The world is full of smart asses, though as a patriot I like to think America leads the world in sheer numbers. Unfortunately, the "ass" part is nearly almost more prominent than the "smart," and they tend to be a plague and affliction upon us all. A welcome exception is Tom Lehrer.

Lehrer has smarts, alright. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in mathematics at the age of eighteen, went on to work for the Army at Los Almos (where, according to some reports, he invented the vodka Jell-O shot as a way to evade a ban on "alcoholic beverages"), then returned to his alma mater to teach math, a position he holds to this day though he spends his winters teaching at the University of Santa Cruz. The second part of the equation is demonstrated in the songs he wrote and recorded in the fifties and sixties which stand as the best satire in the annals of American song.

Channeled though Lehrer's brain and piano, dated controversies over the MLF Treaty ("Once all the Germans were warlike and mean, but that couldn't happen again/ We taught them a lesson in 1918 and they've hardly bothered us since then") and the Vatican II Conference ("Get into that long processional, step into that small confessional/ There the guy that's got religion'll tell you if your sin's original/ If it is try playing it safer, drink the wine and chew the wafer/ Two, four, six, eight, time to transubstantiate!") have a lasting snap and impact. On lingering issues like Pollution ("brush with toothpaste, then rinse your mouth with industrial waste") and Smut (the only thing he really seems to be in favor of, "Stories of tortures used by debauchers/ lurid, licentious, and vile, make me smile"), his songs have a contemporary resonance, and in fact are frequently played to amplify news stories on television and radio.

When You Are Old & Gray

Since I still appreciate you,
Let's find love while we may.
Because I know I'll hate you
When you are old and gray.
So say you love me here and now,
I'll make the most of that.
Say you love and trust me,
For I know you'll disgust me
When you're old and getting fat.

An awful debility,
A lessened utility,
A loss of mobility
Is a strong possibility.
In all probability
I'll lose my virility
And you your fertility
And desirability,
And this liability
Of total sterility
Will lead to hostility
And a sense of futility,
So let's act with agility
While we still have facility,
For we'll soon reach senility
And lose the ability.

Your teeth will start to go, dear,
Your waist will start to spread.
In twenty years or so, dear,
I'll wish that you were dead.
I'll never love you then at all
The way I do today.
So please remember,
When I leave in December,
I told you so in May.

Hear it!

Our Hero, Tom Lehrer

Since this is Valentine's Day I am irresistibly drawn to Lehrer's songs of love, and since most of you won't receive this publication until the holiday is well over I selected "When You Are Old and Gray" from his oeuvre, in honor of all that time destroys. What follows is Tom Lehrer's own introduction to the song on his live album, An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer:

The most popular type of popular song is of course the love song, and I'd like to illustrate several subspecies of this form during the evening. First of all, the type of love song where the fellow tells the girl that although the years ahead will almost certainly destroy every vestige of her already dubious charms, that nonetheless his love for her will shine on forever through the years, you know. Another example of stark realism in the popular song. This particular example is called "When You Are Old And Gray," and I'd like to dedicate it to anyone in the audience who is still in love with each other.

(Written by Sharon C. McGovern)

For more Love Songs, click here.
From Vol. 27

More Tom Lehrer Links:
A Web Page (Wasted) on Tom Lehrer (good resource, used above)
Tom Lehrer: The Political Musician Who Wasn't (scholarly paper)
A Conversation with Tom Lehrer (long interview)