La fin for the original French pop idol

Such is the contradiction of Johnny Hallyday, a giant in his native France whose music never travelled. John Lichfield reports on his farewell tour

Will you still love me, will you still need me, when I'm 66? The answer, in the case of Jean-Philippe Smet, one of the world's longest-serving rock stars, is a resounding "Oui".

Despite persistent rumours of his death, M. Smet, also known as Johnny Hallyday, has just started his latest, farewell tour. More than 7,000 fans roared their approval when Johnny started the tour in Saint Etienne, almost half a century after he first appeared as a 16-year-old Elvis Presley wannabe and cosmic threat to the French way of life.

From a distance, nothing much has changed: Johnny has the same outrageously tight trousers; the same suggestive, open-legged stance; the same raucous, voice; the same quiffed mane of blond hair. Hallyday, 66 next month, used to attribute his longevity to body-building; to a type of anti-ageing pill widely prescribed to American grannies; and to pre-concert doses of cocaine to "kick-start my motor". He now admits, finally, that he is getting old. He doesn't want to tour any more. He wants to stay home with his two young, adopted Vietnamese daughters. He wants to pursue his favourite hobby, riding a Harley-Davidson through the Californian desert and staying in small motels.

There is little danger of him being recognised in the California boondocks. After 50 years in the rock business, Hallyday's popularity is restricted almost entirely to the French-speaking world. That once annoyed him; it is now a source of relief. France's favourite pop icon spends most of his time in Los Angeles, where he blends into the landscape as just another blond, elderly, Elvis lookalike. "I am not 20 years old any more," he said in a recent interview. "Perhaps, I'm a little tired of playing Johnny Hallyday. I want to be Jean-Philippe Smet again."

Persistent rumours have appeared on the French-language internet that Hallyday is dead. Judging by his comments, there is a metaphorical grain of truth in the reports. Jean-Philippe is alive and well but he would like to bury Johnny.

Hallyday promises that he will continue to make records. He also wants to concentrate on his on-off acting career. His latest movie, Vengeance, in which he plays an ageing gangster in Hong Kong, is in competition at the Cannes film festival from Saturday. He insists, however, that his present series of sold-out gigs – called Tour 66 after his age and the legendary American road – will be his final live fling. Maybe. "In any case," he said. "After this tour, I'm going to wait a few years before getting up on stage again."

The French usually forgive Hallyday everything. The scandal of his attempt three years ago to claim Belgian citizenship so that he could go into tax exile in Monaco has been forgotten. Whether the French will forgive Johnny – notre rockeur national – for going into partial retirement is open to question.

It is customary in the English-speaking world to make fun of Hallyday. USA Today once called him "the biggest rock star you never heard of". Whatever his limitations, one has to salute the tenacity and professionalism of the man. The Fifties and Sixties generation of rock stars is indestructible but few of them have been rocking for as long as Johnny (see box). In 1960, when he made his first record, the UK charts were dominated by Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Tommy Steele and Lonnie Donegan. None of them is still performing, except on record.

Hallyday remains the biggest live act in France, one of the biggest sellers of CDs – popular with grannies and their grandchildren – and the subject of more Paris Match front covers (60 and rising) than any other person in the past five decades. He has recorded 900 songs, sold more than 110 million records, performed 100 live tours, had four wives, two children, two grandchildren and two adopted children. He has attempted suicide twice and made 30 films.

Hallyday's loves, marriages and divorces used to be the staple diet of French celebrity magazines. His first marriage, to pop singer Sylvie Vartan in 1965, was like a French royal wedding. He has since been married to three other women, one of them twice. He also had a four-year "official relationship" with the actress Nathalie Baye from 1982 to 1986. When, in 1996 at age 52, he married a 21-year-old Franco-American, Laeticia Boudou, the media predicted another short romance but 13 years on, they remain together, with their adopted daughters aged four and one.

His early concerts caused riots. Cities all over France banned him. Five years before The Who, he was rolling on the floor of stages and smashing up guitars. If Johnny wanted to go to a nightclub, he would try to drive his car through the front door. De Gaulle condemned him as a corrupter of French youth and a Fifth Columnist of American cultural imperialism.

Hallyday is now the musical equivalent of the French independent nuclear deterrent: proof that France is a grown-up country which does not have to rely on US missiles or US pop stars. He is a friend of President Nicolas Sarkozy and a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur, the decoration given to the "living elite of the nation".

The conservative newspaper Le Figaro once said he was "venerated on the right and the left, by the people and the intelligentsia, and, above all, recognised for what he has always been, a sincere artist, a phenomenon on stage, whose every song sticks like [Marcel Proust's] madeleine in the memory of millions of French people."

And yet how many Johnny Hallyday songs are known outside the French-speaking world? "Joue pas de rock'n'roll pour moi"; "C'est le mashed potatoes"; "Laissez-nous twister"; "Quelque chose de Tennessee" (by far his best song). They all left the UK and US charts undisturbed. Johnny Hallyday has copied – some would say murdered – every passing fashion in pop music for 50 years: from rock in blue jeans, to guitar-smashing rock, to psychedelic, to hard metal, to reggae, to disco, and back to rock in blue jeans. The great tragedy of Johnny Hallyday is that he sincerely loves rock music but has never been able to convince non-French rock fans that he can rock. He once blamed his problems on the language itself. "Rock is all about the phrasing. French lyrics are too unwieldy for rock," he said. "Our words are longer than English words. You just have to search for short ones."

To foreigners, Johnny is at his most impressive when he reverts to the melodic and sentimental tradition of chanson Française. In recent years, he has cited Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel as his professional influences, as often as Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis. In his new roadshow, he sings Presley classics such as "Blue Suede Shoes" but he finishes with a classic French modern ballad by Gilbert Bécaud. The title is "Et maintenant" – And now. After 50 years of rocking around the horloge, this appears to be the question that M. Smet is asking of himself.

Still rocking: A golden generation

The 1950s and 1960s generation of rock stars is indestructible.

The doyen is probably Chuck Berry, 82, who continues to perform one Wednesday each month at a bar in St Louis called Blueberry Hill. He toured eight countries in Europe in 2008.

The doyenne is Tina Turner, who started her latest – but possibly not her last – European tour in January, at the age of 69. Those rock and pop stars who still perform, if only occasionally, are starting to clock up the years:

Chuck Berry, 82

Little Richard, 76

Jerry Lee Lewis, 73

Bill Wyman, 72

Tina Turner, 69

Tom Jones, 68

Cliff Richard, 68

Bob Dylan, 67

Charlie Watts, 67

Paul McCartney, 66

Johnny Hallyday, 65

Mick Jagger, 65

Keith Richards, 65

Eric Clapton, 64

Thomasin Procter

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