Music

Tom Lehrer releases his lyrics into the public domain

I first heard Tom Lehrer’s music in high school. Without my parents’ knowledge, I used to stay up past my bedtime on Sunday nights to listen to The Doctor Demento Show on the radio. It was (and is, as it continues online), a program of novelty and comedy records. The good Doctor held up Tom Lehrer as one of the true greats of musical satire, which, I can see now, he was. Or is, as he is still alive at 90-something.

This is the first Tom Lehrer song I remember Dr. Demento playing. It spoke to me as a child of the Cold War. If you weren’t alive then, let me impress upon you just how tightly woven it was into the fabric of our lives. We feared that the USSR would one day just start firing nuclear missiles at us, sparking World War III and the utter destruction of the Earth. We sometimes speculated over which cities would be first targets, and based on how close or far we lived from them what kind of hideous death we would suffer, from instant vaporization to acute radiation poisoning or anything in between. Anyway. Here’s Tom helping us all process and release our nuclear anxieties.

Dr. Demento played many of Tom’s other songs. We learned from the good Doctor that Tom recorded two or three versions of many of his songs: a studio recording of just Tom at his piano, a live recording, and a studio recording with a full orchestra. This song about, well, BDSM, benefits in particular from the orchestra.

What endeared me most to Tom Lehrer, however, was his songs about mathematics and science. Music was just one of his talents and interests. He was quite adept at mathematics — he entered Harvard to study it at age 15! He taught mathematics in universities throughout his working life. Here, he sings about a change in the way arithmetic was taught in schools starting in the 1960s.

He also sang the entire Periodic Table of the Elements to the tune of I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General. I was a deeply geeky teenager whose sense of humor connected with nobody I encountered in real life. It was a revelation and a relief to find that others thought that nerdy things could be made funny!

Tom Lehrer’s musical career, if you can call it that, intertwined with his adademic pursuits. He alternated between writing, recording, and performing songs and pursuing degrees and teaching. He released his first record in 1950, his second in 1959, and his third in 1965. He toured the world; he appeared frequently on television. And then he lost interest in it all, and retreated to academia, where he stayed.

Except that in the 1970s he contributed songs to a children’s show called The Electric Company, which aired on PBS. This show’s aim was to help early elementary students learn to read. I watched this show when it was new — I was a little older than its target audience, but in those days we had but a handful of TV stations with few children’s programming options. I remember these songs well, but didn’t learn that Tom Lehrer was behind them until I was well into adulthood. I knew Tom Lehrer before I was aware of it! Some of his songs were performed by the show’s actors, but Tom sang a few himself to an animation, like this one.

The reason I’m writing about this today is that Lehrer has released all of his lyrics into the public domain, and is said to be working to release his music into the public domain as well. He is aware of his music being uploaded to YouTube, and he is on record as not caring. So let’s listen to just one more of his songs, a perennial favorite he performs here live in 1998, which I have to assume is among his last public performances. No less than Stephen Sondheim introduces him.

If you’d like to know more about Tom Lehrer, Buzzfeed published a great retrospective and interview a few years ago. Read it here.

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Music
Broadway Hotel

I have built quite an internal repertoire of popular music. I can sing along with hundreds, maybe thousands, of songs. It’s not something I set out to do — I just like to sing along to songs I like, and the lyrics have stuck.

Some song or other plays in my head at virtually all times. The places and things I encounter, as well as the conversations in which I take part, frequently remind me of a song. Then my mind plays it, on repeat, until some other experience changes the tune.

Upon encountering Madson’s Broadway Hotel, an old Al Stewart song filled my head the rest of the day. It’s a sad, odd little song with a lovely piano and violin interlude, and it has nothing other than a shared name to do with this old-timey inn in Madison.

Broadway Hotel

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Essay, Music

What heavy metal music has to do with Donald Trump and our nation’s disaffected working class

You might think that heavy metal music faded into irrelevancy after the big-hair 1980s. That is, if you’ve even thought about heavy metal since then! Well, I have. I’m still a fan, and I still buy the latest music from the bands I’ve liked all these years.

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That’s right: a handful of those loud, hard bands are still at it. My favorite, pioneers Iron Maiden, have been recording and touring for more than four decades now. Their sixteenth studio album arrived in 2015, and a world tour followed promptly. My old buddy Michael and I caught them in Chicago last April. I took these photos from our nosebleed seats at the United Center. This is what a sold-out show looks like.

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It’s not just the geezer bands that keep metal going — new bands have been forming, recording, and touring steadily all these years. Clearly, heavy metal isn’t dead!

But how could it possibly endure? I have a theory.

Metal is overwhelmingly a white, male music genre. When I go to a concert, the audience is easily 80% white men.

Also, metal appeals most broadly to the working class. (At least in North America. Across Europe, it enjoys surprising popularity among the wealthiest, best-educated countries. I can’t explain it, so I’ll just focus on North America.) It’s impossible to be certain of any metal concertgoer’s socioeconomic class simply by looking at them, especially since our “uniform” is faded jeans and a black metal-band T-shirt. But a fellow so clad is more likely than the average man to be working class or close to it, or to have working-class roots (like me).

