The Varieties of Relic Experience

Nina Simone's Gum BY Warren Ellis. London: Faber & Faber. 208 pages. $28.
Warren Ellis. Photo: Faber

During the pandemic, Warren Ellis wrote Nina Simone’s Gum in his Paris atelier. As he told me, “It’s where I’ve pretty much done everything for the last ten years. It’s an old barn, converted into a studio.” The book centers on a piece of gum Ellis pulls off the piano Nina Simone used at a concert in 1999, but it ranges out through his history of learning to play violin and accordion, and then later joining Dirty Three and meeting Nick Cave. It’s a quick, rich book. We spoke by Zoom in January.

SASHA FRERE-JONES: So this all begins when Nick Cave booked Nina Simone to play his version of the Meltdown Festival in July of 1999. She did a gig at the Royal Festival Hall, and after the show you absconded with the gum she left on the piano.

WARREN ELLIS: More or less. Australia is geographically a long way from everything, but my childhood was informed by America and European movies and sitcoms. When I found myself here in Europe, it was like I’d found a place in the world or something, and to find myself being in a touring band was amazing. Then, to find myself going to this concert to see Nina Simone—it was something I just never thought I would ever see in my life. I think you need to have that story to understand the weight of what this concert meant, going into it.

I didn’t think Nina Simone would ever play again, but Nick had programmed her for his Meltdown Festival. There was more than a decade when nobody was even interested in Nina, and she was playing tiny little clubs in Paris, standing out on the street in the afternoon telling everyone she was playing a show. I’ve spoken to people who saw her play to a hundred people.

It’s incredible to think that there were times for people like Johnny Cash that were similar, when suddenly they didn’t think they were worth anything because some bean counter in a record label thought they were a heritage act, or not selling the numbers. That happens to so many people, professionally. Nina Simone had a few decades that were problematic for many reasons. The ’80s and ’90s were difficult. 

If Nina had just appeared at Meltdown, it would have been enough. When I saw Alice Coltrane, it was like that too. I didn’t even really care what the concert was like. Just to be in the same room as her was enough for me. People like the Velvet Underground, when you read certain books and that you know your life will never be the same after that, you know they’ve informed you on some deep level, like when you see films and you know that it’s made a shift in the way that the gears turn in your heart and the way that you think. This is powerful stuff. 

The exposure to these things is so important for us, they’re sort of food. They give us something to aim for because most of us are just crawling around in the creative mud. People like Coltrane and Nina Simone and Beethoven and Stravinsky and Picasso are just from another world, they’re just way above everybody else. To see these people and just be in the room with them is enough. And it’s particularly a thing about older artists that I find incredibly moving.

I remember seeing Jerry Lee Lewis in Paris and it absolutely blew my mind—his energy and attitude. He could barely stand and he had to be helped up onto his piano. I find it moving to see these transformations take place, and this, I guess, is what the book is about—transformations. The transformation that took place in this concert with Nina, it was mind-blowing. It was a religious experience to see her go from barely being able to walk out there to, just digging deep and finding this thing that defined her all her life. It was a spiritual thing to watch. You could see that some divine intervention had taken place. 

Your friend Matt Crosbie was engineering the show—does he still have a tape of it?

No, he doesn’t, you know they took it off him—someone came down to the thing after the show. The idea for the book came about from me saying, “There’s this beautiful thing happening when I relive the chewing gum moment but there’s nothing that you can actually touch.” Like, what’s around the gum is invisible, and the beautiful thing about it is the imagination, what it ignites in people. Whatever care they bring to it, it’s all about them. 

The director from the gallery contacted me the other day, and she’s decided to take the chewing gum on tour with Nick Cave’s exhibition. But then the last time I saw her, she said, “There’s no way I’m taking it. It’s going to be the death of me.” Now this is beautiful stuff, people talking about this in such a way, it just magnifies their personality. They’re making this all up with their imagination. When I started looking at that, I had to investigate. I was aware that it was a holy relic for people. I’d seen the effect that it was having. I’ve just had a meeting this morning with the Southbank, who want to acquire the gum. They want to keep it in their vaults.

I knew the story of her asking Matt for champagne, cocaine and sausages because it’s just one of the greatest stories you’ve ever heard. [Ed.—It’s also in the film 20,000 Days on Earth.] I called him during the lockdown and asked him what happened and transcribed the conversation that’s in the book. 

