THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 540, October 11, 2009
"The gun is a symbol of freedom, not tyranny"
Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise
Surfing the web a while back, I ended up on a site that offered, among other things, a recent Sydney Morning Herald interview with Tom Lehrer. There was a time in my lifemore than forty years ago, I am deeply astonished to discoverwhen Tom was one of my biggest heroes.
For those of you who don't remembereither because you weren't born yet, or you've taken Alzheimer's way outTom was a Harvard mathematics professor who moonlighted by writing, recording, and performing funny songsarguably the funniest songs ever written. Even now, just short of half a century later, I can take my guitar practically anywhere, start singing "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park", "The Masochism Tango", "So Long Mom, I'm Off to Drop the Bomb", "I Hold Your Hand in Mine", "The Vatican Rag", or "Be Prepared", and people all over the room will start singing along with me, exactly as they did in that lobster restaurant scene in My Best Friend's Wedding.
"When it's fiesta time, in Guadalajara ... "
Most of the kids I knew in high school had Tom's records (god, we were a weird bunch) and they were among the first songs I ever learned to play. Tom's influence is evident in the first songs I ever wrote: a parody of "Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho" about Christine Keeler, if that helps you place it in time, a ditty called "Do Not Remove this Tag", and a piece about Lyndon Baines Johnson called, "The World's Mah Barbecue".
Just before the 1964 election, however, Tom not-so-mysteriously stopped being funny, by becoming part of something called "That Was the Week that Was", a television program dedicated to the sole purpose of reelecting Johnson and preventing the unthinkable horror of Barry Goldwater becoming president. Inspired by a similar British program, it was supposed to be a comedic and musical review of the past week. It was no more than shrill propaganda, rooted in the not-so-secret assumption behind all liberal attitudes and policies, that they're superior to the rest of us and better suited to run our lives than we are.
I seem to rememberalthough I might be wrong about thisthat it was in a commercial break during TWTWTW (as it came to be called) that I first saw that infamous political advertisment in which the image of a sweet little girl picking flowers is obliterated by a nuclear explosionpresumably because the itchy trigger-fingered Barry got elected. The fact that the evil mind behind that ad, PBS's greatly over-celebrated Bill Moyers, is still working in the media, says more about this poor, sick country than anything I could ever write.
Johnson, insanely enough, was portrayed by the round-heeled mass media as that election's peace candidate, opposing the vile Goldwater, a warmongering lunatic. I recall a rueful joke that was shared around among conservatives and libertarians after that fateful election, and all throughout the criminal mess in Vietnam that followed: "They warned me if I voted for Goldwater, that we'd end up in a land war in Asia ... "
Tom stopped performing around 1965. I heard sometime during the Reagan Administration that he'd become a bitter old recluse somewhere in southern California, ashamed of his brief but brilliant career in music. I felt bad about this. Although I usually disagreed with him politically, I still loved his wonderful music and performed italong with my own Lehrer-inspired songswhenever and wherever I could. By any number of measures, he'd been a powerful influence and a tremendous success. There was no reason I could think of for him to be bitter.
To this day, I still don't understand it. Tom's side won, after all, didn't it? Aren't we all are living in the world he helped to create with word and music? He just didn't realize what that would eventually come to mean. Apparently, he still doesn't, at least at a conscious levelalthough at the subconscious level, it may be an entirely different story. He assisted the "dominant culture" in foisting Landslide Lyndon off on us, and Lyndon begat Richard Nixon, who eventually begat Bill Clinton, Hillary, and Barack Obama. Tom's musical satires couldn't possibly have had any other political consequence.
Afterward, Tom couldn't write funny songs about his big Texican champion, could he? (Although Pete Seeger's "Big Muddy" did it pretty well.) And he couldn't write about Hubert Humphrey (although Hubert's amazing resemblance to Porky Pig was always something I regretted not having the time to explore musically, myself) or any of the mutant feebs the Democrats offered us after him. And as I said, he couldn't write about Nixon, the bastard son of every Democrat who ever drew breath.
Tom couldn't couldn't come out of retirement to help us laugh at Bill or Hillary, either, since they were everything he professed to desire, politically. Hell, I'd be surprised to learn that Hillary didn't play that little flower picker who got H-bombed. The fact is, Tom had to stop writing because if he didn't, he'd be making fun of himself.
And, too, by thenbetween the grim gays, the hairy-legged feminists, the rabid, vicious animal lovers, the sap-stained tree huggers, the dangerously violent victim disarmers, and the rest of the Democratic menageriethe entire left wing had lost its sense of humor. They wouldn't have appreciated any of the songs Tom might have written about them. The humor of his single attempt, "The Folk Song Army" (which pointed out that most left wing protest consisted of shooting straw men and fish in a barrel), seemed completely lost on them.
Tom says that everything is different today, and that you can't write parodies in a world where Henry Kissenger gets a Nobel Peace Prize. Having seen the award given to Algore and, surrealistically enough, to Obama, I'd say that such a song would have to take off on the Nobel organization itself, rather than Henry Kissinger, and that no left wing socialist would think of such a thing, any more than any among them would try to write a funny song, say, about the United Nations.
I may give it a try, myself.
Tom says you can't write a funny song about the 9/11 atrocity. I disagree: the old Tom Lehrer could have done it and gotten away with it. And what the old Tom might have made of the absurd posturing and lies of the aggressively stupid Algore is something that delights the imagination. Asked by his Australian interviewer about his take on current events, he sullenly mutters, "Just tell them that I voted for Obama".
I think Tom may have a hard time locating his legacy. As I say, the lefties are all a bunch of stiffs, now, who couldn't laugh if you put their feet in stocks and tickled them with a puffin feather. Most of the right wing never did have a sense of humor, leading me to say of GOP pianist Mark Russell a few yars ago, "Mr. Russell, I know Tom Lehrer. I played Tom Lehrer's music. Mr. Russell, you are no Tom Lehrer."
On the other hand, I often wonder how Tom feels about the bizarre and ironic fact that it is Rush Limbaughthrough the diabolic and ingenious efforts of Paul Shanklinwho now occupies the place he once did, defending freedom (and, I might and, sanity) with song and laughter.
Tom can't find his legacy on the left, and probably doesn't have any idea of the infuence he had on young libertarians (or if he does, he'd probably like to disown us). But it's too late for that. This is the group, all of them gray now, who always sing along with me. We'll continue loving him whether he wants us to or not. Politically and economically, he may be an idiot, but by long association, he's our idiot.