This is worth reading. Ben Smith on Tom Lehrer:
If you get hooked on Tom Lehrer as a kid, it’s not because you think he might be a sweet old man. It’s because beneath the cheerful tunes is an edge, a sheer nastiness and even sadism, that kids have always loved. It’s the same edge that makes Roald Dahl so appealing to children and disturbing to their parents.
Lehrer saw this Peter Pan in himself, joking about it before one of his last performances, in Copenhagen in 1967. “All of these songs were part of a huge scientific project to which I have devoted my entire life,” Lehrer said. “Namely, the attempt to prolong adolescence beyond all previous limits.”
But when Lehrer is the nostalgic music of your childhood, you want to like him. He always replies politely to his fans, no less when they are journalists seeking to profile him. Earlier this year, he put up with a brief telephone conversation with a BuzzFeed reporter, whom he referred to “Mr. Google” for further research. Told that search results concerning him are full of gaps and contradictions, he just laughed. “It doesn’t matter if the answer is correct — who cares?” he said. “And I lie a lot too.”
He then replied to our letter full of nostalgia and curiosity with a genial dismissal. “You seem to have devoted so much thought to the questions you ask that you should perhaps just write what you think is the truth, even if it’s just speculation, which — judging by today’s commentators on TV — is the easiest and therefore the most common form of punditry. I neither support nor encourage your efforts, but I shall not try to thwart them,” he wrote. And he was true to his word. He didn’t respond to a second letter, nor to a fact-checking email sent to his AOL email address; his email handle includes a phrase along the line of “living legend.” When we stopped by his Sparks Street house on a cold night in February, a light was on and a Prius was in the driveway, but nobody answered the door and Lehrer wrote that he had left town for California.
Over at Buzzfeed, check out this terrific interview with George Saunders talking about Arthur Miller’s memoir, Timebends:
CW: What drew you into this book, initially? What kept you reading, and what inspired the recommendation today?
GS: At first I was just loving the descriptions of his childhood and being reminded of the fact that the only thing that will evoke the world as we actually experience it is great sentences – the difference between a boring, banal account of childhood and one that feels properly rich and mysterious (i.e., like one’s own actual childhood), is the phrase-by-phrase quality of the prose. Perceptions truthfully remembered make great sentences and great sentences provide the way for that truthful remembering to happen – something like that. I guess I’m just saying it was a pleasure to read such intelligent writing.
But also – lately I find myself interested in anything historical that can open up my mind afresh and get me really seeing the past, with the purpose of adding that data to my evolving moral-ethical view of the world. (We only live in one time but can read in many, etc., etc.) To have a witness as intelligent and articulate as Miler is almost (almost!) like having been there oneself. So here, wow, the stories and details – New York before the war, all his crazy relatives and their various ends; stories about Odets, Kazan, et al, Miller’s deep periods of artistic immersion, life with Monroe, trips to Russia, walking around with Frank Lloyd Wright (and finding him unlikeable), the moral-spiritual breakdown of Untermeyer, the way Lee J. Cobb first “got” Willy Loman, and on and on – I just came away thinking, “Jeez, what a life. Good for you, Arthur Miller. We should all live so fully.”
I also found myself really excited by Miller’s basic assumptions about art: it’s important, it is supposed to change us, it’s not supposed to be trivial or merely clever, it’s one human being trying to urgently communicate with another. But it was also exciting to see his uncertainty around this stance – the way he couldn’t always execute, and sometimes doubted those ideas, and found himself fighting against the prevailing spirit of the time – like in the 1960s, when everything felt, to him, ironic and faux-cynical. I found myself inspired by the way he went through his life, always holding out a high vision of what art is supposed to do – he strikes me as having been a real fighter.
I read the book when it came out. Sounds like it’s time to dive back in.
[Photo Credit: Elliot Erwitt]
Over at Buzzfeed, check out 40 sad portraits of closed record stores.