Make Do With Grin

But his stuff is really funny, and it works well even for nine-year-olds who don't notice the references and who need to have some of the jokes explained. In fact, nine-year-olds may appreciate him better than anybody else would. This is because, as I said, his best songs break down into grossness and silliness.

But the grossness and silliness aren't funny in themselves; what's funny is how he gets to them. He displays several levels of "sophistication": First there's a deliberately bogus sophistication on top, the elegant man in tails, performing his compositions (humor in watching this elegance devolve into vulgarity). Then there's the sometimes-bogus sophistication that Lehrer himself buys into, in company with those in the audience cackling along with him: the idea that we're not taken in by the same sap and stupidity as the boobs out in the mass market. A lot of this sophistication is defensive and ignorant. E.g., he refers to rock'n'roll derisively as "children's records," and he chides folkies for mistaking illiteracy for charm. This last is an interesting (though boneheaded) criticism, because in fact the elements that Lehrer injects into the sentimental song in order to lampoon it are the very elements that a lot of folkies and blues revivalists themselves—and after that, hard rockers, punks, hip-hoppers—inject into their music in order to make it seem real: death, drugs, sex, and violence. Especially death, for Lehrer. As Robert Shelton says in the liner notes to the first Tom Lehrer album, Lehrer has "for one so young, a curious preoccupation with songs about death." Well actually these are the notes to the first Bob Dylan album, but Lehrer's got a lot more death than Dylan: dead families, dead game wardens, dead cows, dead lovers, dead pigeons, dead monarchs, dead pets. ("I hadn't had so much fun since the day my brother's dog Rover got run over. Rover was killed by a Pontiac. And it was done with such grace and artistry that the witnesses awarded the driver both ears and the tail.") True, Dylan blows up the world on his second album, but Lehrer blows up the world on his second album too, and then blows it up again on the fifth to make sure. And whereas Dylan waits till his third album for Hollis Brown to come along and slaughter his own family, Lehrer has an Irish girl dispose of hers on his first. And unlike Dylan, who's merely interested in motives and feelings and social circumstances and so forth, Lehrer gives us the gruesome details: "All they ever found were some bones" (long pause, as the melody gathers itself to spring sprightly to its conclusion) "and occasional pieces of skin."

Of course, the death in Lehrer's songs has its impact not as death but as incongruity and comedy, which leads to the question "Why is this funny?" or at least "How is this funny?" And here is Lehrer's real sophistication, which isn't about anything, it's all process. I doubt that he or anyone listening to him is moved by his music to consider why Irish girls murder their families. Having an attitude isn't the point. The sophistication is in the buildup, the way he sets up his gags. Often enough he telegraphs the idea in advance; all you have to do is hear him launch sweetly into "I hold your hand in mine, dear/I press it to my lips," and you know very well where the song is going and what the hand isn't going to be attached to. He gets to this soon enough; the skill is in how the waltz goes lilting along steadily as Lehrer tops one gag with another and then wraps the song up fast.


Tom Lehrer
The Remains of Tom Lehrer
Warner Archives/Rhino
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Or in "The Irish Ballad" there's the contrast between proper diction and obnoxious subject matter. "One morning in a fit of pique/She drowned her father in the creek/The water tasted bad for a week/And we had to make do with gin"—though at age nine I thought he was saying, "we had to make dew with gin," a far more intriguing concept. But also, his music works on another level: He writes and plays it well. So the pretty Viennese waltz actually sounds pretty, the haunting Irish ballad is truly haunting, the rag really swings, and the wistful song about old age ("Your teeth will start to go, dear, your waist will start to spread/In 20 years or so, dear, I'll wish that you were dead") sounds genuinely wistful. So this is another facet of the sophistication: He's lampooning these styles, but he likes them enough to do them well.

To return to Allan Sherman, and the subject of Jewishness: Lehrer, like Sherman (and like me), is a Jew, though—like me and I don't know about Sherman—of the nonreligious sort who grew up in a family like mine that celebrated Christmas and therefore, like me, penetrated to the true meaning of the holiday season, which was to get presents. Sherman's songs, unlike Lehrer's (or mine), have little death and no cynicism. (An interesting absence for a Jewish comedian recording less than 20 years after WW II.)

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