Guest post by Cirrus Wood
There’s something so delightful about Tom Lehrer. His avuncular charm, his brilliant yet personable elocution, his professorial bearing. Just look at him, letting out an adoring howl above the piano.
Of course, some of what makes him so seductive to we modern listeners is nostalgia for a past we never experienced. Bakelite glasses, side part, the restricted color palate of black and white. He seems to be someone who was born swaddled in tweed and not naked like the rest of us. But getting past surface aesthetics, it’s also that he’s just so damn funny.
Take the song, ‘I Got it from Agnes’ where Lehrer sings about but to do so would destroy the exquisite subtlety. So here are some lyrics.
“I got it from agnes
Or maybe it was sue
Or millie or billie or gillie or willie
It doesn’t matter who
It might have been at the pub
Or at the club, or in the loo
And if you will be my friend, then I might …
(mind you, I said “might” …)
Give it to you!”
Lehrer can drop a dirty verse with such attractive nonchalance, then flip it over and truss it up in the most innocuous wrapping. This man was considered safe for family programming.
Lehrer is still very much alive, and quite happy in his retirement, but he’s most associated with the satire of the mid-60s, and consequently a few of his songs haven’t aged as well. Commentary on Werner Van Braun, for example, may be nearly indecipherable to an audience who could only at pains name a member of NASA.
Yet most have kept their vitality. The song “Smut” was written about a 1957 court case regarding standards of decency. The court case upheld the first-amendment freedom to publish without censure by the government, thus allowing safe haven for the nascent market of budding centerfolds. It might seem laughable now, but considering such literary giants as Joyce, Balzac, and Lawrence were in very limited circulation before the ruling – being considered works ‘without redeeming importance’ – without the favor of the court there could not have been the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Salman Rushdie, Gore Vidal, or, yes, even Jacqueline Suzanne or EL James, (let alone the success of Playboy or Maxim)
So Lehrer composed a song celebrating the virtues of erotica, and freely admitted to enjoying it himself. The video from his 1967 concert in Copenhagen is just wonderful. The preamble to the song is worth every bit as much the song itself.
While there perhaps is not yet the Smut Parade – curiously, this seems to have been omitted from the calendar of pride months – it’s so good to have a proper march for smut.
But, as Mr. Lehrer reminds, while we perhaps have superseded the legal stigma of smut, there is of course still social stigma associated with it. Like Cole Porter in the 1920s, or Oscar Wilde in the 1890s, or even Jonathan Swift of the 1730s, Lehrer’s commentary on the license, confusion, and repression of his own times – in brief, the hypocrisy of the age – is still so hilarious because we haven’t gotten past being terrified of a good T&A show. Or rather, terrified of being seen enjoying a good T&A show. (Or V&A, or C&A, or, well, name your favorite corporeal member to fetishize.)
To which Mr. Lehrer says a great big ‘Phooey!’
And I say it too.