Tom Lehrer: An equal opportunity offender


LOS ANGELES, May 30 (JTA) — “I’m spending Hanukkah, In Santa Monica,” Tom Lehrer sings out.

“Amid the California flora, I’ll be lighting my menorah.

“Here’s to Judas Maccabeus, Boy, if he could only see us.”

Yes, Tom Lehrer, the singing and piano playing master satirist of America’s social and political foibles in the 1950s and ’60s, is alive and back, his cutting observations still resonating in an age when “irreverence has been subsumed by mere grossness,” as the now 72-year-old Lehrer puts it.

Apparently enough of Lehrer’s original LP records have been passed on from the mid-century college generation to their children and children’s children, to induce Rhino Records to release a 3-CD set, priced at $49.98, of the maestro’s entire oeuvre.

Titled “The Remains of Tom Lehrer,” the set includes a bound booklet featuring the alternatively straight and jocular story of his life, along with the complete lyrics to all his songs.

Lehrer, who entered Harvard at age 15 and graduated three years later, is a mathematics instructor who always considered his performing career as a temporary sideline.

Though he has not given a live performance since 1967, more than 2 million of his records have been sold. It took, however, 45 years to accomplish this feat.

Lehrer has always been reclusive about his private life and would not give an interview touching on his personal background. However, the book accompanying the CD-set includes a long introduction by Barry Hansen (aka Dr. Demento), which sheds some light on Lehrer’s beginnings.

“Thomas Andrew Lehrer was born April 9, 1928 in Manhattan,” the introduction notes. “His parents were ethnically, but not religiously, Jewish.”

At this point, Lehrer breaks into the introduction to inject, “More to do with the delicatessen than the synagogue. My brother and I went to Sunday School, but we had Christmas trees, and ‘God’ was primarily an expletive, usually preceded by ‘oh’ or ‘my’ or both.”

Lehrer’s religiosity has apparently not deepened with advancing age. A 1997 Internet chat room Q&A, which included the following exchange.

Q: Do you personally have a religious preference?

Lehrer: No. There are obviously many people who prefer one brand of bullshit to another, but I am not among them. On the other hand, I often quote James Taylor’s immortal line from “Sweet Baby James”: “Maybe you can believe it if it helps you to sleep.”

What is impressive about Lehrer’s complete works is how many of his songs, dealing with long past issues of the 1960s, still skewer prejudices of the present.

Each Lehrer fan will have his or her favorite, but few will forget the lyrics of his top hits.

In “National Brotherhood Week,” Lehrer sings out, “Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics/ And the Catholics hate the Protestants/ And the Hindus hate the Muslims/ And ev’rybody hates the Jews.”

An equal opportunity offender, Lehrer says he has been reviled most often for his immortal “Vatican Rag,” which contains such lines as:

“Get in line in that processional,

Step into that small confessional,

There the guy who’s got religion’ll

Tell you if your sin’s original.

If it is, try playin’ it safer,

Drink the wine and chew the wafer,

Two, four, six, eight,

Time to transubstantiate!”

Many of the same songs are repeated on each of the three CDs in different versions — Lehrer on the piano, sometimes with comments, sometimes without — and, offensive to Lehrer purists, with orchestral backing.

Also annoying is the endless, raucous laughter following each song on disc 2.

The never-before-issued recordings of five songs conclude disc 3, including the Chanukah ditty, which was written in the early ’90s for Garrison Keillor’s Saturday radio show, “The American Radio Company.”

In his introduction to the song, Keillor pointed out that there just aren’t any popular Chanukah songs because no Gentile songwriter ever thought about writing one, and the great Jewish songwriters were busy writing Christmas songs.

“There was thus a deplorable lacuna in the repertoire, which this song, a sort of answer to ‘White Christmas.’ was intended to remedy,” Lehrer noted.

The full lyrics go like this, using Lehrer’s own spelling:

“I’m spending Hanukkah

In Santa Monica,

Wearing sandals,

Lighting candles

By the sea.

I spent Shevuos

In East St. Louis,

A charming spot,

But clearly not

The spot for me.

Those Eastern winters, I can’t endure ’em,

So ev’ry year

I pack my gear

And come out here

Till Purim.

Rosh Hashonah

I spend in Arizonah,

And Yom Kippuh (Southern accent)

Way down in Mississippuh

But in December there’s just one place for me.

Amid the California flora

I’ll be lighting my menorah,

Like a baby in the cradle,

I’ll be playing with my dreidel,

Here’s to Judas Maccabeus,

Boy, if he could only see us,

Spending Hanukkah

In Santa Monica

By the sea.”

At this stage of his life, he observes, “He earns a precarious living peddling dope to local school children and rolling an occasional drunk. He spends his declining years with his shrunken head collection, his Nobel Prizes, and his memories.”

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