Every country has them, music legends, icons that have transcended decades and still remain in the public eye. High-speed trains of performers who refuse to slow down, much less stop at the next station called retirement ville. They are adored by fans old and young, they've been hall of famed, knighted, and honored by their peers and are considered national institutions.
A few names come immediately to me: England has Elton John, America has Stevie Wonder, Canada- Neil Young, Spain- Julio Inglesias, and Wales- Tom Jones.
Living in France, you would have to be in a coma to escape the national lovefest that is Johnny Hallyday. But as a foreigner in France, I have struggled over the years to muster anything but a vague acknowledgment of the man who has spawned over 100 million record sales.
He has been called many things in his 48-year career, such as 'The French Elvis' and 'The biggest rock star you've never heard of', the last due to the fact that most of his music has been in the French language, thereby keeping him from conquering the non-French speaking world. He's been a rock star, a film star, and an all around cultural icon for almost 50 years, and even though he has finally announced that he will retire after his last tour finishes in 2010, he will go down in French history as the most loved French musical legend of all time.
I think I became aware of him far too late in his career to really 'get' what he is all about. A bit like discovering Elvis in his doughnut-eating, pill-popping, sequined-suit era. I wasn't around when he was initiating the French population with his version of the new craze that was rock'n'roll. We never studied his songs in any of my French classes at school. I guess for alot of French people, it's like being in a 50-year marriage; there is a certain comfort and familiarity of knowing someone for so long, you could never truly make a break with them, no matter how badly they behave (or sing).
So maybe I need to dig out some of his old music and try to understand the Johnny love affair. I asked a couple of French friends in their 30's how they felt about him. One said she loved him to bits, the other said they didn't really feel one way or the other about him, but that 'il fait partie des meubles' and that he would be sad if he died.
The tv channel France 2 is celebrating the life of Johnny this Saturday night at 20.50 with a documentary that stars the man himself, looking back over his life and career, with special guests including Carla Bruni, Joss Stone and Mylène Farmer. Guess I better see what all the fuss is about...