Wednesday Wisdom: Tom Lehrer

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I’ve long been a huge fan of Tom Lehrer. His witty songs and eloquent lyrics remain as relevant today as when he first wrote them in the 1950s and 60s.

Covering everything from world war (We Will All Go Together When We Go) to pollution (in the aptly named Pollution), and BDSM (Masochism Tango) to STIs (I Got It From Agnes)., Lehrer was unafraid to tackle taboo topics. This meant radio play was out of the question.

Instead, he sold copies of the album he pressed 400 copies off, for £3 apiece, on the campus he was studying at. Word of mouth led to mail orders though Lehrer later said, “Lacking exposure in the media, my songs spread slowly. Like herpes, rather than ebola.”

Lehrer never intended to be famous. He wrote the songs for fun (and arguably, in the case of The Elements, education.) He received his BA from Harvard in 1946 and went on to teach at MIT, Wellesley and the University of California, as well as Harvard. He also became a researcher for Los Alamos Scientific University, and was drafted into the army, during which time he claims to have invented vodka jelly shots, to evade strict rules on drink.

Listen to everything Lehrer has done. His music career was short-lived compared to his academic career but there’s plenty to be found on YouTube including full shows from his youth. Now 91, he is someone I would love to meet, not least to congratulate him on rhyming tragic with adjec-tives.

Here are some of my favourite Tom Lehrer quotes.

“Irreverence is easy – what’s hard is wit.”

Let no one else’s work evade your eyes!
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes!
So don’t shade your eyes,
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize –
Only be sure always to call it please ‘research’.”

(From Lobachevsky)

“I have always found it interesting… that there are people who regard copyright infringement as a form of flattery.”

“Laughter is involuntary. If it’s funny you laugh.”

“So be sweet and kind to Mother,
Now and then have a chat.
Buy her candy or some flowers or a brand new hat.
But maybe you had better let it go at that!

Or you may find yourself with a quite complex complex,
And you may end up like Oedipus.
I’d rather marry a duck-billed platypus,
Than end up like old Oedipus Rex.”

(From Oedipus Rex)

“I didn’t feel the need for anonymous affection, for people in the dark applauding. To me, it would be like writing a novel and then getting up every night and reading your novel.”

“If you visit American 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.

Pollution, pollution,
They got smog and sewage and mud.
Turn on your tap and get hot and cold running crud.”

(From Pollution)

“There’s something mathematically satisfying about music: notes fit together and harmony and all that. And mathematics has to do with abstractions and making connections.”

“Life is like a piano. What you get out of it depends on how you play it.”

“Bad weather always looks worse through a window.”

“When you get to fifty-two food becomes more important than sex.”

“When you’re in a public profession like I was, and you stop doing it like I did, people think you’re either crazy or dead.”


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