Over the course of our fifty-year partnership, I made twenty-one album covers for Arno. The first one, Who Cares by Tjens Couter, was released in 1976 and the last one, Les Duettes, was released posthumously in the summer of 2023 and contains a collection of songs he recorded with other artists. I delved into my archives for the cover of Les Duettes and quickly came upon the picture of Arno and a chimpanzee that I took on the banks of the river Leie/Lys in 1999. The photo was originally meant for the album The European Cowboy. At the time, I’d had the idea of sending Arno out into the world with a chimpanzee dressed in a cowboy outfit and to shoot them in an iconic European landscape, like Tuscany or La Mancha.
But a trip abroad proved to be too expensive from a budgetary point of view and I was told to forget about the iconic backdrop. So we ended up choosing the Lys region, which was an iconic landscape in the Middle Ages.
I’d found the monkey in a German circus had it brought over with its handler. Someone from the Parisian record label had also come down to observe the shoot.
I was massively disappointed when I got a look at the final result. The record company had unilaterally decided to cut the monkey from the cover and have Arno strolling through the countryside alone. I was also really annoyed that the typography was loud and that the printing was atrocious.
A quarter of a century later, the monkey from The European Cowboy that was unceremoniously edited out was finally restored to its rightful place: it finally appeared in all its glory at Arno’s side. It’s just so completely Arno, him and that monkey as a pair: Le Plus Beau, lost in though, trudging behind a monkey on a tricycle.
First photo shoot with Arno, 1972
In 1972, the band was given the opportunity to record an album. My friend Paul Decoutere asked me to take some photos for the album cover.
Because the picture needed to have a bit of a convivial working class vibe, I took the band to Café Tunnel in Blankenberge along with a bunch of friends. Three older regulars were given a prominent place among the longhaired reprobates. What started out as a fairly orderly shoot, turned into a jovial and raucous event after a few drinks. Everyone just sat where they wanted and I was taking picture after picture.
Actually, I hardly knew Arno at the time. In fact, that shoot in the summer of 1972 was one of the first times we met. He was fairly timid and had a stammer. At the start of the shoot at Café Tunnel, I’d put Paul at the front, whereas Arno was hidden away among the extras. But as we got further into the shoot, I kept bringing Arno into the foreground more and more. By the end of the session, he was right at the front. My last roll of film had a photo of Arno laughing unreservedly, with Paul next to him – he just captures all the attention and focus.
Had I inadvertently caught a glimpse of something special in Arno at that time, something that would become a partnership that would last no less than fifty years?
POLAROID, FIRST PHOTO TOGETHER
Arno, The Rolling Stones and me, 1976
When I first met Arno, we would often talk about music. Arno liked African-American Blues music and felt that The Stones were copycats imitating the real stuff and were stealing Black heritage, whereas I felt that The Stones were paying homage to this genre by reviving it. A few years later, I bought a Polaroid camera and took pictures of everyone who come to our home. I used to pin the trophies to the wall. My collection of friends and acquaintances grew steadily but I didn’t have a photo of Arno yet. The day he came over, I had just bought the new album by The Rolling Stones, Black and Blue. A hell of a record, with a brilliant double cover photo. I asked my wife to take a photo of the three of us: Arno, The Rolling Stones, and me. By that time, Arno had modified his opinion of The Stones somewhat and was happy to pose with them. The date of our first photo together was Thursday 29 April 1976. Our fates were already strongly intertwined even then.
The Show of Life starts fifty years ago, on a spring day in the 1970s. Danny Willems looks into the rear view mirror of his car and sees a boy with long hair in the backseat; they had met through a mutual friend. ‘He was a special case, that’s for sure.’
It was true: the kid in the backseat might not have had a driving licence – but he did have swagger. They quickly became friends, in the way the guys from the coast do: with few words. They were tied together by their love for music and hope for an exhilarating life.
In the backseat, Hintjens sang out: It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll) by AC/DC. Willems put his foot down on the accelerator. A camera lay in the seat next to him. And that’s how it all started.
On the drive, Willems pointed the viewfinder onto his friend, had him shadow box in the white light, and so shaped the image of the singer. Not only on stage: his photos of the singer found their way onto record sleeves and into magazines.
Arno wasn’t his first model – but he was his best. The man who turned him into a photographer. No one had an eye like Willems – and no one had voice like Hintjens. They would egg each other on and catapult each other into the cosmos. Never tiring. Always in black and white.
They never even noticed that they were getting older. Except that Willems would occasionally capture and immortalise the singer in colour. The colour of japes and chewing the fat. Or that of nostalgia. Last year, he place five neon letters on his stage: VIVRE.
There’s no one in the rear view mirror of his car now. Eternity might be free from the vicissitudes of time itself, but mercifully can’t escape time when it comes to shutter speed. There were countless more photographs of their trips together stashed away in Willems’ various safes. Some familiar to the public, others kept secret until now. Of Arno driving through Scandinavia in an ice-covered van, at the Bowery in New York, on the steps of Montmartre, on a ferry in the Baltic Sea, standing under the Eiffel Tower.
