We’ll all go together

From ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’ to ‘The Vatican Rag’, Lehrer’s wit spared nobody and no institution.

Having thoroughly enjoyed that bout of nostalgia basking in the highly individual sense of humour which marked the West of Scotland of my youth (and hopefully still continues to this day), my thoughts inevitably turned to another form of humour which was central to those formative years and still influences much of my thinking and writing. Specifically I want to pay tribute to one of this genre’s greatest practitioners.

A bit of background. Growing up in the 50s and early 60s had a lot to commend it. Standards of living were rising, society was becoming freer and much more open, it was the dawn of the Age of Aquarius, psychedelia, flower power, and four young Liverpool lads were rewriting the rule book for popular music.

All of this was enjoyable and exciting, but for many of us there was an immense black cloud looming over the horizon. We were, after all, the generation who “grew up tall and proud, in the shadow of the mushroom cloud”. It was the era of the Cold War, with the ever present threat that on any given day it could become boiling hot.

As always, people reacted and this became a golden age for satire, that ideal form of humour which celebrates the dark side, the pessimism, and attacks an establishment which has become both overpowerful but yet impotent. I must draw a clear line between what passes for satire now, where alternative comedians (alternative in the sense that they are neither funny nor comedian) believe that satire consists of bellowing obscenities and crude anatomical references. Genuine satire needs to be targeted, accurate, witty, sometimes wounding but always elegant. Juvenal may have got away with rude words (in Latin): modern performers can’t.

An unlikely humourist

To my mind at least, no one personified that golden age better than a young American called Tom Lehrer. He was an outstanding chronicler of the zeitgeist of the time and the community, and its worries and issues. Tom Lehrer was perhaps an unlikely humourist. Born in New York he graduated in mathematics from Harvard and went on to become a teacher of that subject. He must have been a good one too, because on his CV he could boast spells on the academic staff of both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of California, two bodies which maintain rigorous standards. But, over the years covering my teens and early 20s, Lehrer took a sabbatical from his academic career to become a cult figure in the field of satire, taking his one-man show (just him and a piano) around the world delighting audiences with a wonderfully witty, mordant (and sometimes macabre) take on the perils, the idiocies, and the mistakes of the elite and powerful.

For example, I think he was the first performer to use in public what is now a common phrase: “Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.” Then again, in a song called ‘Bright College Days’, he warned students that once they left the cosy embrace of academia they would encounter the real world’s strife: “…….sliding down the razor blade of life”. Can anyone hear that phrase for the first time without wincing?

Tom Lehrer once said that his songs were essentially take-offs on various song types of his day, particularly the more sentimental species, describing them as “light-hearted and heavy-handed songs…… (some say it’s the other way round)”.

His talent was immense; always clever, always to the point and, above all, always funny and the range of his targets quite imposing. I could fill several columns with quotable examples of his wit, but space doesn’t permit that so I shall have to restrain myself by identifying just some of his subject matter, with a few quotes here and there.

“My songs spread slowly, like herpes…”. Tom Lehrer in 2000. Photo: Anthony Pidgeon/Redferns

An early target was a folk song with ‘The Irish Ballad’: “about a maid I’ll sing a song who didn’t have her family long. Not only did she do them wrong, she did every one of them in. 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.”

From there, he went on to skewer love songs with examples such as ‘When You Are Old and Grey’and ‘She’s My Girl’, then ‘I Hold Your Hand in Mine’ (and believe me, you don’t want to know the lyrics in that) and ‘The Masochism Tango’ (and you want to know its lyrics even less). Lehrer went on to mock light opera with his parody of the Viennese scene, ‘The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz’. And who else but Tom Lehrer could dismiss bullfighting as simply “a lone man facing half a tonne of angry pot roast”?

From ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’ to ‘The Vatican Rag’, Lehrer’s wit spared nobody and no institution. There will undoubtedly be those who dismiss all this as simply a product of its time and therefore of absolutely no interest these days and totally irrelevant to the society of 2024. Try these for size: a song called ‘The Old Dope Peddler’ – “it’s the old dope peddler spreading joy wherever he goes. He gives the kids free samples because he knows full well that today’s young innocent faces will be tomorrow’s clientele. He has a cure for all your troubles, here’s an end to all distress. It’s the old dope peddler and his powdered happiness.” Not relevant in 2024?

Then there’s ‘Pollution’ – “If you visit (any – you choose) city, you will find it very pretty. Just two things of which you must beware: don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air.” Not relevant in 2024?

And finally what I regard as his best-ever work, recalling what I said earlier about the shadow of the mushroom cloud, there’s his ode to the nuclear age: “We will all go together when we go. All suffused with an incandescent glow. Let there be no more moaning of the bar. Just sing out a Te Deum when you see that ICBM and the party will be come as you are. When the air becomes u-ra-ni-ous we will all go simultaneous, and we’ll all go together when we go”.  Irrelevant in 2024?

I was greatly delighted while preparing this piece to find that Tom Lehrer is still with us. He celebrated his 96th birthday this April. You know, bearing in mind that this whole train of thought began with a discussion about statues, I can think of no better man more deserving of one than Tom Lehrer. I’d happily contribute to that one too.

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