The Satirical Genius of Tom Lehrer

RJO’s Reviews on Amazon.com

These brief book and music reviews have been posted to Amazon.com, and they may be viewed there in their original form either collectively (on my public reviews page) or individually (by following the link at each title below).

A Pillar of Western Civilization

An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer
Tom Lehrer (audio compact disc, live)
Warner Brothers, 1990 (originally recorded 1959)

This must be what Aristophanes was like for his contemporaries.

Tom Lehrer’s brilliant satires were originally recorded in the 1950s and 1960s, but their words and music are as fresh today as ever. Lehrer targets everything from nostalgia, to environmentalism (“We’ve gained notoriety and caused much anxiety / In the Audubon Society with our games”), to love (“Sharks gotta swim, and bats gotta fly, / I gotta love one woman till I die”), to folk music (“The reason so many folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people”), to military food (“To think of all the marvelous ways / They’re using plastics nowadays”), to capitalism, to motherhood, to opera, and to college life (“Hearts full of youth, hearts full of truth, / Six parts gin to one part vermouth”). Lehrer’s timing is exquisite, and many of his rhymes are unlike anything else in the language (“When the air becomes uranious / We will all go simultaneous”).

If you are a teacher (as I am and as Lehrer still is today) you should know that this is perfect material to share with jaded young people who think they invented sarcasm. I have seen some of them go away quite humbled, but ultimately enriched, of course, like would-be poets discovering Dylan Thomas or Emily Dickinson for the first time.

You will wind up buying Lehrer’s complete oeuvre, I know it, but An Evening Wasted is the one to start with. Even the spoken commentary between the songs (this is a live recording) is brilliant. Once you have internalized An Evening Wasted try That Was The Year That Was next.

Like the plays of Aristophanes, Lehrer’s satirical songs are going to be around for a very long time indeed.

© RJO 1995–2016