Never before has a photographer followed and captured a rock legend for fifty solid years. From that first wild photo session at Café Tunnel in Blankenberge, when they were both still boys, to when they had both turned grey: a last hurrah, somewhere up on the fifth floor in the Dansaertstraat in Brussels.
The Show of Life is more than just a unique exhibition: it’s an homage to the friendship between two people. Gie en Ik, Toi et moi. ‘Danny, we’ve got a great life, don’t we?’
Stijn Tormans, September 2023
Arno and I made twelve music videos together. The first one dates back to 1989 and we shot the last one posthumously in the spring of 2022.
OLALALA - T.C. MATIC (1981)
We had to shoot a video clip for Hitring, a music programme on the erstwhile BRT channel presented by Kurt Van Eeghem. At the time, video clips represented a revolution in terms how people experienced music that was first launch by MTV. Arno and I came up with the screenplay. For the chorus, we wanted an effect that symbolised the title in a funny way. After coming up with all kinds of nonsense, to our mutual delight we eventually arrived at ‘bodybuilders’. We shot the clip at Bruxelles-Nord railway station, which was brand new at the time. We cast the bodybuilders at the California Gym in Elsene, which was owned by Jean-Claude Vandamme at the time.
WILLIE WILLIE - T.C. MATIC (1981)
We recorded Willie Willie for the same programme as Olalala. Arno and I came up with the idea of a decadent party, with men in tuxedos going completely wild. We got the entire T.C. Matic band and crew together for the clip and got another bunch of mates involved. We shot the clip at the Vaudeville at the Koninginnegalerij in Brussels. We stole the musical chairs scene from La Grande Vadrouille with Louis de Funès, which has a scene with a group of German officers going wild. The shoot for Willie Willie ultimately turned into a lively party – entirely at the expense of the BRT, to boot.
VILLA TEMPO - BRT (1986)
Villa Tempo was a programme for young people on TV1. It was hosted by Bart Peeters and de Hermannen (Bart Peeters, Marcel and Hugo Matthysen). Because I was the No. 1 rock photographer at the time, and had photographed pretty much everyone on the Belgian rock music scene, I was invited to come on one episode. I brought Arno and Jo Lemaire along to give my segment on the programme a little bit of pizzazz. At the end of my segment, I staged a shoot with Jo and Arno that had got out of hand.
THE BATHROOM SINGER - ARNO (1988)
The Bathroom Singer was the last single in the album Charlatan. The record label Virgin had asked me to shoot a video clip for it myself, which I’d never done before – I’d only done the screenplays for the previous video clips. But when you get an opportunity like that, you have to seize it. At the same time it was very scary. Shit – what have I gotten myself into? I asked my friend Danny Hiele, who was a cameraman, for help and together with Arno was put a screenplay together at the pub. We had it down on paper within an hour: the video clip had to have a goldfish, a Yellow Canary, two brawling strippers and three weird musicians. We got Arno’s Brussels pub mates Josse De Pauw and Jan Decorte, with the French-speaking actor Jean-Louis Sbille completing the trio.
We filmed the clip on the stage of the AB in Brussels. The result was impressive: the videoclip had all the mischievousness you might associate with Arno and boosted my career as a director. The projects kept coming in and within five years me and Danny Hiele must have shot at least twenty clips, mostly in Paris.
THE LONESOME ZORRO - ARNO (1990)
Danny Hiele and I made this clip. We shot in one go without making any cuts. Ad Cominotto was one of the two accordionists. We’d cast the singers in London. Els Lingier, the stylist, came up with the idea of putting the girls in an evening gown made out of surgical bandaging. So that’s what we did and we wrapped up the ladies. The effect was stunning and original and the young ladies looked divine. But the shoot took longer than expected and the girls desperately had to pee. They courageously held on long enough to finish – but it was a close call.
WHOOP THAT THING - ARNO (1990)
The clip was shot in the kitchen of the AB in Brussels. We cast the mother in London; the boy came from Brussels. The idea was to capture a mother who just can’t bear to miss her favourite TV show during the chaotic melee of cooking a meal. We filmed Arno in a studio against a white background and played that back on a portable television while shooting the video.
MOURIR À PLUSIEURS - ARNO (2007)
Arno came up with the idea. He was friends with some of the singers of Les Vedettes Plus Ou Moins Majorettes. Les Vedettes were a bunch of mad French-speaking singers and actresses from Brussels, who had formed a group together. Yet again, the idea was to shoot the clip in one single take. Each singer would lip-sync one line of the song with Arno’s voice. Les Vedettes were given a blank cheque in terms of their outfit and characters. I was in charge of choreography and directing the clip. I never had more fun than during that shoot: Les Vedettes, Arno and Geoffrey Burton, the guitarist, were amazing.
