Posts Tagged ‘Tom Lehrer’

Recalling The Year Of No Crayons

July 25, 2011

Originally posted July 30, 2008

I saw the first back-to-school ads in the paper the other week, and we got the first ad supplements in the mail this week. As with every other annual event that carries commercial weight, the back-to-school season begins earlier every year.

Never having had kids, I’ve never had to deal with back-to-school from the parents’ side of the aisle, but I recall coming home from the first day of school from, oh, third grade onward and being quizzed on what it was I would need to survive the scholastic rigors of the school year ahead.

And as soon as dinner was over, my folks, my sister and I would get in the car, head across the river to downtown and walk along with what seemed like hundreds of students and parents to Dan Marsh Drug. We’d find notebooks and pens and pencils, struggling through crowds to get them. Mom and Dad would look over our choices and check them against the lists we’d made that day in school.

(As I understand it, schools these days mail lists of required supplies to students’ homes during the summer. I imagine that makes the first day of school a day with one less chore to accomplish, if teachers no longer have to spend time listing required supplies. And it most likely lessens the madness in the stores: If parents and students have some weeks before the start of school to acquire supplies, then there’s no need for the first-night-of-school mania that I saw many autumns at the drug store. But it also takes away from the student the responsibility of listening during that first day of school to make certain that the list he or she brings home contains everything he or she will need during the year.)

One of the highlights of school shopping during elementary years was the selection of the new box of crayons for the new school year. Most years, my folks were firm that twenty-four crayons provided my sister and me with enough colors to accomplish any art project that might be required. During my later years of elementary school, I looked longingly at the larger sets of crayons. Never mind that I was an indifferent artist, one whose life as well as his art was defined by coloring outside the lines. The thought of all those new colors fascinated me.

My birthday falls in early September, and as I entered sixth grade in 1964, one of my gifts was a canister with forty-eight crayons. I remember the gold crayon and the silver one. There was periwinkle and brick and slate, spring green, sienna and burnt umber. I enjoyed the names for the colors almost as much as the crayons themselves. (That holds true today; I find the art/science of naming paints and fabrics fascinating, an interest that was augmented in 1964, when Dad bought a new car. I remember being captivated by the fact that a car somehow became more desirable when one said that its color wasn’t light brown but was in fact chantilly beige.)

A year later, I entered seventh grade, a move that brought lots of changes. I’d ride a bus to school for the first time, I’d move from classroom to classroom during the day, keeping my things in a locker, and I’d have to shower after phy. ed. And I was no longer required to bring a box of crayons to school. Whatever supplies I needed for projects in art class would be provided, and crayons would not be among them.

As points of passage go, it’s a small one, I guess. It’s nothing as important as a first kiss or a first driver’s license or a first beer. But I noticed it, and although I probably didn’t say anything to anyone, it felt to me like one tiny step on the pathway from kid to adult.

And here’s a random set of songs from the year I didn’t need crayons. Some of them I most likely heard; most I probably didn’t.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1965, Vol. 2
“Just Like Tom Thumbs’ Blues” by Gordon Lightfoot, United Artists single 929

“I’ll Be True To You” by Spencer Wiggins, Goldwax single 118

“Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan from Bringing It All Back Home

“Wernher von Braun” by Tom Lehrer from That Was The Year That Was

“Now The Sun Has Gone” by the Beatmen, Pye single 7N15792 (UK)

“007” by David Lloyd & His Orchestra from Sounds For A Secret Agent

“Tired of Waiting For You” by the Kinks, Reprise single 0347

“You’re Going To Lose That Girl” by the Beatles from Help!

“Wang Dang Doodle” by Koko Taylor, Checker single 1135

“Don’t Ask Me” by the Staccatos from Come Back Silly Girl

“Lara’s Theme” by Maurice Jarre from the soundtrack to Doctor Zhivago

“Respect” by Otis Redding, Volt single 128

“It Was A Very Good Year” by Frank Sinatra, Reprise single 0429

A few notes:

Gordon Lightfoot’s take on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” has to be one of the first cover versions of Bob Dylan’s surreal tale of Juarez, Housing Project Hill, Sweet Melinda and all the rest. The arrangement is interesting, and Lightfoot does a pretty good job with it.

Spencer Wiggins’ name and work has popped up here before. A good singer who hailed from Memphis (and went to high school with, among others, Booker T. Jones and William Bell), Wiggins recorded for many years, most often for Goldwax, but never really made a dent in the public awareness. His work for Goldwax was collected and released in 2006 by Britain’s Kent label.

“Wernher von Braun” is one of the tracks from That Was The Year That Was, a live comedy album by Tom Lehrer, who was one of the most on-target satirists of the mid-1960s. Von Braun – whom I met once after he gave a talk at St. Cloud State – was one of the German scientists who designed the first workable rockets during World War II, rockets that were used late in the war to attack London. After the war, von Braun was brought to the U.S. and was one of the chief scientists in the Apollo program that put men on the moon. Lehrer’s song is witty, his audience liked it in 1965, and he makes a point worth pondering: Von Braun’s conduct was open to criticism; his work for Nazi Germany resulted in death and damage in England, and there’s clear evidence that much of that work in Germany was accomplished with the use of slave labor.

