Saturday, December 9, 2017

feu Johnny, feu la France

Rock ‘n’ Roll was overwhelmingly pioneered by Americans.  Later, a wave of Brits joined in, not merely equaling their Colonial brethren, but redefining the genre, and deepening it.   France, for all its many merits, never significantly contributed to the swell of this international current.


In August of 1966, having just turned 17, I left home to live for several months in France.  Thanks to the good offices of Academic Year Abroad, it was a cultural immersion, living with a French family, attending the theatre twice a week, classes at the Sorbonne, and so forth.  And since I had neither TV nor shortwave radio, a cultural abstraction, from all that was going on across the Atlantic.

Among pop songs I particularly enjoyed that year was “Je l’appelle canelle” -- not R & R, but more like a chanson de cabaret, where indeed the French pioneered.   Or a purely franco-française sotie “Gaston Gaston, y’a téléphon qui son, y a jamais person  qui y répond”, impossible to translate and difficult to categorize, save perhaps as a précis of the nasalization of French vowels. (Still funny and endearing, after all these years.  Closest genre-match: the Australian pop hit "Tie Me Kangaroo Down".)
Then one straight-up rock song by Michel Polnareff, “La Poupée qui fait Non”, in conception simple, and not quite like anything an American had done, and permanently listenable owing to the purity of his presentation.  (Appreciaton here.)  Nothing by Johnny Hallyday  particularly caught my ear.
Besides “La Poupée”, the real stand-out for me that year was “Dis-moi, fille sauvage”.  I bought the single, and at the end of the year, excitedly brought it home to show my brother, a taste of what-all had been going on in the City of Lights.  He listened, somewhat puzzled, and at the end, said simply:  “That’s Ruby Tuesday.”
Indeed, it was a pale Gallic knock-off of that Rolling Stones classic, which, sequestered in the Hexagon, I had not yet heard.


The indisputably most popular French star of R&R, Johnny Halliday, died this week, and his passing dominates their headlines.  He lived long, continued to perform, and aged well, as rock stars go.  Several of his Continental his were simply workmanlike knock-offs of American or UK work.  In the U.S., his death rated barely a mention; and when so, the focus has been on the fact of it being a huge story in France, rather than upon any actual songs an American is likely to remember, or even to have heard.

The crowds on the Champs Elysées today  were immense, the emotion genuine.  Mourning the departing, perhaps, not only of one French star, but of the age (do any recall it?) of French national greatness.

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