I found this incredible interview on Hard Talk. I think the concept is there in that interview. You see her there. It’s so playful and flirtatious between her and the interviewer. It must be like a couple of days before or day after the show. It shows the sort of person that I’m trying to describe in the book.

Beyond a couple of photos, there’s no witnessing of the Meltdown concert. Like now, everything is witnessed. I love the fact that this concert only lives in the imagination of people who were there, and also, that it’s passed on. People come up and say, “Oh, my dad was at that concert, my mother was at that concert.” It was kind of that last moment when everything wasn’t just witnessed by everybody, so it exists in the same way that, say, twenty people seeing Nirvana exists, these events that live in the kind of collective consciousness. I saw James Brown in the airport, trying to get through security, and thankfully, nobody has video footage of that. But I tell that story to anyone who will listen to it. I mean, it was phenomenal.

I thought the book was really just a picture book and a bit of information for me. The more I dug, the more I realized I had to say. People said to me, “Look, you’re going to have to kind of explain who Nina Simone is to some people, because not everybody knows who she is.” And at the end, when the guy is making a metal sculpture of the gum, he says, “I love the story of the gum, but I have to admit I don’t know who Nina Simone is.” He’s a young guy running the foundry, my son’s friend.

I walked away from it and looked at the things around the gum, and looked at why I care about music as a listener. Music moved me in a way that nothing else did, the way that films moved me. And I loved reading, but music existed on another level for me. It was about vibrations, and it was a purely emotional response.

The first time I heard John Coltrane, I believed, and still believe, that it was the voice of God. I was raised going to church, but I didn’t really get the concept that there was a God. I could relate God things to music, though. Music came from somewhere else. I guess I hang my spiritual beliefs on that.

When I’m on stage playing music, it’s not a job that I do. When I go on stage to play, it is the most sacred of all places. Things happen on stage that don’t happen in real life. If it ever becomes a job, I won’t deserve to be on the stage.

In the book, one of the things you bring into that conversation is Beethoven.


You end the book with Beethoven, in fact, and I love that story about you learning to play music. I forget which piece you’re playing—

I think Symphony Seven or Eight. I’ll have to look that up. 

Do you know those songs that you hear in your head all the time? I have three or four. There’s an Alice Coltrane song, a Big Black song, and then the first song on your first album, “Indian Love Song”—the little figure that you’re plucking at the beginning, on the violin. When I’m waiting in line, I hear that. It has this sort of patient suspense. Often when I’m watching movies and I don’t like the music, I put that song in there. I’m like, “Well, this would be better suspense music than that shit.”

“Indian Love Song” is the first idea that I ever made up. I was in an orchestra rehearsal and I was about 18 and I heard the double bass player playing a riff. I started imitating it on my violin. I asked him, “Hey, will you just play that riff again?” I play it and he goes, “No, no, I was playing something else,” and started playing this other riff, not the same one. Anyway, years later, that riff, I remembered it, and that was pretty much the first thing that I ever wrote. 

It’s this thing about ideas, about getting them out. It doesn’t matter when you do, but it’s getting them out that’s important. This is the thing with ideas—they’re contagious. You take them on, you appropriate them, and then they become something to you that the people didn’t even intend.

What I saw happening with the gum was what I saw in my musical life that I could never put words to. And there it was, concrete in front of me. Like these pictures saying what I felt, saying it in a very real way.

Can you just explain briefly, what tour is the gum part of now?

It’s part of the Nick Cave Stranger Than Kindness exhibition, and it’s now moving to Montreal. It opens in April. When I said, “Why won’t you take the gum?” the curator said, “Because it’s going to kill me. It’s going to be the death of me, Warren. I can’t deal with the responsibility of it.” This is amazing stuff. This is the curator of one of the greatest museums and libraries in Europe, a serious person, and she is telling me this. 

There’s a metal replica of the gum that I gave to Faber. It’s going in the vault with Sylvia Plath’s manuscripts and their Ted Hughes stuff. This little silver piece of gum is going in there.

Is the original going out on the road or the copy?

