Rock ‘n’ roll originator and legend Chuck Berry and acclaimed Canadian singer/songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen were honored Sunday (Feb. 26) in Boston with the inaugural Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Awards by the PEN New England literary group.
Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards was a surprise guest at the ceremony, joining Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Shawn Colvin, Peter Wolf and local novelist Tom Perrotta at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. The late president’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, opened the ceremony by quoting her father’s speech from the dedication of the Robert Frost library: “I see little that is more important to our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves the nation.”
The crowd in the packed auditorium quickly rose to its feet when Berry walked in, leading the celebrities to their seats.
After opening remarks by author Bill Flanagan, who reminded the crowd that it’s been 60 years since Berry’s hit ‘Maybellene’ was written, Perrotta repeatedly made the audience laugh with his opening remarks peppered with famous song lyrics
Novelist Salman Rushdie presented Cohen with his medal, while commenting, “To put it quite simply, if I could write like him, I would.” Colvin paid tribute to Cohen by playing his song “Come Healing’’ on an acoustic guitar.
After receiving the award from Rushdie, Cohen thanked the jury in his raspy baritone and paid homage to Berry, comparing Berry’s “Roll Over, Beethoven’’ to Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp,’’ from “Leaves of Grass.’’
Flanagan read an email from Bob Dylan that said: “Congratulations to Chuck Berry, who has written the book with a capital B. Congratulations to Leonard, who’s still writing it.’’
Simon introduced Berry, saying he was rightfully considered a “great poet of teenage life’’ but was much more than that. He went on to read and remark on the lyrics to what he called some of his favorite Berry songs, including “Maybellene,’’ “Johnny B. Goode’’ and “Long Distance Information.’’
Costello played Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go,’’ which he said he heard for the first time as a 10-year-old.
Simon hung the award medal on Berry’s neck and in a move that surprised the event organizers, the 85-year-old Berry picked up an electric guitar and played “Johnny B. Goode’’ to enthusiastic applause.
To close the show, Costello coaxed Richards out of the audience to play a duet of Berry’s “Promised Land,’’ bringing the crowd to its feet once again
The first Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Awards winners were chosen last year by a panel that included Simon, Costello, Rushdie, Smokey Robinson, U2′s Bono and Rosanne Cash.
Here’s a video posted by Keith talking about his fantastic weekend, with onstage jams with Eric Clapton (at the tribute to blues legend Hubert Sumlin at New York’s Apollo Theater) and Chuck Berry: