corrections to BuzzFeed's Tom Lehrer article
assembled April 9, 2015 by Jeff Morris, with additional updates July 27, 2015
One year ago, BuzzFeed posted this article about Tom Lehrer, and I've been meaning to post a reply ever since then.
I enjoyed reading it and felt like I learned a lot of interesting tidbits. I especially enjoyed the pictures, most of which I was surprised never to have seen before. Nor had I seen his "Dissertation On Education" in which he pulls a classic Lehrer by inventing the word "larva'ed" to rhyme with "Harvard" - great stuff!
I know the article was well-researched because they talked to me for hours and we exchanged many e-mails over the two months or so they were working on the article. They obviously talked to many other people at length as well, and seemed intent on making it a definitive profile. Anita asked me to clarify several very specific points, so I know it was their goal for it to be totally accurate.
However, as will happen with anything, some mistakes crept in. Tom himself told me he counted 37 mistakes in the article, but also told me he's seen worse and that's better than par for the course!
I will list some specific mistakes below, but I first want to address what I feel is a major misinterpretation of Tom's attitude, which affects the whole tone of the article. Tom is very proud of the songs he has written, and is not dismissive or disinterested at all. The article seems to say that he doesn't care about them anymore, but this is far from the truth. I have known Tom for 20 years, and during that time we have talked extensively about his songs and his career in show business. He is often amused that anyone would care about the minor details I tend to ask for, but has been happy to dig up old documents to provide me with answers. If he didn't care at all about his former career, he'd have hung up on me long ago.
I think what people find hard to understand is that he's not interested in being a celebrity. That does not mean he is turning his back on what he did in the past. He just doesn't care for experiencing the trappings of fame. He doesn't require an adoring
public telling him how great he is on a daily basis. He doesn't need reporters asking
how he's spending his time. He doesn't want a record company pressuring him for new
material. And really, who would? Most celebrities express dislike for
these things, but they get caught in the lifestyle before they realize it,
or they accept it as part of the business and they enjoy the work they do
enough that they are able to deal with these pressures. But he didn't enjoy
performing enough that he wanted to sacrifice his academic career or his
personal freedom, and also he felt concerned enough about his reputation and
his fans that he didn't want to turn in sub-par performances, so when he
started to do that, he quit.
But he is rightfully proud of his past work, and keeps up to date on its use today. I think he is tickled when someone covers one of his songs, especially on TV. For instance, in 2011 he sent me a message saying that Daniel Radcliffe's performance of "The Elements" had hit 2 million views on YouTube. He also maintains a lengthy list of all the records and CDs people have released with versions of his songs, including a surprising number of foreign translations. Someone who didn't care a whit about his old songs wouldn't be interested in these sorts of things.
I brought up this point to Anita after the article was published, and was afraid she had misinterpreted something I said to arrive at her conclusion. However, she said she got this picture of Tom's attitude from talking to many different people about him, and therefore feels it's a valid conclusion and doesn't plan to change the article. I don't know precisely who said what, but I am kind of surprised by this. I can only guess how this happened. Perhaps they were people who don't know Tom as well, and didn't understand what he was really saying when they talked to him in the past. Perhaps they are people who knew him well long before I met him, and his attitude has changed in the meantime. Perhaps he has given this impression intentionally to stop people from pestering him. It's hard to say how this myth got perpetuated.
I just wanted to give my viewpoint here, because the Tom Lehrer I know is a different person from the one painted in the BuzzFeed article. Of course, I'm only able to give my interpretation of Tom's feelings, and when he reads this he will probably tell me I got some things wrong as well. Hopefully I'm closer to being on the right track though.
Within the section below you will find more evidence that he is anything but turning his back on his musical career.
Now I will list some specific lines in the article that I have a problem with, many of which are more factual in nature. I pointed these out last year as well, and was surprised they weren't interested in correcting them. They did correct a few minor grammar/punctuation issues I pointed out, and they made a correction (not submitted by me) regarding when he started at Harvard and what dorm room he was in. I feel like his dorm room number is a minor detail compared to some of my points, but it's their article.
I debated listing these in order of importance or order they were mentioned in the article, and I went with the latter. Some of these are nitpicky while others are more significant.
(Bold text represents quotes from the article.)
- spending most of his time in Santa Cruz - The last I knew, he spends roughly half of the year in Cambridge and half in Santa Cruz. I have visited him in both cities. He likes to get out of Cambridge in the winter before the snow hits hard.
- he gave away the master recordings of his songs to an acquaintance - When I read this I was shocked and upset. Who did he give them to? And it must've been just recently, since I borrowed them in 2011. OH! I finally realized this was referring to me. He did not give me his masters, he merely let me borrow them. He most definitely wanted them back, and before he departed for Santa Cruz that winter. I shipped them back December 29, 2011, and he received them January 4, 2012. The master tapes are in his possession.
