A handful of the most gifted musicians of the past 50 years gathered at New York's Marriott Marquis last night as the Songwriters Hall of Fame celebrated its newest honorees, Leonard Cohen, Phil Collins, Earth, Wind and Fire and Taylor Swift. The caliber of talent milling around the reception hall impressed even Paul Shaffer, who told Rolling Stone he was star-struck. "I see people here I never thought I would get to meet. I'm with Earth, Wind and one of the members of the Strangeloves who recorded 'I Want Candy' in the Sixties," he said, adding he was especially looking forward to Leonard Cohen's acceptance speech. "He was the only guy who ever rehearsed for the Letterman show with a glass of red wine."
Cohen's induction began with a few words from Judy Collins, who sat at a grand piano in a silver gown and explained how Cohen had visited her as an admirer in the late Sixties. "He said, 'I can't sing and I can't play the guitar, and I don't know if this is a song' " before he played her his eerie classic "Suzanne," she recalled. Collins remembered her reply — "I said, 'Leonard, it's a song and I'm recording it tomorrow' " — and reached into her falsetto for a gorgeous version of the track. k.d. lang then belted an earthshaking version of "Hallelujah" that had Steven Van Zandt raving to RS< "That was one of the best performances I've seen in my entire life."
The always-dapper Cohen accepted his honor in a black suit and his trademark fedora. "Thank you friends," he rasped, and said Lang and Collins "brought my songs to life more than I ever could." The poet kept things brief and recited a single verse from "Hallelujah," tipped his hat and exited the stage.
The mood turned acidly humorous as John Mayer arrived to present Taylor Swift with the Hal David Starlight Award for emerging songwriters. Half-joking about how he'd repeatedly asked record biz insiders whether the country-pop songstress actually wrote her own material, Mayer said he didn't believe their answer until the two sat down and Swift did some on-the-spot composing. "Son of a bitch. She was writing her own songs," he marveled.
Swift, decked out in a pink dress, hugged Mayer at the podium and thanked the songwriters who hired her when she was 14. "Songwriting is an escape from the reality when you have to say the right thing at the right time," she said. "A lot of my songs are confessions of love… I'm more likely to say 'I miss you' or 'I love you' in a song rather than a text message, which is why there's always a delay when I tell people how I feel." Swift strapped on her acoustic guitar and played her cheating ballad "White Horse," backed by rich harmonies.
Billy Joel kept the crowd roaring with a hilarious speech honoring legendary producer Phil Ramone. Joel started by reading a Wikipedia-like rundown of Ramone's accomplishments, from producing John F. Kennedy's 45th birthday party to 14 Grammy awards, then laughed, "I didn't write this shit — they gave it to me!" Moving to the piano, Joel began demonstrating how Ramone's production skills had improved his own Seventies and Eighties hits. He told the house band to "play a shitty cha-cha" and started "Just the Way You Are" to indicate how his label wanted the track, then showed off his brilliant final version. Joel also gave Ramone credit for his opus "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," saying every time he'd finish a section of the song, Ramone would reply, "And then what?" The crowd was nearly rolling out of their chairs when Joel launched into an anecdote about Ramone setting him up with Paul McCartney that included the bizarre punch line, "Paul McCartney's gonna think I'm Jeffery Dahmer!" A teary Ramone thanked the crowd profusely, saying, "Everything I care about is here tonight."
Just a few hours after postponing his summer tour with Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon received the Towering Song Award for his classic "Bridge Over Troubled Water." The singer said he wrote the track in New York when he was 28 after listening to the spiritual "Mary Don't You Weep" and the Everly Brothers album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. "It all came at once and I thought, 'Jeez that's better than I usually write,' " he recalled. Simon said he composed the song in two verses as "a little hymn," only adding a third when his label prodded him. "I still think it works better as two verses," he laughed. Simon thanked Garfunkel, but took a minor shot at his partner, admitting he prefers Aretha Franklin's version of the track. "Art has a white choir boy voice," Simon said. "Aretha sang it from the black perspective."
Phil Collins, the recipient of the Johnny Mercer Award, said he had a lot to be thankful for: "My kids are stable adults — thanks to their wonderful mothers," he joked, adding the honor made him gratified that he doesn't make "polished BMW music." Collins then took the stage with Earth, Wind and Fire's Philip Bailey for a synth-drenched performance of their 1984 hit "Easy Lover."
David Foster and Johnny Mandel, who created the theme song from M.A.S.H., were also honored, as was Jackie DeShannon, who announced, "You've made a little girl from Hazel, Kentucky very proud" and performed her timeless Sixties R&B hit "Put a Little Love in Your Heart." Earth, Wind and Fire closed out the night with a heartfelt speech and had the crowd, including Leonard Cohen, dancing to their funky classic "September."
Outside the event, Billy Joel told RS it's harder to be a successful songwriter today than when he started his career, but he believes it's a still-vital craft. "I would encourage them not to give up if they're having a hard time getting their stuff programmed on the radio or even recorded by other artists," he said. "It's a lot tougher than when I was starting out, but we need good material. We need good songs."