When NYPD Blue supercop actor Dennis Franz appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and "performed" a song called "The Vatican Rag," with dancers in Catholic clergy garb, the show was able to pass off the number as something new. Never mind that the tune was penned 35 years ago by Tom Lehrer. Tom Lehrer? you ask. Who the hell is Tom Lehrer?
Dr. Demento fans, of course, know who he is. The satiric singer-pianist is the show's second-most-requested artist, behind Weird Al Yankovic. Those of us who were educated by The Electric Company also know Lehrer. He gave us "Silent-E," "L-Y," and that grammatical classic "N Apostrophe T." Along with Lehrer's Zoom theme song, these were some of the catchiest tunes on educational TV in the early 1970s.
A Harvard grad who remains a dissertation away from his Ph.D., Lehrer has been a teacher for the past 60 years. He started performing as a graduate student in the early 1950s. He produced his first album in 1953 and became a cult phenomenon by word of mouth. Major labels liked him, but his subject matter was way too far off the beaten track. Lehrer parodied the Boy Scouts, drug dealers, and the South; sang ballads about chopping off a dead lover's hand; and implied the girl next door was now a call girl. The artist produced his own records and, without any airplay or promotion, made a mint. Since 1967 Lehrer has performed only sparingly and has kept his writing to a minimum. What's amazing is that his often politically incorrect musings still resonate.
Some of his lyrics are so wrong they're right -- and that's the source of their humor, like most of the material on Rhino's The Remains of Tom Lehrer, a three-CD boxed set. Take "The Old Dope Peddler" (1959), in which Lehrer sings: "He gives the kids free samples/Because he knows full well/That today's young innocent faces/Will be tomorrow's clientele." Or "National Brotherhood Week" (1965): "Be nice to people who/Are inferior to you/It's only for a week, so have no fear/Be grateful that it doesn't last all year." Hard to blame labels for passing on this stuff.
In an era in which Adam Sandler's songs are passed off as satire, The Remains of Tom Lehrer is a welcome, though costly (at $49.98), arrival -- a reminder that true satirists are as well-read as they are funny, that humorous songs can be both ridiculous and intelligent, that our increased focus on blatant sexual expression over romance and intellect has numbed our senses to subtlety.
Maybe Lehrer saw that coming when he sang "Smut": "Smut!/Give me smut and nothing but!/A dirty novel/I can't shut/If it's uncut."
Or maybe not.
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