The original is in Montreal, even though she wanted to make a copy. And I said no, because I want people standing in front of the real thing. They’ve got to be in front of the real thing, you know? It’s a relief because it’s in a controlled environment, and I don’t want it back. If I get it back, I’m going to lose it. It feels like I want it to go somewhere where it’s looked after. The gum is a metaphor for all the people whose music I listened to, films I watched, books I read, people who taught me and said, “Hey, this thing you’re doing here, this is really good.”

You wrote about the guy in Scotland who was teaching you fiddle tunes.

Pretty much everyone I mention in the book is someone I’ve learned something from, people that have helped me develop into hopefully a better person, ultimately. After I wrote the book, I went around talking to people and realized that we are ideas we come in contact with. They can define who we become in a way, you know? Affirmation is such an important thing to get from other people.

The book also seems to be about your friends, like Mick Geyer and Dave McComb. It was Mick who played you, Nina Simone, right?

Mick was one of these people that just spent his whole life absorbing things and then wanted to share them with people. When you talk to him, he’d say, “What have you seen lately? What have you listened to? Have you heard this? Have you heard that?” Or you’d go around there, and he’d put on a couple of tracks. They were doing the groundwork and had this incredible radar. The sort of knowledge I never got at university, suddenly here was this guy just like ramming it down my throat, you know? Mick was with me at the Meltdown concert, he sat next to me and there was a real link with him. 

Were parts of your life harder to capture than others?

I did an audiobook and when I got to the last chapter, about visiting Beethoven’s grave, I knew it was going to happen. I literally took ten minutes because I just kept breaking down and bursting into tears. Every time I try to read that last chapter, I think, “Don’t worry, we’ll get it.” And I literally could not. I’d start reading a couple of lines because that whole experience at the end with it just comes back to me when I think about it, and it’s so overwhelming that I can’t control it. 

There are parts of the book that when I was writing it, it becomes real again to me, like the experiences with Beethoven, they’re forever etched. When Nick and I were recording Ghosteen—I can conjure that up in my head as soon as I think about it, if I see a picture of it.

Those two weeks were the greatest two weeks of my life. I’ve never felt anything like them before. There was something else in the room when we were recording. I never put much stock in that, but whatever it is that connects us, it was there, leading that record—a greater power in the room. When I gave up drugs and alcohol, I did AA, and I could hand it over to a greater power, but not convincingly to myself. I wasn’t being responsible. I had to be accountable in a way, you know? And to each person their own thing—it’s not for me to say what you should or shouldn’t do.

When we made Ghosteen, I became aware of an all-uniting presence. It’s the most spiritual thing I’ve ever felt. Playing on stages, all those moments with Beethoven, or listening to music—I’d never felt that in the studio before. Once I started looking at that kind of moment, I went backwards in my life. That’s why I start the book with one of my earliest memories, the apparition of clowns in the back garden, with my older brother. I’ve always believed this thing happened, and maybe that defined me. If you were scared and turned away, you could have been a different person. My brother said, “Maybe that’s why you picked up the accordion, because you weren’t scared.” Calling my brother was another big moment for me, to reconnect these stories.

And he did remember it.

Yeah, exactly like me. He could see me as a little boy again, and I could see him as a seven-year old, and the look on his face. I said, “You remember climbing the trees and he’d go, ’Yeah, the wattle trees out the back of the fence, the clowns were hanging off them.’” I’ve had a fractured relation with him all my life, and it was incredibly moving for me and for him. He’s nearly sixty and I’m nearly sixty. 

The day I handed the draft in and signed off on it, an hour later, I was cleaning out an old cabinet in my mother-in-law’s apartment. And I found an old suitcase of mine from the mid-nineties. Inside, I found a whole bunch of stuff—faxes, old tour booklets. I found letters from Mick Geyer, postcards and letters from Dave McComb, and cassettes from Dave, too. And I found the original ticket to the Nina Simone concert—this all happened the day I handed it in.

And I just thought, “This is all these people saying, ‘Kid let it go.’” I’d been so anxious about letting go of it. Writing it was really fraught with anxiety for me. Which is OK! I’m still trying to do something good and I want it to be full of doubt and fear. I want it to be challenging. I want to feel like I’m challenged. I want to feel like I’m putting out something that does sort of cause me worry, because I want people to feel that. That feels like my duty to the people who are listening to it. For them to ask the same questions that I’m asking, for them to feel the same sort of anxieties that I’m feeling, to not feel nonchalant and to not feel like kind of, oh, well, that’s good enough, like, right, another one, like, I mean, I’ve never put anything out that I just thought, Oh, that’s that’s good enough. Whatever, like, I have certain personal criteria that it has to make.

