Midway through Paul Simon's praise of Chuck Berry, who was honored alongside Leonard Cohen as the first two recipients of PEN New England's Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award Sunday at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Berry beckoned Simon to lean over so he could whisper in his ear.
The presenter returned to the microphone laughing. Berry, he said, told him he had a bad ear and couldn't hear a word he was saying.
Yet fans of Berry and Cohen, unquestionably two of the most original writers the rock & roll era has produced, have been listening very closely from the beginning. Addressing a tony crowd of writers and rock fans, Salman Rushdie presented Cohen's award, and Elvis Costello and surprise guest Keith Richards (introduced as "the best-selling author in this room") performed in tribute to Berry.
Given the intent of the Song Lyrics award, the event was peppered with references to great writers. In an email read by organizer Bill Flanagan, Bob Dylan called Berry "the Shakespeare of rock & roll" and Cohen "the Kafka of the blues." Cohen, accepting his award, compared Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" to Walt Whitman's joyful noise – his "barbaric yawp."
"If Beethoven hadn't rolled over," he said, "there'd be no room for any of us."
After quoting key lines from Cohen's "Bird on the Wire" – "Like a bird on the wire/ Like a drunk in a midnight choir/ I have tried, in my way, to be free" – the author Rushdie, a former president of PEN American Center, said, "Put simply, if I could write like that, I would."
Last year the New England chapter of the world's oldest literary and human rights organization convened a panel to select the first recipients of the new songwriters' award. The panel included Costello, Simon, Rushdie, Bono, Rosanne Cash, Smokey Robinson and poet Paul Muldoon. After opening remarks from Caroline Kennedy, who spoke of her father's conviction that "the artist has a special responsibility in our democracy," PEN New England Chairman Richard Hoffman explained the symbolism of the oversize image of a lyre projected above the stage. It was a reminder, he said, that through most of history, "literature was sung."
After Shawn Colvin sang Cohen's "Come Healing" from his new album Old Ideas, Costello took the stage to pay tribute to Berry. "This is one of the more intimidating things you'll do," he joked – "play a Chuck Berry song in front of Chuck Berry, without a band." But his characteristically tweaked version of "No Particular Place to Go" drew smiles and finger-points from the master, who, at 85, looked the same as ever in his sailor's cap and string tie.
Rather than take the microphone to make an acceptance speech, Berry surprised the event organizers by indicating he'd just as soon take Costello's hollow-body guitar off his hands. After fumbling with some feedback, he played a muted version of "Johnny B. Goode."
"That's the way rock & roll is," he said when he finished. "It's funky. Is that too bad a word to say?"
For the event's final surprise, Richards, who famously squabbled with his guitar hero during the filming of Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, stepped out of the front row and onto the stage, where he took Costello's guitar and joined him – Costello grabbing an acoustic – on an unrehearsed romp through Berry's cross-country yarn "Promised Land."
"We have a Mount Rushmore thing going on here," as Flanagan noted earlier in the program. The guests of honor were, of course, united in rock.
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