I think it’s fair to characterize the working class as having roughly high-school educations, working low-status occupations, and earning below average incomes.

I think it’s risky, however, to characterize the working class’s views and ways, as any socioeconomic class contains diverse experiences and viewpoints. But I’m going to try anyway, because given my working-class roots and my involvement in a church that serves the poor and working class I think I have reasonable insight into it. I experience the working class as much more likely than higher classes to view the world in right/wrong, black/white terms. The low-status, low-wage work the working class finds limits their agency, often placing them at the mercy of their employers, their creditors, and even their government. As a result, they are likely to experience the world as stacked against them. The working class is simply more likely than higher classes to experience life as brutal and unforgiving. And working-class people generally don’t understand how the higher classes function (and vice versa), which makes it harder for them to break into higher classes even when opportunity presents itself.

It’s a life that makes one more likely to be nihilistic. If you tread water some or all of the time and daily living is this hard, then what’s the point of life?

And that’s enough to make a fellow angry. Deeply, smolderingly angry. This is where heavy metal music comes in. It’s a fabulous way to release that anger.

It’s what attracted me to the genre. I was a pretty angry fellow, deep down, in my late teens and early 20s. Nothing vented my steam like some blazing metal! Even today, a good headbang deeply presses my internal reset button. And in metal circles I meet other men for whom this is also an acceptable emotional outlet. It bonds us.

It helps a lot that metal’s favorite song subjects tend to emphasize a black-and-white, low-agency life — dystopian futures, the futility of war, the inevitability of death. Or they deal in subjects that provide fantasy relief from that life — stories of sword and sorcery, boats of personal power through might, and glory in drugs or sex or fame.

I think this is what attracts the working class more readily to Donald Trump than to Hillary Clinton. Trump is almost like a heavy metal song, with his black and white rhetoric that effectively labels the current system as dystopian, and with his direct declarations of power and mastery over perceived and real threats.

I think it reaches the same anger that draws white, working-class men to heavy metal music. White, working-class men make up a large portion of Trump’s base. That’s not to say that most of Trump’s base listens to heavy metal, but I’ll bet there’s a strong affinity between metalheads and those voting for Trump.

That’s not to say I’m falling for it, by the way. I find Trump to be horrifying.

Trump becoming President won’t magically resolve this anger. Electing Hillary doesn’t make these disaffected people go away. Our next President needs to work to create opportunities, perhaps even outright create conditions, that let working-class people move from survival mode into greater security and upward mobility. Because they’re righteously pissed, and that’s not going away on its own. If the next President ignores this, the election that follows will make this one look like a walk in the park.

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Music

Driving and Singing: Paul McCartney, “Too Much Rain”

Friday mornings of late I’ve been sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. I love to sing! But as every song ends, so does this series, today. 

2005 might well have been the hardest year of my life. My wife was divorcing me, I got to see my sons only occasionally, I had white-knuckled grip on addiction recovery, and I lived in a one-room apartment in a bad neighborhood while still paying the mortgage on a house I’d never live in again.

I even lost my dog. I’d say I was living in a country song, except that I didn’t own a truck.

It’s easy to make light of it now because I’ve recovered and my life is on a good path. In every way, those days made me a much better man, and I’m grateful for that. But it really was an awful, crushing time. I sought every lifeline and clung desperately to each one.

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One lifeline came from out of nowhere, thanks to Paul McCartney. I’ve written before of another time his music kept me from going over the edge, and a song he released that year did it again. The CD it is from, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, could well be that committed optimist’s most introspective and brooding work. And I was absolutely in an introspective and brooding place then, so it worked for me. But then there was the song “Too Much Rain,” which stood in counterpoint:

Laugh when your eyes are burning
Smile when your heart is filled with pain
Sigh as you brush away your sorrow
Make a vow, that it’s not gonna happen again

It’s not right, in one life
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I’m not an optimist. But once again McCartney’s optimism reminded me that there’s a path out of every dark time. And so I looked for reasons to laugh, smile, and sigh, even though my life was a painful mess. It wasn’t easy. But soon I found myself on that path toward happier days.

Click Play to hear Paul McCartney sing “Too Much Rain.”

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Music

Driving and singing: Heart, “My Crazy Head”

Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Singing is cathartic for me. I can’t imagine not singing. I do most of my singing while driving, listening to my favorite songs on my car stereo.

Kristen was my first girlfriend. We’d been friends since we were six and eight, but in middle school we tried our hands at what passed for dating for two so young. Our first date was to a lunch counter at a five and dime; she made me ask her father before she’d consent.

But mostly, we hung out together and talked on the phone. My favorite Kristen memory is riding along while her dad ran some errands one day. He drove a two-door Volvo, strange and exotic in the staunchly drive-American Midwest. At every stop, Kristen and I stayed in the car listening to the radio and talking. At one stop, Heart’s early hit “Magic Man” came on, and Kristen started singing it out loud. I was surprised by her voice, lush and smoky, as it resonated within the cabin. She could sing! I couldn’t help but join in even though I didn’t know the lyrics very well. It was a few moments of real joy, and a memory I’ll always keep.

