Sex, drugs and Gitanes
Hallyday was the ultimate musical survivor, adapting to every trend. He went from rocker to hippie, to prog rock intellectual with his rock opera Hamlet, then back to back to basics with blues, country and western and French ballads, before a final flourish of Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic rock.
The only constants were the untipped Gitanes cigarette that hung perennially from the corner of his mouth and the hard-partying “life of destruction” he led off stage.
“For a long time I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without cocaine,” he admitted in 1998, telling the French daily Le Monde that he also tried to drown his unhappy childhood in alcohol, opium and cannabis.
His love life was equally rock ‘n’ roll, with a long list of lovers as well as five marriages. “I am a rocker and a rocker must live like a lone wolf,” he once said.
You only live twice
Having survived a suicide bid, drug abuse and a veritable pile-up of car crashes, the state of Hallyday’s health was long a national obsession in France.
The singer’s millions of fans were plunged into premature mourning in 2009 after he reportedly “died” on an operating table from an infection picked up during earlier routine back surgery.
France held its breath for weeks as the star was put into a medically induced coma, and the surgeon who carried out the initial operation was attacked in the street in Paris.
Hallyday later laughed off his brush with death. “The first time I died I didn’t like it so I came back,” he said.
When Johnny met Jimi
Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin founder Jimmy Page and even Bob Dylan all played second fiddle to Hallyday at one time or another.
Hendrix and his band backed up Hallyday during a tour of France in 1966 and the pair partied together, while Page worked for the French rocker as a session musician both in Paris and London.
Hallyday later had a huge hit with Hendrix’s Hey Joe.
When Bob Dylan turned up in Paris in 1966 Johnny was at his side, ensuring the attention of the paparazzi and hordes of screaming fans.
Hallyday himself grew up worshipping Edith Piaf but when the older woman tried to seduce him his ardour cooled somewhat, though he continued to sing her songs.
What do you think of British food?
It’s OK. I prefer French food. You know what is my favourite dish? You have it in the pub. It’s… how do you say it? Meat with mashed potatoes.
Bangers and mash?
That’s it! I love bangers and mash.
These days, you divide your time between homes in Los Angeles and Switzerland. Do you still feel French?
Yes. When you’re French, you’re always French wherever you live. I live here [Los Angeles] because I can work here. Most of the musicians I play with are from LA. Also, people don’t know me as much as in Europe so I can walk the streets easily without being recognised.
You’re taking English lessons though…
I have a very nice lady who comes and we work every morning. I’m trying to be disciplined about it. All the “Tr” and “Th” sounds are difficult for French people but we’re working on it.