Last night at the Forest National Arena in a suburban district of Brussels, I went to see Johnny Hallyday perform live.
When Johnny came on stage he didn't just walk on. An enormous video screen at the back of the set showed a Tomb Raider type image of a stone wall which shook every thirty seconds as huge thuds boomed around the arena. Eventually the wall crumbled and a demolition ball emerged from the smoke that had filled the stage. But the demolition ball was more of a World War II marine mine with all those sinister looking spikey bits and holes in it from one of which Johnny appeared.
Flames shot up from the stage and lights flashed everywhere. The entire arena went absolutely mental like I have never seen a crowd at a gig go before.
I had seen Johnny on an edition of Melvyn Bragg's South Bank Show years before, considered him to be a bit naff and Eurovision Song Contesty, and expected tonight to get Cliff Richard twangy let's twist again type stuff (in French). But what I got was good, fast and furious hard rock performed by a band of musicians and an ageing rock star with a voice that would leave modern day rock stars cowering in the shadows, with the Shadows.
His act included, as well as his own massive back catalogue of self penned classic hits, a number of other absolute gems. He performed a breathtaking cover of Jimi Hendrix's Hey Joe (in French). On a smaller stage in the middle of the crowd, with only four members of his band to make it like the early days of his career, he did a medley of Eddie Cochran songs (in French). On the same small stage, sitting alone on a stool with a guitar, he sang a couple of country songs (in French). And in a duet with the most gregarious and voluptuous member of his group of backing singers, he performed I Who Have Nothing (en Anglais).
Whenever Johnny dared to pause for breath, the crowd took over. His loyal supporters sing songs about him just as football supporters sing songs about their team. While 8,000 fans were serenading him, Johnny stood on the stage and smiled. At one point he looked at an imaginary wrist watch as if to jokingly say, how much longer are you going to be? These were utterly precious moments, the likes of which I have never witnessed before.
For many of his songs everybody in the audience knew all of the words (in French). Everyone sang (in French). Everyone stood up. Everyone clapped their hands and cheered (in French). I couldn't believe the intensity of their adulation. Johnny was their hero and they absolutely adored him.
Apart from one song, the entire evening was conducted in French so I couldn't understand what he was saying but from the mood in the arena during his talky bits and from what I had read in the press, I knew that Johnny was explaining to his fans why he was calling it a day. He had been very ill and this extensive tour was to be his last. But, despite his advancing years and his poor health, he looked good and sounded good and he was up on that stage belting out song after song for more than two hours.
Johnny Hallyday has been a star since before I was born. In that time he has never sold out, he has never broken the American popular music market (I'm not sure that he even tried), he has never turned his back on his French speaking followers or let them down. Despite the language barrier I could understand why so many people loved him. He is a national treasure in France and the French speaking world.
This was the best gig I had been to for many years. I would have loved to have been able to say that I would go to see him play live again, but I couldn't. I felt sorry that I had missed the first fifty odd years of his career but absolutely blessed that I had discovered him before it was too late and I had seen him performing on his farewell tour.
On the No. 82 tram on the way back into Brussels I took my Johnny Hallyday tour t-shirt out of its carrier bag. On the back there was a printed list of the fifty or more venues that he was playing on his last ever tour. Forest National in Brussels wasn't one of them. I felt a warm glow inside at the possibility that, after the t-shirts had been printed, he had arranged an extra show in Brussels to coincide with my own European tour.
I love you Johnny mate. See you on your comeback tour.
And finally . . . good shout Rigger!
Le Roi du rock et roll.