Chuck Berry, Leonard Cohen Honored at JFK Library

From left to right: Tom Perrotta; Salman Rushdie; Elvis Costello; Peter Wolf; Shawn Colvin; Paul Simon; Leonard Cohen; Chuck Berry; Keith Richards; Bill Flanagan. (Photo by Rick Friedman/Kennedy Library Foundation)

On Sunday, in one fell swoop, I met a significant segment of my record collection: Keith Richards, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Chuck Berry, Elvis Costello, and others. The “others” are people like Salman Rushdie, Caroline Kennedy, Al Kooper, Shawn Colvin, and Peter Wolf. I mean, we get to see Wolf all the time around here. But while it is clear that he is a rock ‘n’ roll legend, when he is the low man on the totem pole, you know you’re in rarefied air. Can you imagine thinking, geeze, Paul Simon, would you get out of my way so I could go talk to Keith Richards?

I was fortunate to be able to attend the PEN New England Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence award presentation to Berry and Cohen (video of the whole thing here). My friend, novelist Tom Perrotta, was invited to present the opening remarks. At that point, it was only confirmed that Berry would attend and Elvis Costello would perform a song or two. Tom asked if I wanted to come along.

Hmm, lemme check my calendar.

Well, as the date drew closer, rumors had it that Cohen was now looking likely to attend and that none other than my main man, Keith Richards, was going to come as a tribute to his hero, Berry. Now we were entering real Bill Janovitz Fantasy Land. I did not allow myself to get too excited about it. But then Tom would check in with an update: Paul Simon will be presenting the award to Chuck Berry. Salman Rushdie will do the same for Cohen. Still, I would not get too excited. After all, I was to be a tag-along for this event. I figured it would be the high-rollers paying to be there would get access, if available, but not me. I was just hoping to catch a glimpse at these idols of mine.

Arriving, however, we were led up to the room where the artists and their entourages were to assemble. But none of them brought more than a few people along. It was so low-key. We were instantly introduced to Berry, who gave me one of those handshake bro-hugs. He is mostly deaf now, at 85. I said something. He said he had a bum ear, could not hear me, and drew me closer. I yelled in his good ear, “congratulations on the award, Mr. Berry!” He replied ,”I heard that!”

We chatted with author Peter Guralnick and his wife, Alexandra. So, as others came in — Costello; author and director of MTV Networks Bill Flanagan and his family — they came over to chat with Guralnick, whose books musicians love. We watched in amazement, though, as Cohen, Simon, and Richards all filtered in. Soon, people were organizing started to organize these jaw-dropping group shots. Finally, I got to chat with Richards for a few minutes, one on one. He had left the room after taking a few of the photos. Then he came back into the room, sidling up next to me with a drink, which he rested on a side table beside us. He was standing right next to me. I had thought about such a moment my whole life: What would I ever say to Keith Richards or Mick Jagger if I met them?

Leonard Cohen, Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Caroline Kennedy, and Peter Wolf. (Photo by Bill Janovitz.)

I said, “Keith, I just want to say hello. I am a huge fan, like everyone else. I mean, what can you say to Keith Richards?” He smiled, shaking my hand, bowing his head down modestly, and replied in that raspy drawl, “Hey, man, I feel the same way about Chuck Berry.” He proceeded to discuss how sad a song “Memphis, Tennessee” is. “Hurry home drops in her eyes,” indeed. It was a gracious transition, moving me away from talking about him to talking about Berry. I was having an out-of-body experience discussing music with the guy who was on a poster on my wall when I was a kid. A guy whose records I started listening to when I was maybe 8 years old. A man who influenced my whole career. A man about whom I wrote a book. One of the giants of our era. It was everything I could do to keep from begging, Keith, please let me be in the Rolling Stones with you! I know all the chords!

It was a heart-warming, soul-stirring ceremony, after which the lucky few of us were able to retire to an after-party at one of those houses on the Public Garden on Arlington Street you walk buy thinking, “Wow, I wonder who lives there.” There, we were able to chat with Al Kooper, known as a rock ‘n’ roll Zelig, who for over a decade has lived here in Boston and has played huge parts (literally) on some of rock music’s most iconic songs, such as the opening organ riff on “Like a Rolling Stone” as well as organ, piano, and the french horn opening on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Well, maybe if you wait around to middle age, you can. Or at least, you get what you need, aw yeah.