The unthinkable has happened. French music icon Johnny Hallyday has sadly checked out for good.

France is in mourning. Johnny Hallyday is no more. December 6, 2017, is one of those days when 20 or 40 years from now, every French person will know exactly where they were when the news came through in the early morning hours. Lung cancer had taken down the invincible, the legend, the living God of French rock & roll. He was 74.

Of those 74 years, he had been in the limelight for over half a century. He was the incarnation of the rebel with a soft spot. His songs made it to the top of the charts almost before they were released. When he stood on a stage, he owned it, with a presence bigger than life. His shows were legendary. He bridged generations like no other. Elderly grandfathers and adolescent grandsons would rock off to the same music, performed by this larger-than-life rocker with the face that showed the traces of years of hard work and hard play.

Life had not always been kind to Johnny. He got off to a rocky start, born to a French mother and a passer-by Belgian father. But as soon as his teenage self heard the first Elvis tunes, he recognized his calling, crystal-clear, and pursued it with laser sharp determination. His American-influenced rock & roll in the 1960s shocked la Grande Nation, so deeply steeped in elitist culture…. but fascinated it at the same time. Hallyday was France’s answer not only to Elvis, but to every name in the international rock scene. “Our Johnny”, as France called him, sold 100 million albums over the course of his 50-some year career, testimony to his popularity.

He was the very definition of rock star, living hard and fast while battling demons and health challenges. He was as tough as steel on the outside but few knew though what a soft heart he hid behind his leather suit. He deeply cared about his family – his wife of 21 years, Laeticia (the fifth Mrs. Hallyday, actually), his children – two of them adopted. He supported numerous charities and causes. And he was one of Edith Piaf’s biggest fans.

No, he was no saint…. there were memorable scandals, drugs, and alcohol excesses… but he was loved like no other because he proudly and unapologetically owned his humanity and his flaws, and for all his stardom possessed a humility that is sorely lacking in today’s music stars. He was authentic, one of “us”. He may have been a flamboyant superstar but people could identify with him. “There is a little bit of Johnny in all of us,” as President Emmanuel Macron put it in his eulogy.

You will be sorely missed here, Johnny. Rock on in Heaven, they have already lit the stage for you there…

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Lead image Johnny Hallyday, 30 mai 2009 au Stade de France by zequouine on flickr; licenced under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

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