THE SHOW OF LIFE - ARNO (2012)
Arno came up with the idea for the clip and including the Japanese dancer Taka Shamoto and I did the rest. We chose the Terminus Hotel at the Ostend railway station as the location. Arno didn’t want to show his face in the video, whereupon I came up with the idea of using a paper bag as a mask. The Parisian record label was not thrilled when we were done. I hadn’t mentioned the paper bag in my proposal. They felt it wasn’t saleable. We though it was hilarious even if they didn’t. After a lot of back-and-forth, I edited a photo of Arno into the clip at the end alongside the quote ‘Ceçi n’est pas Arno’. That was something they could live with. Arno and I justified it as a commercial concession.
OOSTENSCHE BROKKE - ARNO (2014)
We needed a little extra element for the Arno exhibition Cinemarno in Ostend, which is why Arno and I came up with a video clip for the lost gem Oostensche Brokke (featuring a big nod to Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues). We filmed the clip on the Oosteroever in Ostend without any preparation and without any budget, with my son Storm, who as sixteen at the time, as my assistant. The breathtaking graffiti wall and the proud Lange Nelle lighthouse in the distance made it the perfect location. Arno wrote out the cardboard signs in a rush once we got to the location. We were all done in less than an hour.
YOU GOTTA MOVE - TJENS COUTER (2020)
Our friend Paul Couter was terminally ill and had been admitted to the palliative care department of Ghent University Hospital. Arne and I went to visit him. I’d asked Paul ahead of time whether he would be up to playing the blues traditional You Gotta Move. When we arrived, Paul turned out to be much sicker than we expected, that really upset Arno. Paul took the initiative and started the song and Arno slowly joined in and got going. What happened next was a moment of unparalleled beauty: two frail men – my childhood friends – jamming one last time. Arno changed the lyrics and sang ‘We Gotta Move’ instead of ‘You Gotta Move’. I captured the session on film and just behind my camera crying silent tears. Paul died on 27 April 2021. Arno passed away the following year.
SOLO GIGOLO - ARNO (2021)
The record label wanted to do a video for Solo Gigolo on the Vivre album once Arno had recovered from his operation. Arno wasn’t feeling inspired. I came up with the suggestion of having him dance in an empty room in super slow motion. He wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but I stuck to my guns. We scheduled a test shoot at Arno’s house on a Sunday afternoon. To avoid tiring him out, I had promised to only film the song once with him dancing throughout. Slightly reluctantly, he put on a black jacket at my request and we got to work. While he danced, I fed him instructions, which he carried out like a professional actor without ever protesting. The result was stunning and the record label was please with it, too. I’d hired a film crew and the plan was to shoot the actual video clip a week later.
Unfortunately, Arno was admitted to Ghent University Hospital urgently on the Wednesday before the shoot, which was the start of a long battle. However, I’d finished the test recording and put it in my personal archives. I shared the clip for the first time during the Arno tribute concerts in June 2023. Afterwards the room fell silent – it had clearly made an impression on everyone. I’m especially proud of Solo Gigolo. I consider it to be my tenderest Arno film and a tribute to a beautiful human being.
LA VÉRITE - ARNO (2022)
The last album, Opex, was recorded shortly before Arno’s death. The video clip La Vérite was the most difficult project I’ve ever worked on. Arno was gone and so I had to do that one all by myself. I’d lost my sounding board, I had no feedback to base my work on – and I was heartbroken. I spent two days in Ostend with my camera, including at night, waiting for the fishing boats to return home. I got to work using stock material from my personal archive and previously filmed drone footage. I consider this video clip to be a piece of personal poetry and a grieving process. It’s an ode to friendship, a shared past and hope for the future. ‘Embrasse le passé, il n’existe plus. La vie aujourd’hui, elle est plus importante’.
OSTEND DUB - ARNO (2023)
I wanted a solid intro for the tribute concerts at the Brussels AB and the Kursaal in Ostend in June 2023. Something that would get the party started. Ostend Dub is a minimalist piece of music in which Arno plays the harmonica brilliantly, accompanied only by percussion. Using stock material from my personal archive and with a lot of enthusiasm and help from the AB crew, we put together this little gem. ‘Oane moane sukker de kroane Piempaljoene laize Oender de zèè Potje Carréé Dansen de piempernelletje. Oostende Boven Godverdomme!’
Some quotes are untranslatable. We tried to interpret and translate as much text as possible. Song lyrics were left untouched.
Forget everything you learned in school: keep it simple. It can’t be clean, right? It’s got to be dirty and real. And greasy and rank. It needs to smell of sweat and tears. And of mussels from Ostend.
You know, without the fans I'm a fucking nobody. An artist without an audience isn’t an artist at all. I have a lot of respect for those people. They come and pay to see you.
You know that Jesus Christ was from Brussels, right? James Ensor did a beautiful painting on that subject once: the joyous entry of Christ into Brussels. It’s in a museum in Los Angeles.
It’s dangerous for me to see that exhibition, because I’m afraid of being confronted with a past I don’t remember.
I’ve had a fantastic life. If you do what you love, you never have to work a single day. People say that Gandhi said that, but he definitely stole it from me.
I love eating ‘stoemp’ and sausages and have couscous the next day. But if you only ever eat ‘stoemp’ or couscous, that’s a sign of an impoverished man. Not in terms of what you eat, but what’s in your head.