A Lion In Winter

[Just found this, a pretty rough first draft from a while back, but I’ll post it as is.]

A Lion In Winter would be a lot less Lion In Winter without all that beautiful English, which in all likelihood none of the characters personally could speak much of of, if any. Rather all the soliloquies would have been intoned in a variety of the French languages at the time. Peter O’Toole’s Henry II in Norman (which the language of the English royal court till Henry IV was raised speaking English a couple centuries later), Katherine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine in Poitevin, and Anthony Hopkins’ Richard I in Occitan. I’ve no idea what form of French Geoffrey connived and young John sniveled in. Philip II, I assume, was speaking what eventually became standard French though doubtless he could make himself understood in a variety of the regional Frenches of the north, though perhaps Richard I’s Occitan would have been a stretch. I’m not sure what language mistress Alais did her sulking in, she was raised everywhere by everybody. Any of the above, I suppose, and as she’d been spent some of her childhood in England she probably picked up some English from the household help. In what tongue the various characters would have sniped, raged, conspired and hit on each other is anybody’s guess. Various of the Frenches, mostly, though Henry II and Eleanor both were fully conversant and literate in the Medieval Latin of the time (which is considerably closer to the Latin of the Catholic mass than the Latin of Caesar’s Commentaries), which would have been useful in front of the children. Qui auditunt quod stupri nocte?

Despite the characters enunciating some of the most glorious English you will ever hear on film—“he came down from the north with a mind like Aristotle and a form like mortal sin; we shattered the Commandments on the spot”—it’s unlikely that any of the characters could utter more than a smattering of English. Enough on some rare trip across the Channel to order some peasants this way or that, or curse like in Beowulf, or say something filthy to a maid in the market. Otherwise the only character in the whole of the film that could actually be fluent in English would have been William Marshall, who spends the movie scurrying about obeying Peter O’Toole or arresting people. He’s the character you forget. O’Toole’s Henry II, though, is unforgettable. “I hope we never die!” he bellows at the close as only Peter O’Toole can bellow. “Do you think there’s a chance of it?” Alas, there wasn’t, he was gone soon enough, as was Eleanor. Indeed as was every man of royal blood in the story, beginning with Geoffrey, trampled to death at a jousting tournament. It’s William Marshall who came close to never dying, by medieval standards anyway, outliving Henry and his wife and sons by decades. He died in his bed at 72 and was buried with honor in London, the mass said in Latin, the eulogies in French, the throng of onlookers murmuring in English.

It would be two centuries before an English king could bellow at his wife and sons in the same language as Chaucer, another couple centuries till an English speaker could rage like Lawrence Olivier’s Richard II raged three centuries after that, and it’d be deep into the twentieth century before they could bellow like they bellowed in A Lion In Winter, a high medieval Francophone drama spoken in twentieth century English.

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Robert Plant

Robert Plant was always my fave Led Zep guy (Page was cool as guitar players go, except for that dorky bowing solo bit, sheesh, and I never was a Bonham fan), but Bobby Plant nailed it, though for years the Bilbo Baggins hippie shit drove me up the wall. As I hated everything they did after Houses of the Holy anyway I paid no attention to all his missteps early in his solo career, tho’ I remember a good Little Sister (which Elvis absolutely nailed in ‘56 or whenever, one of his best songs) and I have a vague memory of cut out bins full of something with Robert Plant in a late period spangly doo woo get up on the cover, smiling a lost hippie smile, but I was so fucking punk rock at the time Robert Plant might as well have been from another planet. Hell, I don’t know if they were missteps, everything by older rock musicians qualified as a misstep to me at the time, even Bowie. Those were revolutionary years, things had to burn.