This version of “007” from the James Bond films comes from an album mentioned here some time ago. David Lloyd jumped on the Bondwagon in 1965 by recording not only the themes to the three James Bond films already released but by also recording themes for the books not yet turned into films. The record was one of four Bond-related albums I collected in 1964 and 1965, and it may be my favorite of them all.

I’m not sure what a “Wang Dang Doodle” is, but you ought to give Koko Taylor’s song a listen. Taylor takes her listeners through a cityscape peopled by characters that sound as if they came from Bob Dylan’s notebook as interpreted by Howlin’ Wolf. The song actually came from the pen of Willie Dixon, bass player on many Checker and Chess releases and one of the most important writers in blues history.

Otis Redding wrote “Respect” and had a minor hit with the record (No. 35 in late 1965), but of course, the song was pretty much taken away from him by Aretha Franklin and her titanic version two years later. But it’s always good to go back and take a listen to the original, of course.

There are plenty of sad songs out there, always have been and always will be. But few of them are as melancholy as Frank Sinatra’s “It Was A Very Good Year,” which was written by Ervin Drake. Even though the narrator claims that all is well, the fact is: All the wine is gone. And Sinatra nails the song. To me, it’s one of the best performances of his long career.

‘You Can’t Take Three From Two . . .’

April 1, 2011

The RealPlayer chugged along the other evening, providing a random soundtrack as I read. About twenty minutes in, it settled on a track from a 1965 live album, and as the song played, I found myself singing along under my breath, matching the performer’s inflections, improvisations and lyrical asides. And I realized that I could probably do the same for almost every track on that album.

Nothing remarkable about that. I bet those of us who grew up in the LP era all have albums – many of them, perhaps – that we can match note for note. And if we hear a track from a favored album on the radio, we find it jarring when the album’s next track doesn’t follow it.

But this was a bit different. The songs I recall so vividly came from a humor album, a live performance of political and social commentary recorded in a San Francisco nightclub. The album, Tom Lehrer’s That Was The Year That Was, belonged to my sister back in the mid-1960s. I was either eleven or twelve when she brought the record home, and I dug it immensely, finding in Lehrer’s sometimes caustic and always funny songs some new ways to think about the world and the current events I was beginning to try to understand.

I wasn’t alone in that. In December 1965, That Was The Year That Was sat at No. 18 on the Billboard album chart. Recorded at the hungry i nightclub in San Francisco, Lehrer’s performance drew on songs he’d written for the television show That Was The Week That Was, a weekly – as the title suggests – skewering of current events and news that aired on NBC from January 1964 into May of 1965.

Lehrer was an unlikely performer. A math professor at Harvard University who was thirty-seven at the time of his San Francisco performance, Lehrer had written and recorded a privately pressed album of song satires during his student days at Harvard in the early 1950s. After a stint in the U.S. Army in the middle part of that decade, he was persuaded to professionally record his work. His discography is a bit muddled. The 1959 album More of Tom Lehrer is essentially duplicated by the live performances from the same year on An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer. And Revisited from 1960 is, I think, a live performance of his early 1950s songs. In either case, I think the live versions – with the audiences’ amusement matched at times by their shock and surprise at Lehrer’s audacity –are more enjoyable than the studio efforts.

Those earlier albums would come to me later. In the mid-1960s, I knew only That Was The Year That Was, and once we had our rec room in the basement, Lehrer’s album was one that I played frequently, often enough that I knew every aside and turn of melody on each of the fourteen tracks. It’s been years since I listened to some of them, but as I was pondering this piece, I ran my eyes down the titles, and only two or so didn’t echo in my head. And I can’t help thinking that Lehrer’s album played at least a small part in my massive interest in current events and news.

Lehrer’s work is available on CD and DVD, and a lot of it is posted at YouTube, though some of the tunes that came out on That Was The Year That Was are represented by other live performances now collected on DVD. And much of the work available at YouTube from that album has been edited and presented without Lehrer’s introductions, which were just as funny and pointed as the tunes themselves. With that caveat, here are links to two performances: “Wernher Von Braun” was written about one of the chief rocket scientists behind the U.S. effort to put men on the moon; as Lehrer cheekily – and accurately – points out, Von Braun’s early work was developing rockets as weapons for Nazi Germany.* “The Vatican Rag” is a politically incorrect romp playing on the fact that the church conference known as Vatican II had authorized the use of a wider range of musical forms during the Mass.

And I found one witty lip synch video accompanying Lehrer’s tune “New Math.” This is one of the tunes ingrained in my mind, and at odd times, when something triggers it, I’ll hear Lehrer’s voice in my head as he takes listeners through the math problem of 342 minus 173:

You can’t take three from two –
Two is less than three –
So you look at the four in the tens’ place.
Now, that’s really four tens, so you make it three tens,
Regroup, and you change the ten to ten ones
And you add it to the two and get twelve
And you take away three. That’s nine.
Is that clear?

*Somewhere in my boxes of stuff, I have an autographed program from a lecture Wernher Von Braun gave one evening during the late 1960s at St. Cloud State.