PEN New England Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award

Last week PEN New England (a chapter of the PEN American center) gave out their Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence awards to John Prine and Tom Waits & Kathleen Brennan. The ceremony, which took place at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, was well attended, bringing in special guests including John Cougar Mellencamp, Sturgill Simpson, Roseanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Colum McCann and Jim Jarmusch.

In a great stroke of luck, while printing posters for a show that I am playing in October, I met Karen Wulf, the Executive Director of PEN New England. She was there picking up programs for the ceremony and we chatted for a few minutes about the awards ceremony. She gave me her card and said that she would get seats for me and a couple of friends if we agreed to volunteer at the show. 

We put programs down on the chairs and checked in the VIP guests of PEN New England. I had the opportunity to walk Peter Guralnick and Salman Rushdie to the green room! It was raining all day and Mr. Guralnick kindly joked with me in the hallway that it could go on for 30 or 40 days. 

The presentation itself was tremendously classy and very well put together. The remarks were short and poignant and each guest spoke from the heart. I felt as if they were speaking to their friends as opposed to the media and it made all the difference. 

John Mellencamp, a longtime friend of John Prine, was the first to speak. He recounted a story about John Prine’s acting debut in the movie he directed, Falling from Grace. Prine was so nervous he said, that while filming a scene for the movie he slammed half of his hand in a car door without realizing what had happened. Mellencamp mimed Prine trying to walk with his hand in the door and laughed; Prine just took his hand out of the door, shook it off, and filmed the rest of the scene he said. Mellencamp then praised his friend’s songwriting, calling his songs, “sophisticated and simple” and closed out his remarks, nearly bringing himself to tears, by apologizing for losing touch with Prine when he had become ill with cancer. It was an affecting scene. 

Afterwards, Sturgill Simpson gave a short and heartfelt thank you to Prine telling him that he “had done more for [him] than [he] would ever know.” And Rosanne Cash sang a stunning rendition of “Hello in There”, her deep clear vocal tones reverberating out over the auditorium.

Prine accepted his award with a smile, kindly as ever, speaking briefly to convey his gratitude for the honor. He sang his tune, “Souvenirs” in his worn gravel voice to an appreciative audience and as he climbed down from the stage the audience stood in unison to acknowledge his life’s work.

Colum McCann, author of TransAtlantic and Let the Great World Spin, was the first to speak on the brilliant partnership that is Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. He began by recounting an evening he had spent with art critic John Berger in a pub, where Berger had coined the phrase “patriot of elsewhere”. This is how he described Waits and Brennan, “they catch the ordinary so that it can be sung” he said, offering that their lyrics give voice to the men and women who are not often heard or seen. The duo possess “a voice box that was somehow scratched by heaven” he followed.

Subsequently, Elvis Costello spoke on the influence of finding the right woman, what that meant for himself and for Waits. Without them, he said, “we would never have left that motel room”. Costello then proceeded to move the better half of the room to tears with his cover of Waits and Brennan’s “Take it With Me”, giving the music everything it asked for and more. As seasoned a performer as ever, he held each phrase appreciatively and brought the tune to life.

Jim Jarmusch, who cast Waits in the films Coffee and Cigarettes and Down By Law was the last guest to speak. Knowing what a difficult act he had to follow Jarmusch kept his sentiments brief and almost compelled Waits and Brennan to the stage to accept their medals. 

The moment Kathleen Brennan spoke, I realized what a vital part she played in the word-smithing that I have come to know and love. Her words were soft, but she danced with them effortlessly, speaking it seemed without rehearsal on the lyre, which had been emblazoned on her medal, the symbology chosen to represent her art. She said her thank you’s and commented on the way that events such as this one went against the privacy that she guarded dearly before passing the microphone on to her husband. 

Tom Waits seemed tired but put on a good face kissing Brennan on stage twice. He told a long-winded story about the catacombs. One skull he said, falling from its place among the others, had come to rest next to the tourist path. For years he said, people reached down to rub it as they walked by and it had become shiny. “People want to be distinguished even in death” he said, in such a way that by the time you knew whether or not he was commenting on the nature of awards, or fame, or his career, the moment had passed. “I just came from an awards show and I’m almost late to another awards show” he said smiling. And then he praised his wife, saying that there were, “a lot of questions” when they first started writing together. “We are different people” he said, not turning to glance at his wife, “but if two people know all of the same things then one of [them] is unnecessary.” 

The audience applauded as he and Kathleen moved to leave the stage, but you could almost hear the disappointment in the room; Tom Waits last tour was in 2008. Either sensing the change, however, or at the behest of one of the front row VIP’s, Waits turned around, sat down at the piano and sang perhaps the shortest tune in his repertoire, “You Can Never Hold Back Spring”. However short it was, it was beautiful, and undoubtedly worth the wait.