From The 2017 Archives- French Rocker Johnny Halliday Passes At 74-Hail, Hail Rock and Roll-“The Greatest Rocker You Have Never Heard Of”
By Josh Breslin
[As of December 1, 2017 under the new regime of Greg Green, formerly of the on-line American Film Gazette website, brought in to shake things up a bit after a vote of no confidence in the previous site administrator Peter Markin was taken among all the writers at the request of some of the younger writers abetted by one key older writer, Sam Lowell, the habit of assigning writers to specific topics like film, books, political commentary, and culture is over. Also over is the designation of writers in this space, young or old, by job title like senior or associate. After a short-lived experiment designating everybody as “writer” seemingly in emulation of the French Revolution’s “citizen” or the Bolshevik Revolution’s “comrade” all posts will be “signed” with given names only. The Editorial Board]
If you have read the above note you know that there has been great internal turmoil on this site of late with the “exile” to as of today an unknown place Allan Jackson (who used the moniker Peter Paul Markin on this site, a man he knew from high school and I knew from meeting out in the Summer of Love, 1967 San Francisco) the former site administrator, really managing editor and publisher combined. A commentary on a passing public figure, in this case legendary rocker, Johnny Halliday, the French “Elvis” of cancer at 74 would not normally be the place to bring up those squabbles however enlightening in other contexts. But as noted in the headline of this piece Johnny was according to more than one source “the greatest rocker that you have never heard of.” At least in the English-speaking world that he was never able to break into.
As I write this short tribute/commentary I have just noticed on the news feed that in Paris something like a million people have lined the streets of Paris, including every high-ranking dignitary and political of the past generation, to bid farewell to Johnny as the casket goes by. And every self-respecting French “Motorcycle Bill” as well so you can see that in France he was without any doubt he was beloved. The place where Johnny virtually unknown in America and the recently concluded internal strife at American Left History meet is what I want to mention since it was at least partially Allan’s stubbornness which if you check the archives makes not a single mention of Johnny despite the overwhelming space given to his, our growing up rock and roll music which has been given more than amble space. More than amble space for Anglo-American rock and roll but has given, had consciously given, short shrift to other rock and roll traditions, I guess you would call it “world music” traditions due entirely to the whims of Allan Jackman. (I would note here that I whole-heartedly supported Allan in the struggle against the “Young Turks” but he certainly was, is a man who had his short-comings including a certain narrowing of subject matter vision with age.)
As I have mentioned I have known Allan for a long time and up until a few years ago he acted much as he had when I first met him out in San Francisco those many years ago when we were all trying to turn the world upside down but then something changed, maybe like Zack James, one of the “Young Turks” noted, he just grew old (he is over seventy)-and cranky. He just wanted to withdraw back to that 1960s personal experience stuff and the hell with the rest of it. Part of the problem I think is that Allan finally realized that he would not outshine the long gone and still lamented despite his tragic and unnecessary fate Scribe’s star (the “real” Markin moniker). Even back in the day he was always in the shadow of Scribe, always a bit off-putting when around him. That is why the direct causes of his downfall, the eternal Dylan syndrome and the over-the-top stuff around the Summer of Love, loomed so large since he had somehow staked his whole reputation to finally best Scribe on those twice pillars. Twin pillars of sand.
Lest you think that I am getting off point here, not doing real justice to the late Johnny Halliday far from it. This fatal flaw stubbornness, obtuseness in Allan was always somewhere in the background. Where it came up in relationship to Johnny (and the whole emergence of “world music” in Johnny’s wake, or a strand of it anyway) was that narrow definition in his mind of rock and roll being in a time warp from about 1955 to 1965 and anything after or different did not exist. And in America with a slight tolerance for England. It might have been worse since he hated the Beatles (as in truth we all did mocking them as a modern day vaudeville act, what they call in England a music hall act except when they covered American rock and roll songs from the 1950s from guys like Chuck Berry) but loved the Stones to perdition since they cherished the blues root of rock as much as he did (under Scribe’s guidance I might add). Beyond that if you asked him to assign you say African drum music, or Latin America rhumbas, he would frown that imperial frown that said no dice, forget it, get out of town.
But you see I, maybe alone in America, in critic circles anyway, knew Johnny Halliday as part of my growing up rock and roll immersion back in the 1960s during my high school days (Class of 1967). I grew up in Olde Saco in Maine, in French-Canadian come down form the farms in Quebec to the Maine and New Hampshire mill towns to find that pot of American streets gold through my mother (nee LeBlanc) so I spoke the patois growing up as much as English. Knew from cousins in Quebec this big Johnny Elvis-like sound coming from France-rock and roll in French forget the Maurice Chevalier chanson noise my mother loved. Belt out rock for bikers, babes and be-boppers to go crazy over. I tried more than a few times to get Allan interested in my doing stuff on Johnny over the years so that he could get a hearing in the English-speaking world. A little beachhead as Elvis, as the Stones found out would go a long way. So this site, Allan, must take their small part as millions of French people bid their Johnny adieu is why he is the greatest rocker you have never heard of. Meanwhile, RIP, Johnny, RIP.