The French King of Rock Reborn – Johnny Hallyday

When the news broke that Prince Harry was to marry the American actress Meghan Markle, I was so glad to be in France. Too much British media grovelling and gushing can be seriously bad for my self-esteem as a feudal serf. Nonetheless, the French quickly caught up and even overtook the Brexiting Rosbifs.

My daily baguette run was disturbed by magazine racks of royal images waving at me from the local Tabac. The story was so big that for a moment the failing health of Johnny Hallyday and the pregnancy of the Duchess of Cambridge were relegated to the inside pages with the thoughts of football heroes and celebrity confessions. French TV wasted no time in despatching royal correspondents to inform the Gallic nation of regal events in medieval London town.

In a bizarre addition it was revealed that both Prince Harry and William (future king) appear as storm troopers in the latest Star Wars movie. Mass media soap opera royalty is showbiz and showbiz has morphed seamlessly into royalty.

On 6th December the reaper played the eternal trump card. The French king of rock Johnny Hallyday died.

It was a French royal pundit’s nightmare. You couldn’t give away a scoop royal emotional trauma confessional. Even if the Queen had admitted to a love affair with Donald Trump it would have been a column filler or lightweight news bulletin sign off story.

On 9th December France went to the funeral. The processional pomp, mawkish sentimentality and overblown punditry matched the hysteria surrounding the death of Diana. Few world leaders have ever received such an adieu. Personally, I recall the funeral of Edith Piaf in 1963. She was denied a funeral mass by the Catholic Church as a judgement on her lifestyle. The five times married, womanizing, hard drinking Johnny faced no such ban but in Piaf’s day there was no pope or U.S president accessible on Twitter or Facebook.

Moral relativism has left us with some big gaps and blurred lines. We want defined standards and values, but we exempt our heroes and by proxy we exempt ourselves. This is a huge issue for the churches of all denominations. Do you stand tall in your robes or do you bend down in humble nakedness? Our celebrity culture offers tutorials but no answers.

The middle aged chanteur strutting in his one-piece silver leather body suit high on a spot-lit stage hints to me that fame-power is most potent at a distance. We want our rock-stars to rock and forgive them their trespasses as part of the deal. Do we want our popes, cardinals and bishops to be religious? It’s not a question for an atheist Wagner fan like me but there is a logical answer on my lips.

Johnny Hallyday achieved the double whammy of being both fallen angel and an unreachable God. However you look at it, le roi Johnny was special. Unlike Edith Piaf, he was more or less unknown outside of France.

At first, this would seem to be a failing. Elvis was inter-galactic and was an item of world property. I’ve seen and heard Elvis impersonators in Milan, London and Bangkok. Piaf toured the USA and had top ten success in the UK. Johnny stayed at home.

The fact that foreigners did not steal his image made his picture even more powerful to the French. People have called him the French Elvis, but this misses the point. Elvis was the diluted common ownership version of Johnny. Elvis was mourned by a nation made of fans.

Johnny was mourned by a people and in their synthetic grief they found a rare genuine unity and a focus of national definition.

And that brings me back to God and gods.  Edith Piaf, Elvis Presley and Johnny Hallyday all professed religious faith. Johnny wore a guitar playing Christ on his crucifix.

President Macron and his predecessors Hollande and Sarkozy looked on happily as a priest led the ceremony, thereby adding an assent in the Thomas More philosophical tradition. A huge panel photograph of Johnny with crucifix necklace hung from the pillared portico of La Madeleine church. Rock musicians sported the same jewellery.  

A bonfire is set for God to Allumer Le Feu to quote the title of a Johnny song. I just felt the vibe. I feel the same vibe in the routine rejection of heartless capitalism in younger generations confronting pollution and inequality.

In France there is no longer any kind of default Socialist refuge.  Around my dinner table in France and England Pope Francis is the pin up boy of the dispossessed tribe of wandering lefties. There is fertile ground, but I fear that the seeds sown will be genetically modified to suit the existing elites.

Faith may not be the real thing, but it will have five-star reviews on Amazon so it’s OK to believe even if you suspect half of them are fake.

The tribute bands have kept the audience warmed up for decades and sometime soon God is bursting out on a comeback tour. He’s either going to be face-lifted and re-branded with human understanding and liberal theology or he’s going to get out the old bright star of Bethlehem leathers and thump out that uncompromising Jehovah baseline.

If God’s coming back he’s not going to be strumming along with the easy tune you’re already humming. Saint Peter was the rock and he’s going to be hard-core rocking.  Johnny’s already showing the way from above, from that place where the footballers point in celebration of their genius. From that place where kings are appointed.

Editors note: The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

About the Author /

Oscar Sparrow was a chemical engineer working on a pioneering process of polymer production but longed for adventure. Aged 28 he joined the London Metropolitan Police and worked the streets of London until he transferred to Scotland Yard. He obtained a Diploma in French from the Institute of Linguists and gained Home Office accreditation in Italian. He became the desk officer for Art and Antique crime at the London bureau of Interpol. Subsequently he served with Special Branch in an intelligence role. On leaving the police he founded a road transport business which he operated until he moved to France. He enjoyed a lifetime as a performance poet and published his own collection I Threw A Stone. He produced and edited an international poetry anthology Freeze Frame. He lives in South West France with the novelist Emma Calin.

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