image of Morris Halle and Noam Chomsky near a pond

On Tom Lehrer and the World of My Father

Tom Lehrer turning 90 last week brought back more memories of my late father Morris, the subject of the previous post. The two were temperamentally quite distant: Morris’s East European “yekke” earnestness couldn’t really be reconciled with Lehrer’s New York slapstick meta irony. But they were obliquely connected- overlapping both at Harvard and MIT where Lehrer, for years, attempted to complete a math PhD. I remember hearing second hand stories about him and I have vivid memories of the cover of his first record which was on my parents’ shelf long well before I was able to operate our phonograph. When I could, I commandeered it and wore it out-though not before getting banned from my Irish Catholic friends’ houses for imposing on them the Vatican Rag.

In the nearly half century since his retirement, various attempts at explaining his lasting significance have appear, though none so perceptively as this Buzzfeed piece from a few years back.   It does, however, get one thing wrong: Lehrer’s last concert was not a benefit for George McGovern but for our congressman Fr. Robert Drinan. I know because I was there: it was at the Eliot Church in Newton, just down the hill from us. Drinan, a few may recall, submitted the first articles of impeachment against Nixon. They were not, incidentally, for Watergate but for the so-called secret war in Cambodia. Drinan was what we used to call a movement candidate, as I discussed here.  That meant that he was not a party insider sold to the left as “one of us” but promoted organically from within as the first choice of what was then a huge network of anti-war organizations in which participation at least in our circles was de rigueur.

On this point, I appreciate how my mother Roz in Morris’s Boston Globe obit is referred to as an artist and activist. That’s true. While as kids we were unconscionably dismissive of her groups-for reasons which remain a mystery to me-these were powerful and powerfully influential organizations, mostly led and staffed by a group of formidable women who would be, as was the practice at the time, nominally described as housewives. Also, they would all be referred to by the now reflexively derisive epithet “liberals.” More to be said on this, but for now my rejoinder is that there were liberals and there were liberals. Just as “communists” had plenty to answer for, deploying the term as a smear says more about those doing so than their ostensible target. Same goes nowadays with “liberal”-which, at least as applied to my parents’ circles and to Lehrer, is a completely different species from “neoliberal”, it should be clear.

One other comment on the piece: Lehrer’s mysterious withdrawal from show business and his direct repudiation of celebrity is very familiar to me, most notably in the form of Noam (who must have known Lehrer) regarding it as “a bother”. Lehrer puts it more cogently. For him it was that he “didn’t enjoy ‘anonymous affection.’” For all subsequent generations for whom celebrity has come to constitute a sacrament, the ne plus ultra of achievement, this comes across as either baffling or insincere. I know that for Chomsky it’s nothing of the kind. The article provides a good basis for why that held (or holds) for Lehrer as well.

Finally, I forgot that Lehrer lived on Sparks Street in Cambridge. That would have made him neighbors of composer Arthur Berger who was a friend of my father and Noam (and housemates with family friend Louis Kampf). I visited him once when I was a kid and trying to figure out what it meant to be a composer. He gave me his Five Pieces for Piano-which I found weird but vaguely intriguing. I still have them and still do. Maybe I’ll play them today-though one of them requires preparing the piano.

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