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CULTURE

Five things you never knew about French rock legend Johnny Hallyday

As the family of the late French rock star Johnny Hallyday go to court over his estate, we look back at the amazing life of the 'French Elvis'.

Five things you never knew about French rock legend Johnny Hallyday
Photo: AFP

A huge star in France whose death lead an outpouring of a grief, followed by a funeral that brought half of Paris to a standstill, Hallyday was largely unknown in the English-speaking world.

Here are five key things to know about the biggest rock star you have probably never heard of:

He wasn't called Johnny

Johnny Hallyday was born Jean-Philippe Smet in Paris in 1943, but as he said himself, “it wasn't a very rock 'n' roll name”.

So he changed it to Johnny Halliday after an American relative, Lee Halliday, who became a father figure for the singer when his own father abandoned him, and who first introduced him to rock.

“He always called me Johnny because he couldn't say Jean-Philippe,” the singer said.

But when his stage name was misspelled “Hallyday” on his first record in 1960, the teenager had no option but to live with the “y”.

It was also from Halliday that Johnny learned his idiosyncratic English, leading some young French fans to initially assume he was American.





Johnny 'The American'

Johnny Hallyday epitomised French postwar youth's love affair with all things American – infuriating an older and official France that was snooty about American taste and still wary of US domination.

The rocker loved to tell how a French radio announcer smashed his first record on air, saying, “You will never hear that again.”

Hallyday longed so much to make it big in the United States that he recorded his third album, Johnny Hallyday Sings America's Rockin' Hits, entirely in English in Nashville in 1962.

He toured several US cities and even appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in the hope of charming Americans with his cover versions of Blueberry Hill and Be Bop A Lula. But it was not to be.

Two further attempts failed until Hallyday's American dream finally came true in 1996 when 5,000 of his French fans flew the 9,000 kilometres to see him play Las Vegas.

The star, who criss-crossed America on road trips on his Harley Davidson motorbike, moved his family to Los Angeles in 2010 where he lived down the road from Tom Hanks and Ben Affleck in Pacific Palisades.

“I love the tranquility,” he later said of LA. “There are stars everywhere, but when I go for a walk no one bothers me.”




Sex, drugs and Gitanes

Hallyday was the ultimate musical survivor, adapting to every trend. He went from rocker to hippie, to prog rock intellectual with his rock opera Hamlet, then back to back to basics with blues, country and western and French ballads, before a final flourish of Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic rock.

The only constants were the untipped Gitanes cigarette that hung perennially from the corner of his mouth and the hard-partying “life of destruction” he led off stage.

“For a long time I couldn't get out of bed in the morning without cocaine,” he admitted in 1998, telling the French daily Le Monde that he also tried to drown his unhappy childhood in alcohol, opium and cannabis.

His love life was equally rock 'n' roll, with a long list of lovers as well as five marriages. “I am a rocker and a rocker must live like a lone wolf,” he once said.

You only live twice

Having survived a suicide bid, drug abuse and a veritable pile-up of car crashes, the state of Hallyday's health was long a national obsession in France.

The singer's millions of fans were plunged into premature mourning in 2009 after he reportedly “died” on an operating table from an infection picked up during earlier routine back surgery.

France held its breath for weeks as the star was put into a medically induced coma, and the surgeon who carried out the initial operation was attacked in the street in Paris.

Hallyday later laughed off his brush with death. “The first time I died I didn't like it so I came back,” he said.





When Johnny met Jimi

Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin founder Jimmy Page and even Bob Dylan all played second fiddle to Hallyday at one time or another.

Hendrix and his band backed up Hallyday during a tour of France in 1966 and the pair partied together, while Page worked for the French rocker as a session musician both in Paris and London.

Hallyday later had a huge hit with Hendrix's Hey Joe.

When Bob Dylan turned up in Paris in 1966 Johnny was at his side, ensuring the attention of the paparazzi and hordes of screaming fans.

Hallyday himself grew up worshipping Edith Piaf but when the older woman tried to seduce him his ardour cooled somewhat, though he continued to sing her songs.

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CULTURE

Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).

‘Cathedral’

The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river. 

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