The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Glimpse of Tom Lehrer

This article on Tom Lehrer emphasizes the one-time satirist's lack of interest in his own legacy:
“There’s never been anyone like him,” said Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the legendary Broadway producer who created Tom Foolery, a musical revue of Lehrer’s songs, in the ’70s. “Of all famous songwriters, he’s probably the only one that, in the great sense of the word, is an amateur in that he never wanted to be professional. And yet the work he did is of the highest quality of any great songwriter.”
Indeed, Tom Lehrer has done everything possible, short of dying, to vanish from the American cultural scene. Actually, if he were dead, or had gone insane, or had holed up in New Hampshire and burned his later work, his story might carry him more neatly into the canon.
Instead, he’s alive and well at 86. He’s a hard — but not quite impossible — man to reach, and an even harder one to engage in conversation. He’s said he’s glad the Johnny Carson videos were lost, and he gave away the master recordings of his songs to an acquaintance. But he has, over the years, given (and regretted giving) enough interviews, and touched enough lives — from those of his brilliant Harvard peers to his generations of students — to piece together a picture, if not an explanation, of an artist’s strange and indifferent relationship to his own legacy.


And in addition to the lasting fondness his students expressed for their onetime teacher, they also all mentioned in interviews one of the characteristics that continues to make Lehrer such an enigmatic figure among his fans.
“He was one of the most private people I’ve ever met,” said another former student, Jamey Harvey, adding that it was an unspoken rule in Lehrer’s class that you didn’t mention his career as a performer. “It would have felt very intrusive to ask, between the warnings we got from our friends and the body language you got when you asked him about it. My sense was he thought it was embarrassing.”
His personal life, too, has been off limits, even to friends. Asked once by Jeff Morris if he’d been married or had children, he replied: “Not guilty on both counts.”
And rather than accept any admiration those around him might have had for his past successes, Lehrer was content to be proud of the work of his students, and of his colleagues who did theater. “He was a fan of us, the theater people there, which is just remarkably generous and humble of him,” recalled Danny Scheie, a drama professor at Santa Cruz who first met Lehrer in the early ’90s in Santa Cruz’s musical theater crowd.
Yet despite his retreat into a comfortable, bicoastal existence as an instructor on two college campuses, Lehrer has maintained an uncanny popularity, especially for a performer whose career totaled only a few years.
May I just say that I'm not surprised? The article suggests all kinds of motives--the decline of Lehrer's brand of liberalism, egoism, or maybe "the challenge of recontextualizing your politically charged songs for a wider but more radicalized audience is a hard one, and it’s easier to not bother."

All of which, of course, assume that Lehrer owes us something.

Hey, he's not a public charge--a career of teaching on two coasts, leaving a trail of enriched grateful students? Maybe that was his real vocation.

He wrote for fun, as the profile makes clear. Oh, he accepted the plaudits, the record sales, the tours. But then it stopped being

And then he got to work.

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