France's legendary rock et roller Johnny Halliday is dressed in leather with an acoustic on his lap, at the center of a semi-circle surrounded by musicians, one playing a stand-up bass, two playing acoustic guitars, during Hallyday's first New York City performance since he played for Jackie Kennedy in 1960.
Between face tucks and girdles, it is hard to imagine the 69 year old man was having pre-obies written about him a year ago. He looks, at least from the cheap seats at the Beacon, ageless. Or at worse like a 30 year old Elvis Presley circa the 1968 special. An effect accentuated by his playing the first song he ever recorded, "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry Over You", before Eddie Cochran's "Something Else", this time sung in French, the mini-acoustic segment had begun with a country and western sung, and ended with George Jones "The Tender Year". The echo was distinct through the decades, the Presley aura hovered in the theater and the French ex-pats howled with pleasure, sang along, and erupted into spontaneous "Jaaaaan -eeeee" chants.
So, what's it all about Jaaaan-eee? In 1960, Hallyday began his career covering American rock and roll in French. 62 years later he has sold 110 Million records, gone platinum 18 times, and done 100 tours. In 2000, Hallyday performed at the Eiffel to an audience of 500,000 there and 9.5M worldwide. To put it another man: he is a superstar. And before the first song of the set, a high octane 1970s style rock song with a full on rock band behind him, there was no guessing why. At the age of 69 Hallyday, hit the stage like a young Turk, and with one tough rock and roll band -two pianos, two guitarists, horn section, he played four straight up rock numbers, very loud, very intense. With a brief thank you New York (Halliday spoke only French), he kicked in with a ballad. But as obstreperous a ballad as you will ever hear. And then for the next two hours worked his catalog to amazing effect.
So I guess the French can rock and do, The material was often on the weak side, and the rock songs were often on this side of plagiarized (was that "Fortunate Son"?) but Halliday's absolute conviction on every song was unquestionable. The playing was sharp and thrilling, with Johnny on his knees growling at one point, the band saved even truly lousy material like the hit "Quelque Chose de Tennessee". This was not an old man's band the way Adam Ant the night before was an old man's band, because Halliday's band were a set of professional rockers and Ants weren't. Late in the set, Mick Jones of Foreigner (who has aged… interestingly) who recorded a couple of albums with Johnny in the late 1960s, came out for a couple of high octane mid-70sish raveups.
It was really one long highlight, the audience of French follies were blown away, but a terrific "I Who Have Nothing" was a special treat, with Johnny giving his voice a real workout. Better still was the song before the encore, "L'Envie", With a a comic book story of the song on the screen, Halliday seemed intent on expressing his life as a series of large emotional outbursts.
Which is, of course, why he is the French Presley. Whatever limitations his material may have, he is still an uber-French creation, written very very large. Every single thing he says and does is overblown, an edifice to male trauma, the more gender indifferent French will let you scream about your l'amour fou as long as you do so like an emotional steamroller and that is exactly what Hallyday does.
Johnny isn't really a French Presley. He is really a French Cliff Richards, with a Presley carnality Richards doesn't possess. What would play as restraint in UK, plays as self-indulgence in France. The music is too loud, the lighting too aggressive, the images too in your face, but when put together it is a rock and roll original: Hallyday can't be compared to anybody really, accept himself. Ridiculously alive, and powerful, a force of nature, he is an all time great, a breathtaking spectacle of male sexuality.
They have a word for concerts like this in France: "FORMIDABLE"
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