Songs and More Songs By Tom Lehrer
Tom Lehrer enjoyed some cult status as a socio-political satirist in the late 1950s and ’60s, using his clean voice and ragtime/old Broadway show tune piano playing style to lampoon the silliness of the time. He is truly one of the great iconoclasts of his generation, predating Mark Russell and even Randy Newman with his acerbic wit. If Will Rogers never met a man he didn’t like, Lehrer never met a man (or region) he did like.
I remember growing up on his two great live albums owned by my father, himself a professorial Yankee with a subversive sense of humor: That Was the Week That Was and An Evening (Wasted) With Tom Lehrer. Which makes this greatest-hits compilation only a mild disappointment. While it features such classic Lehrer musings as “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” and “The Masochism Tango” (both piano and full-orchestra versions), the lack of live performances keeps the listener from fully appreciating the man where he is most comfortable. Like most humorists, Lehrer is just as funny — if not funnier — during song breaks as he is in song. But for the uninitiated, Songs and More Songs remains a hilarious introduction to the man and his work, which is visionary when taken in context. It’s also a great history lesson of sorts, illustrating the growth of satire when the time was certainly ripe with material. Like all the great wits, he spares no one. He can poke fun at the South in “I Wanna Go Back to Dixie”: “Old times there are not forgotten/ Whuppin’ slaves and sellin’ cotton/ And waiting for the Robert E. Lee (it was never there on time).”
And he had no problem spoofing his own alma mater with the fitting fight song, “Fight Fiercely, Harvard”: “How we will celebrate our victory/ We shall invite the whole team out for tea (how jolly!)/ Hurl that spheroid down the field/ And fight, fight, fight.” But he really broke ground with his unflinching humor in “The Masochism Tango”: “I ache for the touch of your lips, Dear/ But much for the touch of your whips, Dear/ You can raise welts like nobody else/ As we dance to the Masochism Tango.”
While that may not sound like much today, back then it was subversive in its marriage of intellectualism and tasteleness. And God bless him for help getting the ball rolling in that direction. Rhino Records, 10635 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025; http://www.rhino.com