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Merci, Johnny: Remembering Rocker Johnny Hallyday, Beloved By France

Johnny Hallyday waves to his fans during his album launch celebration in Paris in 2011.
Pascal Le Segretain
Getty Images
Johnny Hallyday waves to his fans during his album launch celebration in Paris in 2011.

Johnny Hallyday was a rock and roller in a nation of curled lips and subtle glances. He had a deep, grainy voice, steeped in Gauloises, streams of booze and a smog of drugs.

Although he recorded more than a thousand songs, and earned more than 60 gold and platinum records, Johnny Hallyday never became a household name in the United States. But he once performed before a million people on the Champs-Elysees. He died this week, at the age of 74, and this weekend the Eiffel Tower is lit with letters that say, "MERCI, JOHNNY."

"We'll never forget his name or his face or his voice," said France's President Emmanuel Macron, "or especially his singing ... with its brute and sensitive lyricism."

Johnny Hallyday was a star for almost 60 years. Jimi Hendrix played backup for him in 1966. In a nation where popular songs are often intricate and pensive interior monologues, Johnny Hallyday sang brash, head-ringing rock. The snootiness of France's cultural establishment had been shaken by the compromises so many cultural figures made with the Nazi occupation in the 1940s. By the 1960s, Johnny Hallyday electrified France with some of the raw, unruly energy of rock brought over by Americans.

"He brought a part of America into our national pantheon," said President Macron.

Johnny had been born to a French mother and Belgian father, who both abandoned him. He was raised by aunts and uncles who were cabaret performers.

"I have done some self-analysis," Johnny Hallyday once told Le Monde,"and I can see that my early days knocked me off course. My fierce desire for a family, but my repeated failure to keep one — it all stems from that."

He married five times. He attempted suicide twice. France followed each divorce, disaster, accident and overdose with fascination. As Alexis Brezet wrote in Le Figaro, "In Johnny France could recognize itself — the good sides and the bad, the enthusiasms and the depressions, the falls from grace and the redemptions."

In recent years, Johnny lived a lot in Los Angeles, where he could move around without stopping traffic. He and his wife adopted two daughters, Jade and Joy. The old rocker may have found some balance.

There were erroneous reports that Johnny Hallyday had died in 2009, when he was put into a medically-induced coma after a surgery. "The first time I died I didn't like it," he said then, "so I came back."

So some of us are still hoping.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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