Though he was one of the guests of honor PEN New England’s Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Awards, Kris Kristofferson did not seem inclined to serenade the audience: “No, I don’t think so,” he appeared to mouth when emcee Elvis Costello whispered to him onstage.
Rosanne Cash had just finished singing a pristine version of “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again).” The irrepressible Costello, who hosted the same ceremony when it honored Chuck Berry and Leonard Cohen two years ago, is not so easily denied. Stepping to the microphone, he looked over his shoulder and said with a wink, “Kris, can we prevail upon you to give us a song?”
Kristofferson, still looking like an outlaw movie hero at 77, accepted a guitar and let out an emotional “Woo!” before he ultimately obliged, playing an unaccompanied, suitably weather-beaten version of “Me and Bobby McGee.” A few minutes later, the afternoon’s other honoree, the wily ironist Randy Newman, stepped to the podium and declared with total sincerity, “I’m so happy to have been here for that.”
Like the inaugural event, the second songwriters’ tribute was a bold-name affair. T Bone Burnett presented Kristofferson’s award (a heavy medallion featuring a lyre, symbolizing all literature’s roots in song), saying he’d been “an evolutionary step in country music” and had created “a country-and-western religion,” before Lyle Lovett paid tribute to Newman’s unmatched ability to be “brutally honest” yet “benevolent” in his songs.
“Certainly a song like ‘Rednecks’ is outrageous,” he said, “but it’s also courageous.” And, he continued, when Newman steps outside his trademark character sketches to write in the direct style of most singer-songwriters, as on his debut album’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” “his honesty is so overwhelming, it makes the rest of us conscious of our own artifice.”
This year, honorees were chosen by a committee including Costello, Cash, Bono, Peter Wolf and the writers Salman Rushdie, Paul Muldoon, Natasha Trethewey and Bill Flanagan. They chose the recipients after a lengthy round-table debate, Costello explained, with Bono on speakerphone from London. At one point they forgot the latter was on the line, giving Costello the chance to joke, “It’s the longest he’s ever been silent.”
But for Kristofferson, Newman and their peer-admirers, silence won’t do. Given PEN’s commitment to human rights, the guests of honor were chosen for more than ability to craft a catchy melody. Burnett, for instance, cited Newman’s “Sail Away,” a gorgeous song about the slave trade: “as deft a use of irony as our language has ever produced.”
“I’m very grateful people seem to get what I do,” Newman said, again setting aside his sardonic default mode. Wondering if he always makes it clear enough that’s he’s writing in character, he defended himself: “I’m not all bad,” he joked, drawing more laughter from the invitees. In their songs, these two masters may have asked what it means to be bad, but as writers they’ve been very, very good.