- to piece together a picture, if not an explanation, of an artist's strange and indifferent relationship to his own legacy. - This is the attitude that I was referring to earlier, which I feel is completely wrong. He's not indifferent at all. But moreover, what explanation is necessary? He has explained his attitude before, and it makes sense to me. He enjoyed writing songs and performing, but he doesn't want to go back to that scene. As he said, "I enjoyed high school, but I don't want to do it again." It doesn't mean he doesn't have fond memories or that he wishes it had never happened. It's just not his current interest. I don't find this attitude hard to understand.
- If your parents went to a fancy college in the late 1950s, they probably [...] blushed trying to explain "I Got It from Agnes." - His version of "I Got It From Agnes" wasn't released until 1997.
Prior to that it was only heard as part of the Tom Foolery musical revue which opened in 1980.
Parents who were in college in the 1950s could've
caught him doing "The Hospital Song" a/k/a "I Got It From Sally" (which later
morphed into "I Got It From Agnes") if they saw him in a nightclub, but they
probably wouldn't have remembered it well, nor felt any need to explain it to
their children who wouldn't have heard it from a record or any other source.
- bought the rights to the record from Trans Radio - If I understand the story correctly, Trans Radio never had the rights. Tom paid them their $15 fee to make the recording. Since Tom financed the session himself, he would've owned the recording from the beginning. And he paid to get it pressed. It appeared on the Trans Radio label because they had a label, but it stayed on Trans Radio a year or so after the first 400 were sold. As far as I know, the only reason it switched to Lehrer Records was because Trans Radio stopped being a record label. If there was any money that exchanged hands between Tom and Trans Radio after the initial session, I don't know about it, unless at first he was paying them for each pressing rather than going direct to RCA.
- By the end of the decade, he had sold 370,000 records. - I assume this figure came from the discography on my site, but my understanding is that this represents the total number of copies of just Songs By Tom Lehrer sold 1953-1966 (on all formats: 10", 7", and 12"), not of all his albums, and not ending in 1959.
- he booked several more performances throughout England in June and early July. - The list of concert dates Tom sent me many years ago doesn't include any in England in July, 1959. If there were any, I'd love to know the details so I can update the list.
- ...gay Boy Scouts. "If you're out behind the woodshed doing what you'd like to do, just be sure that your companion is a Boy Scout too," Lehrer advised in "Be Prepared." (He later changed that lyric to involve a Girl Scout in a futile effort to get a mainstream record deal.) - I wasn't around to hear how he sang this song at Harvard prior to recording the first album, so I can't say whether or not there was a different line which implied gay Boy Scouts, but the story that it was changed to get a record deal doesn't sound right. The lyric on the first album mentions Girl Scouts, and I have never heard any mention of him trying to get a major label deal until after the first record became successful.
- He also had a brief stint on That Was the Week That Was - To be clear, he never performed on the show, he only wrote songs and sent them in.
- it was an unspoken rule in Lehrer's class that you didn't mention his career as a performer. "[...] My sense was he thought it was embarrassing" - I never took a class from him, so I don't know why his students got this sense, but here is some conjecture. I would think that he would want his students to be in his class because they were interested in the subject matter, and not because they thought of him as a celebrity. So perhaps he just wanted to make sure students stayed focused on the material. Or maybe his attitude was different then and he has mellowed on the subject over the years. But certainly he was not disinterested in his musicial career around 1980 when Tom Foolery started, so I tend to think it's just a perception issue.
- His personal life, too, has been off limits, even to friends. Asked once by Jeff Morris if he'd been married or had children, he replied: "Not guilty on both counts." - First of all, that's him giving an answer to a personal question, so it doesn't really demonstrate the point that his personal life is off limits. But second of all, wanting to have a private personal life is part of the issue of not wanting to be a celebrity. Is he really being any more private than the average non-celebrity of his generation? I think most celebrities wish they could have more privacy. What sort of private details about his life are people longing to know that he refuses to answer? Do we need to know his favorite food? Do we need to know what color underwear he has? I can't off the top of my head think of a question that I've asked that he's refused to answer, and I also can't think of any deeply personal question that I would be interested in asking any of my other friends that I haven't asked him because I think he would balk.
- bicoastal existence as an instructor on two college campuses - I'm not 100% sure, perhaps there was a short time when he was teaching at two colleges, but as far as I know, he taught exclusively at Santa Cruz for the last 40 years or so of his career.
- These were the original recordings of the 1959 album More of Tom Lehrer: the orchestral session and outtakes and Lehrer's recordings. - To be clear, among other tapes, there were the 3-track half-inch reels of the 1959 session for More Of Tom Lehrer (just Tom and piano) plus the 3-track half-inch reels of the 1960 orchestral session for the Capricorn single. The former were mixed for stereo and released that way in 1959, while the latter were never mixed for stereo until after I borrowed them.