The album that song came from was released 40 years ago this week, and it put Heart firmly on my radar. Later I started buying their old albums. For a kid who mostly listened to the Beatles and the Carpenters, Heart’s music was my first real step into rock.

The 80s were a rough time for rock music. Crossover country, syrupy love ballads, dance, and new wave all pushed rock out of the spotlight. What sold in the 70s just wasn’t working anymore, at least not on the same scale of popularity.

Heart definitely felt it — their new albums just weren’t selling as well and their singles weren’t charting as high. So they shifted with the times, making albums full of radio-friendly pop power ballads. And where they had always written all of their own songs, they started recording songs by other writers.

I still listened, still bought their albums, at first. Self-titled Heart was a serious departure from their earlier material, but it was well made. Next came Bad Animals, which moved even more toward power pop. I didn’t enjoy it as much, but when I got my chance to see them play live in support of this album, I didn’t hesitate. We got nosebleed seats; I couldn’t see the band’s faces even if I squinted. But I couldn’t miss the giant set they played on and the elaborate costumes they wore to go with their new pop image. They came out playing all of their recent hits. But once that was out of the way, they gave an all-out rock show, vigorously playing all of their ’70s hits. They came back for an encore that included a couple Led Zeppelin songs. What a great show!

And then Heart released Brigade and led with the single “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You,” a syrupy little heartstring tugger that turned me right off. Seriously disappointed, I decided I was done following Heart, and that I would just enjoy their ’70s albums and move on.

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In the early ’90s I worked part time for a rock radio station. I went in for my shift one day to find that a brand new Heart song was in rotation and on my playlist. It was a surprise, as they’d released nothing new since Brigade four years earlier. And when I played it — oh my gawwwwwwd it was rock!Back on Black II” was the song’s odd title but make no mistake, it was a return to form. I snagged a copy of their new CD, Desire Walks On, from the closet where we kept our giveaway CDs and popped it into the car and kept it on repeat for weeks. Heart was back! Back! Back to writing their own songs and back to rocking out.

Another fabulous benefit of working at the radio station was free concert tickets, top shows and great seats. The station sent me to see Heart in Indianapolis at Clowes Hall, a wonderful theater at Butler University. I had a commanding view from my seat in a box just above stage right. Heart did a stripped-down show, no costumes, no elaborate sets, no nonsense. They played songs from the new album, a ton of songs from the 70s,  and only a couple songs from the 80s. And there I fell in love with Heart all over again.

One of the things I’ve always loved about Heart is how I can sing almost all of their songs. Vocalist Ann Wilson is famous for a five-octave range, way more than I could ever hope to reach. But she seldom stretches that far in one song, and their songs are almost always in keys that allow me to sing without stretching beyond my vocal range. And Ann loves to belt out a tune. Belting is my favorite way to sing!

One of my favorite songs from this album is a light rocker called “My Crazy Head.” There’s something about how I have to wrap my vocal cords around Ann’s notes that makes my whole body resonate. But while I love to sing along to it, I feel kind of silly doing it. The song tells a woman’s experience of being loved. A lot of Heart’s songs do. Obviously, those are feelings I can’t reach! But I ignore what the lyrics mean and just sing out, because it feels so good.

Click Play to listen to Heart sing “My Crazy Head.”

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Music

Driving and singing: Paul Simon, “Peace Like a River”

Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Singing is cathartic for me. I can’t imagine not singing. I do most of my singing while driving, listening to my favorite songs on my car stereo.

When I was a boy, even a teen, Paul Simon was my hero. I didn’t know anything of him personally, and except for one appearance on late-night TV — was it Saturday Night Live? I can’t remember — I’d never seen or heard anything of him but the songs he recorded. But his songs so often went straight to the heart, to things that mattered, and I loved him for being able to write so truthfully and articulately about relationships and the inner life.

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My college years coincided with the introduction of the compact disc. Lots of people were selling their records to buy CDs, and like a gleaner in the fields I followed along behind them hoovering up great records on the cheap. I bought the entire Paul Simon catalog that way, including his self-titled solo debut, fresh from the breakup from Art Garfunkel. Unlike the lush, highly produced work the duo produced toward the end of their career, this album sounded spare and a little unfinished, from songwriting to instrumentation to production. Still, it produced the hits “Mother and Child Renuion” and “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard.”

But my favorite song from this record is “Peace Like a River.” I don’t know why this song resonates with me and I can’t even figure out what this song is about. But I love how the beat and guitar work create a dark mood, and I love the raw emotion I hear when he sings “I’ve seen the glorious day.” It brings tears to my eyes. And I sing aiee-e-e-e right along with him right out loud, sometimes shredding my vocal cords if they’re not warmed up.

I would die to hear Paul play this live. The closest I’ve come was a few years ago when Paul did a concert in Bloomington. I don’t remember why I couldn’t go. But local radio station WTTS broadcast the show live and I listened to it all. Unbelievably, he played this song. I just cried. I couldn’t believe it. Such an obscure old thing, but a song that has always moved me for reasons I can’t reach.

Click Play to hear Paul Simon’s “Peace Like a River.”

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