‘You Can’t Take Three From Two . . .’

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.


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