Superlatives like ‘genius’ are often thrown around as casually as a baseball in modern culture, but very few folks are deserving of such high praise. Tom Lehrer is one of those people actually deserving of that title and set the benchmark high for what a “Renaissance Man” looks like in contemporary times.
I’ve always said that for someone to appreciate and understand what it is that they’re listening to, well, they have to know what it is that they’re listening to. In this instance, one needs to understand who Tom Lehrer is to really appreciate this record. Lehrer was considered a child prodigy who entered into Harvard University at age 15 to study math and also began writing comedic songs to entertain his peers. Following the completion of his Master’s, Lehrer took time off of working on his doctoral degree to serve in the U.S. military as a researcher at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory with the National Security Agency. During this time, as a means of circumventing liquor restrictions, Lehrer would smuggle alcohol by mixing it with Jell-O and consequently invented the Jell-O shot. I’ll say it again; this man invented the Jell-O shot! In 1960, Lehrer left his military career to return to his studies at Harvard. He would continue a career in academia as a professor at MIT and UC Santa Cruz teaching courses on political science, mathematics, and musical theatre.
With that in mind, on to That Was The Year That Was. Recorded at the hungry i Theatre in San Francisco in 1965, Lehrer performed a number of satirical songs taken from the NBC series That Was The Week That Was, an American spin-off of the BBC series of the same name. With only Lehrer on piano, his humorous, sociopolitical ditties did just what biting comedy should do - outrage and delight its audience alike. Keep in mind this was the United States in 1965; Lyndon B. Johnson and Leonid Brezhnev were in office while the Cold War and nuclear obliteration loomed over people’s heads, the war in Vietnam was unpopular and troop numbers were ramping up, religious faith was strong, and race tensions were as high as they had ever been in the country’s history. People were understandably on edge, but Lehrer addressed all of these subjects head on and did so in a frank, witty manner. The album is certainly dated in this sense, but many of the songs’ undertones and messages still hold true to debates ongoing in today’s landscape.
The first cut of the album, “National Brotherhood Week,” addresses a week-long program sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice to promote social equality, but, as Lehrer points out, on the first day of it in 1965 Malcolm X was killed, “which gives you an idea of how effective the whole thing is….” “Send in the Marines,” a song about how “America always has this number one instrument of diplomacy to fall back on,” is critical of the United States’ overt use of militarism in foreign policy dealings, and strikes a chord even today when examining the United States’ military undertakings in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now with the Islamic State in Syria. “New Math” examines the ridiculous teaching trends during the 1960s that were done away with about as fast as they were conceived. “Alma” details the romps of Alma Mahler, a Viennese-born socialite and composer who became the wife, successively, of composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius, and novelist Franz Werfel, as well as the consort of several other prominent men. Finally, one of my personal favorites, “The Vatican Rag,” a tune poking fun at the Second Vatican Council and the reform of Roman Catholic liturgy. During this album’s recording, actor Ricardo Montalban, a staunch and loyal Catholic, was in the audience and became so enraged upon hearing the song that he shouted from the audience, “How dare you make fun of my religion! I love my religion! I will die for my religion!" To which Lehrer responded, "That's fine with me, as long as you don't do it here."
Tom Lehrer is a once in a generation talent, the true embodiment of a Renaissance man. He was so far ahead of his time that his messages still hold true on an album recorded in 1965, a timeless masterpiece that is just as funny and sharp now as it was then Have a listen to this and enjoy!
- Kevin Powers