnt it be peachy if we won the game? Oh, goody!"
In between studying and later teaching math at Harvard, Lehrer played Cambridge smokers for fellow students but his career ripened after his service in the Army, where he claims to have co-invented the vodka Jello shot.
He paid nostalgic tribute to the Army in his song, "It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier," in which he portrayed servicemen as incompetent goons.
The military was a frequent target. Once, after a performance of "Be Prepared," his Boy Scouts send-up, "an ex-Marine came up to me and, speaking in his native language, Neanderthal, reprimanded me for making light of the Boy Scouts, asserting that they were the Marines of tomorrow," he said in an interview with Doctor Demento. "I agreed."
At the height of his concert phase, he played 1,500 to 2,000-seat venues but concert tours barely existed then. "Now, they book you for four months," he said. "The Kingston Trio really broke the barrier."
He appeared throughout the United States and England, then toured Australia and New Zealand in 1960.
While he officially retired from touring that year, he released a second live record, then came back to write songs for a TV show, "That Was The Week That Was," which led to a 1965 live record of the same name. One song, "The Vatican Rag," drew backlash.
"Vatican" was Lehrers sendup of the ecumenical council in Rome, which had recently allowed the vernacular to be introduced into portions of the Mass to replace Latin.
Lehrer asked audiences if the church might "sell the product" more if it introduced popular song forms into the liturgy. Then he gave his own "modest example."
"Drink the wine and chew the wafer," he sang. "Two, four, six, eight, time to transubstantiate!"
While audiences howled, others werent amused.
"A teacher in upstate New York played it and got fired, or reprimanded, and became a big cause," Lehrer said. "I played it on a TV station. I mostly got mail from parochial students whose teachers asked them to write in, people who hadnt heard the song. One store in Canada didnt play it."
Years later, an undergraduate told Lehrer that her mother still hated him because of that song, according to a former student.
His performing days didnt end all at once, but he found the times were getting a lot less funny.
"The sense of humor disappeared around the late 60s with Vietnam and the civil rights movement," he said. The late concert promoter Bill Graham once told him he couldnt book comedy acts in the late 60s "because people wanted to protest, not laugh. My audience fractured with feminism and affirmative action."
But 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 wouldnt call it a career."
He also downplays his touring phase. "I did 104 concerts, of which little more than a half were not in the U.S."
Performing is no longer his way of life.
"After a while, anything becomes routine. If I worked on an assembly line, Id get used to it. It was nice, it was fun, and then you go away."
It may seem odd that Lehrer teaches math at UCSC. It sounds a bit like Groucho Marx teaching Gothic architecture or Stan Freberg running a defense languages institute. But Lehrer considers himself a serious academic first and a performer second.
Lehrer has taught math and statistics at Harvard, Wellesley and MIT and two courses at UCSC. He began his long, part-time association with UCSC in 1972.
In the early days, a student once yelled out, "Give us a course in New Math," a reference to one of his songs. Lehrer ignored the comment and went about his business, said Susan Morgenstern, who was in the class at the time. She said he didnt like to talk much about his career then.
"He was a little sensitive about it," said Morgenstern, who became friends with Lehrer and sometimes sang duets with him.
Over time, she said, he loosened up, even breaking into his famous "Elements" song at a gathering.
"Our jaws dropped," she said. "It was a breakthrough moment for us." Hed brushed up on the lyrics beforehand, she said.
She also said Lehrers stage persona belied his kindness and generosity.
Though Lehrer rarely performs his old material, he has written spur-of-the-moment songs to honor UCSC co-workers and, in one case, to help out a student performing at a recital, said UCSCs Cowell College colleague Angie Christmann.
But Lehrer is also private, Dizikes said. "I wouldnt say I know him well. I dont think most people do."
Lehrer also taught a popular musical theater course, selecting 15 UCSC students to put on classic musicals. He accompanied the performers on piano in front of packed houses at Stevenson College. In spite of meager publicity, lines to get in were long. He and Dizikes also collaborated on a tribute to Kurt Weill,
In recent years Lehrer stopped his theater class but still teaches math.
He still finds worthy song subjects but "I cant figure out how to make a song out of them. ... I wanted marijuana to be legal and guns to be illegal and the government wants it to be the other way around."
He seems to be living contentedly off the old recordings.
"I dont have to work," he said. "That is terrific. And I can say no to people. Well give you a million dollars to play Carnegie Hall. That didnt happen, but people make me offers."
These days he enjoys a few other humorists, such as Eddie Izzard. "Hes fun," Lehrer said. "But most resort to profanity or whatever, or dont talk about real issues, or are so disgusting, like Dennis Miller."
In spite of changing tastes, Lehrers records still sell, while many of his contemporaries have fallen into the dustbin of memory.
"Allan Sherman did very very well," he said. "But you dont hear much about him now. Hes long dead. That helps."