THERE was something in his eyes. A mysterious, shifting, narrow look, almost too light-blue: of a cat who walked by himself, or of a man waiting in an alley with a cigarette, the collar of his black leather jacket turned up against the night. Or the look of a shape-shifting lizard which, with age and weathering, Johnny Hallyday increasingly resembled: living from day to day, adapting to every fashion, at home in no particular place.

He was France’s version of a whole gamut of stars. James Dean first, with pout, quiff, jeans and guitar; then Elvis, le roi du rock; then Mick Jagger, shaggy-haired, strutting in tight leather trousers; then something like Engelbert Humperdinck, sweating freely, white shirt open to the waist. He could be whisky-wild like Jerry Lee Lewis, or a chansonnier in Charles Aznavour mode. He could imitate Jacques Brel, with whom he visited bordels, or Edith Piaf, who ran her hand up his thigh when he met her, or Jimi Hendrix, who astonished him by playing his guitar with his teeth. He could be anyone the French wanted, or anyone they wished they had produced themselves, and cover in French any Anglo-Saxon song they liked. In the process he sold 110m records, had more than 60 gold and platinum albums, and remained at the summit of national life for 58 years.

The French thought they knew him, since his many exploits marital and sexual, and his brushes with drugs and death, filled the pages of magazines for all that time. But the real Johnny seldom revealed himself. In interviews, the boyish smile alternated with the dead-eyed mask. The man up there on the stage, winched in by helicopter or raked by laser lights, was, he said, an actor playing the part of Johnny Hallyday. It was a good, serious part, letting him be whatever he or his fans dreamed of. But whenever he stopped working he was, as he had been born, Jean-Philippe Smet: half-Belgian, ordinary, and the reverse of his star-self. Le gros Belge, some friends called him. It was no coincidence that his best film, of the handful he made, was Patrice Leconte’s “L’Homme du Train”, in which he played the part of a bank robber who swapped lives with a retired teacher, ending up in delightful solitude in a book-lined study where, for the first time, he could wear slippers.

The fifth-columnist

Solitude did not trouble him. He was used to it, after a childhood that was fatherless and motherless, travelling round Europe with the dancer-cousins who informally adopted him. There was no fixed home or school; places and people were left behind, new ones found, as necessary. His life-models were the rockers he heard on the radio, including Lonnie Donegan, a skiffle-player, whom he adored, and Tommy Steele, as well as the American greats. France had no music like that, and when he began to make records, still a teenager, he shot at once to stardom. In 1961 his first concerts led to riots in the streets; in 1963, 200,000 youngsters packed the Place de la Nation, and climbed up trees, to hear him. For a time his concerts were banned, which only increased his cachet.

He was accused, too, of being a fifth-columnist for American cultural imperialism. A silly charge, since he forced the songs into (unsatisfactory) French, and since, in best French mode, he was swiftly intellectualised, compared to Victor Hugo and the existentialists. Yet his love of America ran deep, and not simply for musical reasons: he took his name from the American husband of a cousin, and his politics were of the right. In later years he spent half his time in Los Angeles, where his favourite balade was to ride his Harley into the desert and stay in small motels, adding spaghetti-Western cowboy to his characters. America never reciprocated, or noticed him in the street; it was hard, outside the Francophone world, to explain exactly what his point was.

The LA sojourns were part of his exile from France for tax reasons. Money matters vexed him, and he ended up chronically in debt to his record company, Universal, for loans it had made to him to help him scrape by, as well as €9m owing to the taxman. He determined not to return to France until the rich were no longer clobbered. In 2002, in full black leathers and with the Tricolore painted on those cheekbones, he sang “Allez les Bleus!” to urge on the national football team; four years later he found himself toying with citizenship of Belgium, or moving to Switzerland. France, he cried in his autobiography “Dans mes yeux”, was a stifling place with a sale mentalité. He didn’t miss it abroad, but felt good wherever he was; just as every time he sang “Que je t’aime”, which he had performed a thousand times since 1969, he sang it with no weight of past association, but as a man might sing it to a woman he had only just met.

So when a million people jammed the centre of Paris for his funeral, singing his songs, and roaring Harleys processed in his honour; when President Emmanuel Macron gave the oration, saying that Johnny’s songs had been the soundtrack of their lives, and that he had become a “necessary presence”, that presence was not quite as comfortingly evocative as Proust’s madeleine (though the comparison was made, of course). It was something more shifting and slightly disturbing, like those eyes: like a sliver of light-blue glass.