Magazine article The Spectator

A True Eccentric

Magazine article The Spectator

A True Eccentric

Article excerpt

For those of us of a certain age but not more, Tom Lehrer was a name from the recent past. His heyday didn't quite coincide with my adult life (his last record was made in 1965; his absolutely last concert appearance in 1972) but his reputation has grown extraordinarily since then, especially in Britain. Sightings of him since 1980 when he helped the cast of Tomfoolery in the West End have been rare - he seems to be a reclusive man - but those of us on the search will have been intrigued by his sudden reappearance this last week in the British media. The reason behind such exposure as a Telegraph feature and an hour-long show on Radio Two out of the blue was not made clear: possibly it was prompted by his 70th birthday, though this was mentioned only in passing. Certainly his voice and his wit sounded very familiar.

If it was a celebration of his birthday I suspect he got a lot more coverage here than in America. One of the eccentricities of this unusual 'career' (he reckons that 109 concert appearances and three discs don't really constitute a career) has been that his work has sold better in this country than anywhere else. In his reminiscences he pointed out that the BBC, despite their reputation for stuffiness, were prepared to broadcast his material long before any American network did; and that the break which really catapulted him starwards was that Princess Margaret was said in a press release to like music `from Mozart to Lehrer'. (Their subsequent meeting was not a success because she thought she was meeting Danny Kaye whom she fancied.) Perhaps it is not surprising to discover that the nation which laughed at Monty Python's Mr Creosote vomiting all over a dining-room would appreciate a man who was prepared to sing about religious intolerance, columbicide and cuddling limbs detached from one's beloved; but the Americans clearly are not quite like us and have not been in Lehrer's lifetime.

The make-up of Lehrer's lyrics has become a subject for study amongst those who can stand them: the brilliant rhymes, unmentionables paraded. One of the intriguing things about them is that they sound so politically incorrect today that radio interviewers invariably feel obliged to apologise for the pleasure of listening to them. …

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