Muet

‘Tis better to be a vowel than a consonant if you want to be heard en français.

In French, while the likes of r’s, s’s and t’s are often silent, every vowel is given a voice. Thus the word for mute – muet – is pronounced ‘mew-ay’.

Two voices that defined French culture have gone silent this week. The news arrived as death often does: seemingly out of nowhere, then one after another.

First was Jean d’Ormesson. The 92-year-old ‘immortel’, as members of the Académie Française are known, was a larger-than-life character and a bon vivant among the aged and wise members of that illustrious body responsible for governing the French language. This France 3 clip (in French for those who understand enough to enjoy it) is a portrait of the man in all his wit and personality.

Yesterday morning broke the news that we would no longer hear the voice of Johnny Hallyday, notre Johnny national, icon of French rock music and a personality as deeply engrained in the culture as les frites (not a bad analogy as Jean-Philippe Smet was born to a Belgian father). He was ‘only’ 74, far too young these days even for one who has led as wild a life as Johnny.

When I first came to France I scoffed at this so-called rock star, seemingly a throw-back to an outdated notion of rock and roll, more Chuck Berry than French Elvis as he is often dubbed abroad. Yet I came to appreciate Johnny’s fine voice, honed to a richness that somehow transcended time, and his unstoppable stage presence. Here is a clip of how he set the Eiffel Tower on fire (Le feu) back in 2000.

By the way, while no one will ever replace our Johnny, my application for a place on the Académie Française still stands.

21 thoughts on “Muet

  1. Jean d’Ormesson was SO charismatic, erudite and downright intellectually smart that I did have something of a ‘Grandad Crush’ on him. Johnny …. I think the fact that I blurted out ‘oh no! Johnny Hallyday has died’ to my youngest daughter yesterday and she replied ‘who?’ Says it all. You cannot expect to live in France, aspire to be accepted in France and not love Johnny and yet he never ever achieved what he should have done. He absolutely should have been a global star in my tiny but loudly uttered opinion. That’s all I have to say about that. The world is a poorer place for the loss of two absolute giants even if most of the world may be unaware of their passing. X

    1. I do admire those who can manage to be so smart and charismatic without becoming annoyingly smug or full of themselves. His intelligence was definitely crush-worthy. As for Johnny, I can see why he didn’t translate to other cultures — he was just such a very French take on the American rock persona. Still, quite a talent in his own right. And the world is most certainly poorer for their passing! xo

  2. Neither was a surprise. It’s never a surprise at age 92, and Johnny was hospitalized lately. But such deaths can still be a shock. It seems impossible that we can stand here today without such bedrocks of culture.
    I must learn more about Ormesson. As for Johnny (because that’s what everybody calls him, having long lost the need for a last name), he was in concert here in Carcassonne in July with Jacque Dutronc and Eddy Mitchell–les Vielles Canailles. He started as an Elvis impersonator and ended as a Sinatra/Rat Pack impersonator. (No, not a fan.)

    1. Yes, it seems that Johnny’s pending demise was an open secret among those who follow such things. But you’re right — the deaths of such characters that define our culture is still a shock and one whose waves will be felt for some time. As for fandom, I was always a bit more Eddy Mitchell than Johnny as I liked the way he sort of owned being a golden oldie. Yet the way that Johnny grew over his career must be admired — if you compare his earlier recordings with later hits, his voice really took on depth. And he carried the weight of being ‘Johnny national’ which can’t have been easy.

  3. I’d heard of Johnny quite some time ago (we being in the same age bracket). To me, a softer equivalent to our Jimmy Barnes, of ex-Cold Chisel fame who’s still going strong (that harsh gravel voice never lets up) and now having published two memoirs. Tho I doubt Jimmy would have the courage to have topless showgirls at his concerts; so French or Vegas. RIP guys!

      1. Ha! Not possible, certainly not in Australia unless you were in a convent. 😁
        I did see that on the TV but enjoyed the reminder, especially the fact that it was only in recent times that he really cleaned up. It doesn’t mention his major heart attack which I’m sure would’ve been the major catalyst. Did you find any of his early songs on YouTube?
        I watched the Johnny video by phildange. I liked it. Quite Country. Maybe that’s what Johnny really wanted to be, a country singer?!

      2. You’re maybe right . Here is one that I love, “Something in ourselves from Tennessee” . Mind you, it’s about Tennessee Williams, not the US state . It was made by Michel Berger, a fabulous song maker, though utterly ignored in Anglo Lands . I find this song simply beautiful .
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Sc4Pb7d1Nk .
        But he could really be a rocker, just needed to be duly guided, here is a little rock’n roll display to get an idea .. Take the brackets off if you feel like it .
        (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bI_Nlh9NW1E)

  4. For me Johnny always belonged to what we call “la variété”, pop low level songs for the cattle who listened to mass media radios and TVs . Useless to say “la variété” was a perennial object of contempt from me and my mates . Yet, as I’m a born rocker I was sensitive to his voice – especially because I liked the original versions of many of his Frenchified songs ( Hi Eddie Cochran !) . He also was an indisputable stage beast . But that’s all for me . He was not educated nor intelligent, I prefer a thousand times the good old Eddy Mitchell with his laid back rock’n’roll attitude, his wit and his humour .
    Nevertheless I’ll pay a tribute to notre Johnny with my favourite song from him, one of the few he made himself , -music by Johnny, lyrics by Michel Mallory his pal- once he was down in a terrible heartache in 72 . There are plenty live versions on Youtube but here is the recorded studio original .

    1. I actually had not realised Johnny had written any songs – and that one is indeed among his best! One of the things I find most shocking in French culture is the number of songs recorded in French that were ‘borrowed’ from others, usually American, without any recognition of that fact. Of course, the opposite scenario also happens (notably the Sinatra classic ‘My Way’ adapted from ‘Comme d’habitude’) but it is far less frequent.

  5. Ouch…when I lived in France, Johnny Halliday was ‘the man’. I kind of liked Michel Sardou better but I remember both with a younger woman’s nostalgia. Rest in Peace. 😦

    1. Thanks, Meeks. Just watching his funeral service live from La Madeleine. Very moving. BTW, Michel Sardou is quite the icon (but sadly rather extreme right as a personality….)

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