The Rebel of French Culture is dead: long live Johnny

The stage lights went dark on December 5, 2017, for a certain septuagenarian labeled “the greatest rock-star unknown outside France”. Johnny Hallyday on that day perhaps got his wish to come face to face with his mysterious Marie, to whom he dedicated a song of despair and hope on his 60th birthday. In the extraordinarily long funeral cortège on the Champs Elysées, a venue normally reserved for great statesmen a million French citizens, young and old, said goodbye to the French “King Of Rock & Roll”. The very familiar refrain from Marie could be heard along the somber route, while dozens of bands played this haunting melody which had become the fastest selling single ever in France. A magnificent tribute to his career, his tremendous charisma, his rebel-without-a-cause behavior in an otherwise well-defined national culture: “Oh Marie, if you only knew all the wrongs done to me, Oh Marie, if I could find peace in your bare arms; Oh Marie, I hope that in heaven we shall meet.”

None other than the President of France himself, Emmanuel Macron and former President Nicolas Sarkozy were among the dignitaries eulogizing Johnny. Even former Minister of French Culture, Jacques Lang, had words of praise for the non-traditional Frenchman. Street interviews revealed the presence of many traditionalists who reluctantly acknowledged that Johnny was not of “their” culture, but loved him anyway. “He transcends generations”, stated Macron.

Many more millions will be added to the 110 million albums sold over six decades. As a seventeen-year-old infatuated with two American idols, Elvis Presley and James Dean, he forged a splendid career against all cultural odds. His always-sold-out venues naturally included spectacular entrances, whether on a Harley Davidson or dropped from a helicopter and his trademark on-stage gyrations and a chaotic lifestyle, earned him the title of “the French Elvis”. And yet, his music has hardly caused a ripple in America or the UK. What is so different, of course, is the language, but also the content and meaning of his lyrics. His sound is a French interpretation of rock and roll, with lyrics often touching on the darker side of humanity, dealing with despair, hope and prospects of this wonderful dream ending, especially after his diagnosis of lung cancer. Such is the tone of many of his songs, especially SEUL (alone) and Quelques Cris, (A few cries). That his appeal in the English-speaking world is not great is baffling, although some Americans know him for his acting in movies like The Man From The Train. His detractors remind us that Johnny must be a foreigner (his father is Belgian and his mother is French), and that his fanbase is mostly from the provinces, not Paris, an unkind cultural put-down. However, he consistently filled the largest stadiums three nights in a row, a feat not often duplicated by British or American rock stars. Three months after his death, his records are still sold out, but If you listen by the stars tonight, you will surely hear Johnny having a rocking good time with his Marie

P.S. During his lifetime he was estranged from both parents. In death, he is estranged from two of his children as he left all of his US and European assets to his fourth wife (32 years his junior) and their two adopted Vietnamese children. MERCI JOHNNY


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