Kris Kristofferson ambles up to a microphone, fulfilling the impromptu request of Elvis Costello to sing us one of his songs. We have just heard Roseanne Cash sing Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again), her rich, contralto voice filling the auditorium and making Kristofferson weep. T Bone Burnett has been moved to tears during his own tribute to the man who had created “a country-and-western religion”. They both sit on the stage waiting, like we are, for Kristofferson to begin.
We are in the heart of the JFK Library, a place dedicated to “those who seek a new and better world”, a fitting venue for the presentation of the 2014 PEN New England Song Lyrics Award for Literary Excellence. PEN New England, an organization founded to celebrate literature and defend free expression, is known for its annual recognition of exemplary fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. The Lyrics Award recognizes the stories and poetry we hear through song, and my husband and I are taking it all in from the front row, invited by friends who are PEN members.
In his late 70’s now, Kristofferson is tall and slim, eyes still piercing. Costello hands him a guitar and fades into the background. The June sunshine dances behind the stage, a wall of glass separating the rest of the world from the magic the room is holding. Kristofferson launches into Me and Bobby McGee, the song he wrote and Janis Joplin made famous, his bluesy voice deep and soulful. When he gets to the chorus, he sings with feeling:
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
And nothing’s worth nothing but it’s free.
Roseanne Cash is visibly moved and wipes tears from her eyes. Burnett has donned his dark Ray-Bans and seems transported. Maybe they’re thinking, as I am, how meaningful those words still are, in our time and in our time of life. Kristofferson plays on, takes us through to the final chords, leaves us gutted and uplifted at once. In the midst of our joyful ovation, Cash drapes the lyre-shaped medallion around Kristofferson’s neck, and they hug like dear friends do.
This golden hour proceeds in this vein, with emcee Costello introducing us to luminaries who then tell us how their friends have changed their lives. Peter Wolf reads letters from James Taylor, John Prine, and Jackson Browne praising the guests of honor. Lyle Lovett recounts honoree Randy Newman’s kindness to him when Lovett himself was starting out, a warm up act trying to stay out of the star’s hair. Bluesman Allen Toussaint sings Newman’s Louisiana 1927 from the place deep in his heart where the words have taken root and found their meaning. While Toussaint is playing, Newman closes his eyes and strikes an imaginary piano, his hands feeling the chords, his smile lighting up the room.
When Newman gets up to speak, he points out that hearing Kris Kristofferson sing Bobby McGee as he wrote it, in this small room, is something we will remember all our lives. So, too, will we remember Newman performing The World Isn’t Fair.
just like I’m glad I’m living in the land of the free
where the rich just get richer
and the poor you don’t ever have to see
It would depress us, Karl [Marx]
Because we care
that the world still isn’t fair
Just as Newman’s sharp intellect and wit lurk beneath the surface of his rumpled outward appearance, so his perky tunes and neat rhymes belie the subversive and sardonic lyricist he is.
After the awards ceremony, I found myself in an unexpected (and surreal) conversation with Elvis Costello. We talked about the palpable emotion in the room, and the capacity of music and words to create that sense of connection. Costello said he thinks of it as different from nostalgia, when we hear a song and long for the past; the feeling on this day was one of being fully present and alive, infused with music’s beauty and truth. That’s because the stars who took the stage on June 2nd graciously honored each other and their craft, serving as humble torch bearers for a literary tradition that began in ancient times and just as powerfully moves us today.
Note: The PEN New England Song Lyrics Award is new – Chuck Berry and Leonard Cohen were the first recipients in 2012, and Kristofferson and Newman were this year’s honorees. The recipients were selected by a committee of fellow musicians and poets: Costello, Cash, Wolf, Bono, Paul Muldoon, Bill Flanagan, Salman Rushdie, and Natasha Threthewey.