PARIS – What better send-off for a rocker than the vast, silent concert on the steps of a church? And what better farewell to a great performer than the one delivered by the immense crowd chanting around a body that seemed to have arranged, from the great beyond, this last demonstration of enthusiasm and love?
Herein lies the beguiling feature of the funeral Dec. 9 of Johnny Hallyday, France’s national singer: his ability to stage-manage his destiny, right up the final hour, and the star power that his being retained even in death.
Nothing remained of his swaying hips and his howls, or of the pale eyes perpetually on the verge of laughing or crying (you never knew which). And yet there he was, charisma and presence, the spell of a shaman inviting you one last time to dance the eternal chorus in the aura of his mystery and his smile. And there was the spirit of France: young and old, the president and two of his predecessors, celebrities, artists, fans from 50 years ago wearing Apache fringe, a remembrance of the striking miners of Lorraine, the words of Jacques Prevert, tears shed by ordinary people.
And all of them seemed to be under Hallyday’s influence still: The great actor who was suddenly starkly human and at a loss. The old, unsentimental crooner with a tear on his cheek. The column of bikers that descended the Champs-Elysees, which never wore its funereal name so well.
There was the Place de la Madeleine, too. Usually so staid and cold, it echoed to the rhythm of strings with the swing of the Louisiana bayous at one moment, and at the next with the memory of the concert at the Olympia, so close but a half-century away, where the saturnine firebrand upended 10,000 hearts.
Here was an upwelling of emotion the likes of which France had not seen since the funerals of Victor Hugo and Edith Piaf, since the catafalque of Jean Jaures went up the Rue Soufflot. A million mourners were left not knowing whether to cry, sing, throw chairs around, request an encore or light candles.
And on that day, he was so well mourned that his absence seemed like part of a show, somehow making us forget that he was no longer with us. Abiding in each of us was the Johnny that moved us all: the youth spent with a traveling act, like Gautier’s Captain Fracasse; the father, a character out of Modiano, who, between bouts of drinking, pawned the gifts given to him by his abandoned son.
And then there was the ’60s rocker with the eyes of a sad wolf and cheekbones hewn by Giacometti, the “Catcher in the Rye” mood and a melancholy so intensely hopeless that it seemed to condemn him to live on the edge of every form of excess. He was the consummate artist of the French scene, a chameleon beamed out on satellite TV, dripping with fake sweat and real glitz, an artist who, like a novelist, confessed as a way of lying.
Hallyday was the child of a generation that watched American GIs enter Paris and that invented for itself an American ascendance. America was cigarettes, Levi’s and Coca-Cola. But it was also the languor of the blues, Nashville and the green light that he saw gleaming at dawn after nights soaked in alcohol and amphetamines.
When this distraught colossus of sorrow, the unsleeping and suicidal cowboy, offered his body in sacrifice to the camera and to the mob of entranced fans, he struck Francois Mauriac as a Mephistophelean figure. Here was the hero, motley and scarred, whose glory seemed like a wound, whose victories were stigmata, and who, from metamorphosis to metamorphosis, embodied what is wrongly called pop or variety but that was, in him, more like fallen greatness or the lament of a cleverly disguised poet.
And, at the end, there was King Lear triumphant, the wax face with the periwinkle gaze, survivor of an era whose heroes perished before the age of 30, one who knew that his survival was a miracle. And then, finally, there were those near-deaths in the manner of Bossuet (“Johnny is dying! Johnny is dead!”): he would always revive, right up to the very last time, when he lived again in Paris for a few hours under a cold December sun.
The Swedish Academy has, with the Nobel coronation of Bob Dylan, rescued song from its canonical hell. In the case of Johnny Hallyday, it is perhaps not too farfetched to believe that this man of sphinx-like mystery is now, like Baudelaire, “a block of granite surrounded by vague fear” whose “fierce nature sings only to the rays of the setting sun.”
Bernard-Henri Levy is a French philosopher. © Project Syndicate, 2017