Listen: Elvis Costello, Keith Richards, Paul Simon, Salman Rushdie pay tribute to Chuck Berry and Leonard Cohen at JFK Library

Salman Rushdie called the backstage scene "the best photograph I've ever been in," and Elvis Costello still couldn't quite believe it. At the end, it was Costello with Keith Richards clanging guitars together on stage at the John F. Kennedy Library, playing a suitably sloppy and euphoric version of Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" as a shit-ton of famous talent -- almost as much in the audience as made it onstage -- gathered to see Berry and Leonard Cohen receive the first annual PEN New England Awards for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence. The award may have been long in coming, but nobody was about to miss what might be Berry's final appearance in Boston. Unexpectedly, Chuck -- wearing his trademark sailor's cap -- leaped out of his seat and went for Elvis Costello's guitar, belting out a couple of verses of "Johnny B. Good." That wasn't on the program -- and neither was the Elvis/Keef encore. 

Earlier, Rushdie introduced Cohen by quoting the lyrics to "Bird on a Wire" and opining, "If I could write like that, I would"; he also thought Auden would have liked "Hallelujah." And after Shawn Colvin nervously strummed a sweet version of his "Come Healing," Cohen -- who was not confirmed to appear at the event until this morning -- spent most of his time on-stage praising Berry. 

The jury that chose the recipients, Cohen pointed out, was comprised of people who could easily have been given the award: Bono, Costello, Smokey Robinson, Rushdie, and Roseanne Cash among them. "But I understand, now, the criteria they based it on," he said. "They chose it on the basis of seniority." 

With that he turned to Berry, sitting in the front row, and said, "If Beethoven hadn't rolled over, there wouldn't have been room for any of us. All of us are footnotes to the work of Chuck Berry." 

Among the well-wishers in the crowd were Peter Wolf, Asa Brebner, and the (former Boston Phoenix and Real Paper) critic Peter Guralnick. (Mercifully, Buckcherry stayed home.) Bono was stuck in South America, reportedly writing songs ("and probably curing a few lepers," joked award chairman Bill Flanagan). Roseanne Cash was celebrating what would have been her father's 80th birthday, but sent a letter saying that if Cohen had only written the one line -- "There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in" -- he'd have been worthy of the honor. And Bob Dylan sent a letter with warm regards for both honorees. "To Chuck, the Shakespeare of rock and roll, congratulations on your award, that's what too much monkey business will get ya . . . and give my regards to Leonard Cohen, the Kafka of the blues, and Lord Byron Keith if he shows up."

Paul Simon, introducing Berry, broke out in a belly laugh after Berry sidled up to him at the podium. "He just told me he's got a bad ear and he can't hear a word I'm saying," Simon told the audience. "That's probably for the best." After Simon recited some of his favorite Berry lines, Costello strapped on a guitar and said what everyone was thinking: "One of the more intimidating things you'll ever do is play a Chuck Berry song in front of Chuck Berry . . . without a band." He introduced his version of "No Particular Place To Go" by remembering that he'd first heard it as a 10-year-old and that he "didn't know what a safety belt was at the time time. But I suspected it was something . . . rude."

The event was way sold out, and was live-streamed by the JFK Library. The full video should eventually show up here, and be downloadable from iTunes here. In the meantime, here are the speeches: 

[View the story "Chuck Berry and Leonard Cohen receive PEN New England award at JFK Library" on Storify]

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