But the years passed and one night I was bored or maybe just stoned and staring at the TV, a million channels and nothing to watch and suddenly there was Robert Plant on the normally underwhelmingly alt hip Austin City Limits. He looked great, one of those rare Englishmen over six feet tall, sounded great if a little shy of the high notes he once screamed about the wrath of the gods in, and had this amazing band that swung from outish ethnic alt into old timey into a killer Led Zep tune—I can’t remember which—and ending with some remarkable melange of Malian sounds with everything else. I was hooked. Watched that show several times. Said to Fyl we gotta go see Robert Plant! We’d get primo seats, of course, free to the press, and green room access and I’d ask him about Festival of the Desert instead of some stupid Led Zep question because I was a jazz critic. Then I’d see Patty Griffin and be so star struck I couldn’t talk. Homina homina homina…. Anyway, it never happened. The best laid plans of moose-like men, etc.

Then last night I was doing the million channels nothing to watch thing again unstoned and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t Robert Plant on Austin City Limits again, this time from 2016, still tall and looking great and sounding even better (and they’ve done a little audio trickery to stretch out the high notes a bit, but it barely shows). Robert Plant and the Sensational Shape Shifters I think he’s called it, fine musicians all, and the set was as old timey ethno Malian (or maybe Gambian) blues as before, but half the set was Led Zep tunes (I keep saying Led Zep covers) that are rearranged and jazzed up and weirded out but then kick into that classic babe I’m gonna leave you fury, the audience undulating to a hard and sinewy and groovily fucked up Whole Lotta Love like the gods never intended and the whole scene was beautiful and left me sort of nostalgic for an age yet to come.

It was good.

Sayonara

Saw Sayonara (from 1957) last night, with Red Buttons in a kimono and Marlon Brando doing Elvis in a colonel’s uniform. A deep dive into Japanese culture, with none of the usual smarm and patronizing, it turned out to be quite a moving flick, and a pretty effective anti-bigotry story. Doubt it’s everybody’s thing, and no Stella! or you’re a big lousy dirty stinking mug moments, but it ain’t no Tea House Of The Freaking Harvest Moon either. Also, Ricardo Montalban in kabuki drag. Shot in Japan.

I don’t know if that sort of jazz scene exists anymore

There was the night about a decade ago that I was hanging out at Hollywood & Highland with a multi-Grammy winning pal and then sharing a table at a jazz dive with three other Grammy winners watching an Oscar winning pal playing some terrific saxophone. At the time, tho’, that didn’t seem anything special. I don’t know if that sort of jazz scene exists anymore, cool digs where Grammy winners and brilliant musicians and stoners and writers and fans and movie stars mix together like it was the most natural thing in the world, and the music cooked and sometimes was so in the pocket that the murmur of voices and laughter subsided completely as a saxophonist reached the essence of a melody and then released it into the ether with a final drawn out breath.

A zillion notes all at once

Just heard Lady by Beck Bogert Appice for the first time in several lifetimes. When I was about fifteen that was my all time favorite song, even more than the live Highway Star or Panic in Detroit or Why Does Love Have To Be So Sad or Rock and Roll Queen or Love or Confusion even. It hasn’t aged as well as some, I guess, a little thin and slightly ridiculous, and the rest of the album was stone weak aside from the killer version of Superstition, but it has the frenzied tempo and zillion notes all at once that I dug as an adolescent awash in testosterone. I guess I get that rush from be bop now. Some people never grow up.

Mitch’s sticks

Watching the end of Jimi Hendrix at Monterey and amid the smoking wreckage Mitch Mitchell rockets his sticks into the stunned stoned freaked and tripping crowd and every time I see it and (and I’ve seen it a hundred times) I think that I would have given anything to have been in that crowd and caught one of those sticks, it would still be my most treasured possession, that stick, even now, that half a century before had rolled across those toms with absolute abandon and bounced with loose wristed splats off the snare and set the cymbals roiling and splashing and crashing with Jimi’s every move and sound and look and thought. Airborne for only a second or two, the sticks disappear into offstage darkness, first the one, then the other and Mitch, laughing, steps out of view. I turn off the TV right then, before the interviews begin and reduce the music to history, and I wonder again about those sticks.