Rock Lyrics As High Art

This was quite an event. Funny to see some of these names italicized because it’s a celebrity column; you usually don’t see that treatment for people like Salman Rushdie and Franz Kafka:

There, sitting in the first few rows, were Leonard CohenChuck BerryKeith RichardsPaul SimonElvis CostelloShawn Colvin,Al KooperPeter Wolf, and writers Salman RushdieBill FlanaganTom Perrotta, and Peter Guralnick.

Cohen and Berry had been summoned by PEN New England to accept the group’s inaugural Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award, and some of the celebrated songwriters’ famous friends had come to salute them.

Introducing Cohen, who was looking handsome as ever at 77 and wearing his familiar fedora, Rushdie said the Canadian singer’s “extraordinary songbook” was an important influence on him growing up.

“I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, the other Cambridge, the old one,” joked Rushdie. “When we were kids, Leonard taught us something about how it might be to be a grown-up.”

The author of “The Satanic Verses” credited PEN New England for recognizing lyrics as literature – he called the award “way way overdue” – and hailed Cohen for his hymn-like songs that weave wit, “jaundiced comedy,” and disillusion.

“There are not many hymns that would rhyme ‘hallelujah’ with ‘what’s it to ya,’” said Rushdie. …

Speaking slowly and in the same low register as many of his songs, Cohen said he was grateful for the award, but called Berry the best.

“If Beethoven hadn’t rolled over, there would have been no room for any of us,” he said. “All of us are footnotes to the words of Chuck Berry.” …

In his missive, Dylan hailed Berry as “the Shakespeare of rock ’n’ roll,” adding “say hello to Mr. Leonard, the Kafka of the blues, and Lord Byron Keith if he shows up.”

The Rolling Stones guitarist did indeed show up and, after Simon read a few of Berry’s best-known verses, Richards even grabbed a guitar and joined Costello for a version of Berry’s song “Promised Land.” (Costello had earlier played “No Particular Place to Go,” prefacing it by saying “one of the more intense things you’ll ever do is play a Chuck Berry song in front of Chuck Berry – without a band.”) …

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