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Still pithy after all these years


September 11, anthrax, shoe bombs, dirty bombs --- are we depressed yet? Sometimes the only defense against gloom and doom is finding the dark humor where you can.

            One night, while losing sleep, I tried thinking about what would make the perfect line-up of songs on a compilation album for the apocalypse. There would be Jim Morrison singing "The End" and Leonard Cohen droning "Dance Me to the End of Love." Maybe we could talk The Four Tops into slightly altering one of their hits. How about: "My Whole World Ended When the Whole World Ended."

            Then it occurred to me; all I really needed to do was pull out my old Tom Lehrer records. Four decades ago, Lehrer wrote some of the finest apocalyptic songs in the history of recorded music.

I was in elementary school in the early 1960s, when the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us to the brink. How reassuring it was to know that, in the event of a bomb, all we needed to do was get under our desks and keep our heads down. Or sit on the floor of the cloakroom; no radiation could penetrate a cloakroom.

            In the mid-1960s I remember visiting an air-raid shelter built under the home of some friends of my family in the Philadelphia suburbs. And in the late-1960s the hippies at my high school hung out under the auditorium, munching on air-raid crackers stocked by the ton in case thousands of students had to live there indefinitely.

            The term "genius" is often an exaggeration when applied to songwriters. But, in the case of Lehrer, it's an apt description. When he wasn't writing incredibly pithy songs, Lehrer served as a professor of math at Harvard University and, later, the University of California at Santa Cruz.

            He began his musical career by singing his warped songs at parties and coffee houses while a grad student at Harvard. In 1953 he spent $15 for studio time and put out 400 copies of his first record --- a 10-inch LP. Word spread and the modest record went on to sell 350,000 copies. With songs about dismemberment and murder, that first album, Songs of Tom Lehrer, sits firmly in the sick comedy tradition.

            But Lehrer matured. His next album, 1959's An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer, is more erudite than gory. It does, nevertheless, include two delightfully nasty songs, "The Masochism Tango" and "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park."

            In 1964 Lehrer was hired to write songs for an NBC primetime satire show, That Was The Week That Was. A collection of songs, most of which were composed for the show, was released the following year as That Was The Year That Was. This was Lehrer's masterpiece. Gone was the sophomoric gore; in its place was a right-on-target view of a world gone mad. Almost half the songs deal with the possibility of nuclear holocaust and the album is a riot.

Unlike his contemporary Allan Sherman ("Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah") and current pop star Weird Al Yankovic, Lehrer never merely put new lyrics to existing songs. He wrote his meticulously nuanced compositions from scratch. He was also an accomplished pianist. (Listen to his technique on "The Vatican Rag.")

            Lehrer knew just how to deal with the 1960s climate of fear in songs like "We'll All Go Together When We Go." He professed comfort in the fact that no one will have to cry at anyone else's funeral. It may be hard to imagine, but the song gets funnier as the images get uglier: "We'll all char together when we char..."

            Political Correctness was just beginning to rear its head in the 1960s, but Lehrer wasn't having any of it. If, in his nuclear proliferation song, "Who's Next?" he wanted to sing like an Egyptian (or an Israeli) he just went ahead and did it. (He's referring here to the bomb):

            "Egypt's gonna get one too

            Just to use on you-know-who

            So Israel is getting tense

            Wants one in self-defense

            The lord's our shepherd says the psalm --- but just in case...

            We better get a bomb"

            Many of the countries at each other's throats in "Who's Next?" are still at it. Lehrer would have to make only a few adjustments to be up to date, adding India and Pakistan to the list of mutual bomb pointers.

            In his introduction to "So Long, Mom," Lehrer points out that there are great songs for World War I and World War II, but, if there are going to be any for World War III, we'd better start writing them now. He proceeds to sing the perfect ditty for an exceedingly short war.

            It's not difficult to imagine why someone obsessed with the bomb would write a song called "Wernher von Braun." Lehrer focuses, with a sort of deranged amusement, on the mercenary nature of the father of the bomb.

            "National Brotherhood Week," Lehrer's salute to the hypocrisy of feel-good holidays, is a veritable Who Hates Who:

            "Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics

            And the Catholics hate the Protestants

            And the Hindus hate the Muslims

            And everybody hates the Jews"

            If anything's changed since that was written in the mid-1960s, I haven't noticed.

When Lehrer wasn't having fun with the end of the world, he aimed his wit at a wide variety of topics in songs that still ring true today. "The Vatican Rag," an outrageously funny song that took Vatican II a bit farther than the church had in mind, now seems tame compared to the real behavior of some church leaders.

            Even though Lehrer sang and recorded at counter-culture hangouts like the hungry i in San Francisco, he wasn't shy about biting the hands that clapped for him. In "The Folk Song Army" he tears apart protestors who would rather sing about problems than do something about them.

            He could also take a seemingly innocuous item --- the obituary of Alma Werfel (who had been married to Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, and Franz Werfel) and use it as the basis of a delightfully raunchy song.

            In the years since Lehrer left music for the classroom his genius for dark, topical humor and irony has rarely been equaled. Randy Newman came the closest in 1972 with "Political Science" ("Boom goes London, Boom Paree, more room for you and more room for me --- they all hate us anyhow, so let's drop the big one now...")

            You can occasionally find Lehrer's records at garage sales, and all of them have been re-released on CD. A few years ago Rhino Records put together The Remains of Tom Lehrer, a box set of all of Lehrer's recordings.

            We survived the 1960s and maybe our current crisis, too, will be averted. But if not, as you speed north a few miles ahead of the radiation cloud, to that survival camp in the Yukon, I'd suggest you put some Lehrer on the CD player. "We'll All Go Together When We Go" makes a nice sing-along for the whole family.