- "They're not worth anything to me." - I don't recall those being Tom's words, and I'm sorry if I said something that gave that impression. His point was that mono mixes of those recordings had already been released on CD, so if something were to happen to the original masters, he wasn't overly concerned. This is an unusual point of view for an artist, and not one that I share, but I at least understand where he's coming from. He has no affinity for stereo over mono. It's not that he necessarily prefers mono, just that he doesn't see what the fuss is about stereo. It's all the same to him. I sent him my stereo mixes and he said they sound the same as the mono. To me that was a compliment, because I put a lot of work into getting the stereo mixes to match the mono mixes, but one could also take that as his way of saying I wasted my time because there's no difference in what I did versus what was done over 50 years earlier.
- such profound apathy to one's own work - As I hope I explained in the prior paragraph, it was not apathy about his work, but about the physical medium on which it was recorded, which led him to allow me to borrow the tapes. And to reiterate, he did not give them to me, he definitely wanted them back and they were returned. But to further prove his lack of apathy, I will relate another tape story. That same night, I also asked about borrowing a 7" reel with recordings he made from the TV show That Was The Week That Was. I haven't heard the reel, but I assume it was made by holding a microphone up to the TV speaker, so I don't expect it to be high quality. Still, with the master videotapes of that show having been erased decades ago, I would love to hear the other songs of his they used which didn't make the Radiola album, and especially those that he didn't re-record himself for the That Was The Year That Was album. But he declined to let me borrow this tape. Why? It's his only copy of those. The average archivist or sound engineer would probably see the 3-track master tapes as much more valuable than low quality recordings from TV, but that is not the way Tom thinks. But the point is, if he were apathetic about his work, he'd have let me take that reel as well.
- It's easier to not care. - Of course it is! Are we required to care what others think about us? I think it shows a great deal of personal strength for anyone (especially someone who has been in the field of entertainment) to be as detached as Tom is from seeking the approval of others. We could probably all live happier lives if we took a lesson from this.
Here are some further thoughts not connected to specific quotes or errors in the article.
I enjoyed talking with Anita while she was working on this article, and I thought I was being very helpful. I expressed concern at the beginning about the possibility of factual errors and being misquoted, and she assured me they were very careful. I guess this goes to show how easy it is to misunderstand someone and how imperfect spoken language is at relating thoughts. I know in my mind what I'm thinking, but when I say it in words, which someone else hears or reads, it goes into their mind in a slightly altered state, and may be taken out of context since they can't sense everything else in my mind at the time. But without the power of psychic transmission from one mind to another, this is what we have to work with.
I guess everyone who deals with the press has this problem. Anyone who reads an article about themselves probably always finds mistakes here and there. I wished I had been able to review the article prior to publication and offer some corrections, but it's their work and not mine. I'm not in control, I just contributed.
I believe it was in the 1991 interview with Dr. Demento that Tom said something along the lines of: "I said what I had to say and I got out. I wish more people would follow my example." This gives a pretty good understanding of his attitude. Instead of hundreds or thousands of songs by Tom, we have dozens. Would we admire him more if we had thousands? It's doubtful. I cannot think of a songwriter off the top of my head who has written thousands of songs that are all top notch. There are bound to be some clunkers after so many. Tom judiciously chose his best work to release and left the business on a high note. If he had continued to put out albums until he was completely devoid of inspiration, we would not hold his total work in such high regard. Isn't the old show biz adage "Always leave 'em wanting more"? Think what would've happened had Elvis Presley stopped making movies after the first four. He might be more highly regarded as an actor rather than so much of his acting career being panned. Tom knew when to quit - just as you start to descend from your peak, rather than when you're sliding down the other side of the mountain full speed.
I hope I've corrected some details and clarified some of Tom's viewpoints. Of course, all of this is my take on it, and I'm sure there are times when I've misinterpreted something Tom said or did as well.
I'd love to hear more from David Robinson and others interviewed for this article. I shared with Anita the text of some extensive interviews I did with Tom, and I thought perhaps in return she could send me her interviews used for this article. However, she said that was against general journalistic practice. Did I then violate a journalism code of ethics by sharing my interviews (which I previously used for a magazine article), and if so why did she happily accept them rather than warn me about what I was doing?
One other note, I am a bit disturbed at BuzzFeed's semi-stalking of Tom. He replied to their first letter nicely enough, but then they stopped by his house uninvited. And they published in the article information about his street and house, the type of car in the driveway, and a hint at what they believe to be his e-mail address. Just because this is information available to the public (anyone can walk by someone's house and note what car is in the driveway, or in some cities see it on Google Maps street view) doesn't mean it belongs in such an article. I wouldn't appreciate people publishing details about my house without my consent. I think it is this kind of behavior that makes Tom want to avoid being a celebrity.