Email Interview With Laurens Van Houten

Apr 6, 2002
Email Interview With Laurens Van Houten
Can you tell us something about Laurens van Houten, the person? I was born in Haarlem, Holland on March 14, 1949. The music scene in the 1960's influenced my life in a very profound way, and I was listening to radio stations like Radio Carolina and Radio London all the time. The performers that impressed me most were Bob Dylan, John Mayall, Eric Clapton and well as many of the bands from the Westcoast like the Beach Boys and the Mama's and the Papa's. Can you tell us something about your work? Well, their music really made me want to be part of that movement. For me it was much more than the music, it was a way of life. I wanted to be one of the "movers and shakers", and I also wanted to document what was happening in that very important era. When I started, there wasn't really any "rock photography", and the photographs that I saw in the music magazines weren't very impressive, in my opinion. I started to specialize in concert photography without using flash. I only used the existing lights in the room, because you got a much better impression of what was happening on stage that way. Over the years I have photographed many great performers, including The Who, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix, U2, John Lennon, David Bowie, Janis Joplin and Frank Zappa. Are you an Elvis-fan yourself? The interesting thing is that before that U.S.A. trip in '73 he meant very little to me. I knew several of his songs, and liked some of them, but that was it. Shortly before the trip, I heard that there was a double feature of the two Elvis documentaries “That’s The Way It Is” and “Elvis On Tour” running late at night in a cinema at the Rembrandtplein in Amsterdam, and I decided to go and see them. I wanted to prepare myself by getting an idea of his stage show. Seeing those two films made me realize what a charismatic and talented performer he really was. One of the things that intrigued me was his nervousness before each performance. You can see it very clearly in that backstage scene from "On Tour" where he holds that paper cup. That nervousness before each show is something that all the truly great performers have in common. Can you tell us in short about your "Elvis history"? I went to Nashville, Tupelo, Memphis and Las Vegas in August and September 1973. I photographed Elvis during three concerts, even though it was very difficult. He was playing at the Hilton, and they had a very strict "no photography allowed" policy. So before each concert I took my camera apart, and I gave various parts of the camera to a few fans from the Dutch fanclub. We all hid these parts in our underwear, which is where I had the body of the camera! The camera was then re-assembled right before each concert. It was worth all the trouble, because I was able to make some great photographs. What is your best memory from seeing Elvis in concert? Definitely the closing show on September 3rd, 1973. It seemed like everybody on stage, including Elvis, was relieved that the engagement was over. The concert almost felt like a party, and everyone was having a great time. I was amazed to see Elvis performing with a toy monkey on his back, and coming on stage riding Lamar Fike's back. The whole show was like that, Elvis was in a really crazy mood. It's one of the strongest and most unusual shows that I have seen in my 35+ years as a professional rock photographer. I was very close to the stage, and I did my best to focus on the right moments and also had to watch out that I wouldn't get caught, but Elvis already spotted me during the second song. I have several photos where he is looking directly into the camera. He could have had me removed with the mere snap of his fingers, but I got the impression that he found it amusing. I was sitting there in a very uncomfortable position, with my knees on the ground, my elbows on my chair, and my camera just above the table. It seemed like he thought that it was funny. At times I even got the impression that he was "playing" to the camera! What made you decide to contribute to the book of Arjan Deelen, there must have been other offers the previous decennia. His sister Eveline was very convincing! :-) No, what made it very interesting for me to work with Arjan Deelen is that he is much more than a fan; he told me things about my own photographs that really surprised me. His insights and observations made me see them from a fresh perspective, and my conversations with him made me understand the historical significance of my photos. Moreover, he knows Elvis' musicians well, which was another big plus. Their perspective on the Vegas years adds a great deal to the book, and I am very proud of the fact that Glen D. Hardin has written an introduction for "Elvis: Caught In A Trap". Which other Elvis' photographers work do you enjoy? I don't really know the work of other "Elvis photographers". I have seen a few books, but much of it looked like fan photography. What, in general, is your favorite Elvis stuff? His music. Name your favorite Elvis song, movie, album. My favorite song is "My Baby Left Me", and my favorite album is "For LP Fans Only". I have nice memories of listening to that album on my headphones over and over again, on the flight from Memphis to Las Vegas. In fact, I was the last one to leave the plane, because I didn't want to stop the tape in the middle of "My Baby Left Me"! My favorite movie is "That's The Way It Is". Arjan has sent me the new edition of the movie, and I'm looking forward to seeing it. What is your favorite Elvis site? To be honest with you, I don't surf on the net, so I can't answer that question. How do you remember Elvis' passing? I remember that his death somehow did not surprise me. I don't really know why, because I'm not a psychic or anything like that. There had been some reports in the press that not all was well. Of course it saddened me to learn of his death. I got many calls from various magazines and newspapers, because they wanted to use my Elvis photographs. I did not want to cash in on his death, so I turned most of them down. I wanted my photographs to be used only in a tasteful context. Who do you think we should interview in the future? And which question(s) should we ask? Most of the musicians that I have met have nothing but praise for Elvis, but there is one exception: Mick Jagger. One week after I had photographed Elvis in Las Vegas, I was backstage together with the Rolling Stones in Manchester. I told them that I had just seen Elvis on stage in Las Vegas, and I said that he was one of the greatest performers that I had ever seen. The other bandmembers were really interested in hearing my stories, but Jagger gave me that arrogant look and said: "I don't want to end up in Vegas". I was too surprised by his comment to react, but it was clear that there was a lot of professional jealousy. So, if you get the opportunity to talk to Mick Jagger, then ask him why he has always been jealous of Elvis, and if that is the real reason behind his dislike of Elvis. Another very interesting interviewee would be leadguitarist James Burton. I have always admired the fact that Elvis was able to keep that band together for so many years. You have to remember that they performed about 150 concerts a year, and in Vegas they usually did two shows and sometimes even three shows a day. That must have been quite a strain on all of them. That Elvis managed to keep that band together for so long is no mean feat, especially when you compare it to many other rock bands. So you ought to ask James for an explanation of how they were able to keep this band together for so many years.

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