I feel like it’s an ongoing apprenticeship. I’m fifty-seven in a week. I’ve been with Nick since ’95, that’s twenty-seven years. There’s people that I have this ongoing narrative with, on stage, it’s like thirty years haven’t passed, it’s just you connecting to the same source. I think that’s the same thing I saw Nina Simone connect with, the thing I saw Lou Reed connect with when he played Berlin and when he played Metal Machine Music. It’s an absolute honor to watch them perform and channel this stuff. It’s like watching a great director put out a film. It’s the long game of the creative person, not just the moment when they’re hot. Mick Geyer used to listen to every Van Morrison record and be able to show you the signs of genius.

You were talking about Ghosteen. Where did you record that?

In Malibu.

I don’t see you guys as very Californian. That’s a crazy image to me.

I didn’t go outside much, to be honest. I had lunch with Chris Martin one day and that was it. That was interesting because I had a great talk with him and he gave me a way into this song that I was struggling with. It’s good to let go of something and pick up another idea. But no I didn’t actually go outside very much until the very end, and I’m generally there to work anyway, you know. I love it around there. I do love it around there. It’s really lovely. It was kind of imbued on that record. That place, the kind of looking at the window windows, seeing it waking up, we lived in the studio, so you’d sort of just me and Nick, and every day I’d wake up and just see this sort of green valley that run down to the sea and, just walk down and get into this beautiful studio made of wood and just sit in there and, make music. It was really so memorable.

Who did you make the record with? 

It was just me and Nick, basically, in the studio. And then Lance Powell, who runs the studio and takes care of it. We just said, “Do you want to mix the record?” So we just went to a studio and mixed it with him. He was the in-house guy there, and he’s a roadie for Wilco, he’s like the sort of assistant engineer and books the stuff. I saw him when he was out here with Wilco, and they’re like, “We had no idea you can make a record, Lance.” He was sort of like blushing. I’m like, “Fuck you guys—it’s a waste of him just tuning your guitars.” He’s coming on tour and he’s going to do my stuff for the Bad Seeds.

We did that with Carnage. We just went in and put some ideas down. We loved working with Luis Almau so much. We stopped working with name producers. We just kind of need someone to unlock the stuff for us. We’re not sitting there doing it and then handing it over to somebody to do their thing. We follow through from the start to the end. We don’t just get sent a bunch of mixes and that’s it. We’re really hands on, always have been. 

You talk about collecting tire weights in the book but I wasn’t sure what they were. I can’t see them in my mind.

Did you recognize them from the photo in the book?

I saw them, yes, but I grew up in New York. I’m not much of a car guy. I don’t know what they are but I love the story and that it went on for so long. You said that you still pick them up when you see them.

Yeah, I still do. Glen Hansard, he wrote that “Falling Slowly” song that won an Oscar, and he’s recently been out in America with Eddie Vedder. Glen texted me after he read the book and said, “Fuck man, I did that all my life! I’m so relieved somebody else is out there doing something like that.” Then he proceeded to send me a photo after photo, because he’s got bags of them, you know? I guess when I found them, they just seemed like the most magical kind of thing. And now somebody else wrote to me and told me they collect lead, any forms of lead that they find. So I know I’m not alone. I guess I put the lead weights in because it highlighted what I think about superstition and believing in something—it doesn’t really matter what you believe in. It’s the power of the imagination for me. It’s like that thing of not walking on the lines as a kid, when you’re jumping the footpath. I highlighted the things that make you take the leap, they don’t have to be incredibly intellectual. It’s more about engaging the imagination and engaging the will to do it. It’s about turning up.

I don’t collect objects but, for as long as I can remember, I’ve used traffic lights as a kind of fortune teller. I’m very superstitious and I’m always seeing flashes of God. If I’m approaching an intersection, I ask myself a question. “Should I go to the post office first or to the deli?” So I follow with “OK, if it’s red in five paces, I’m going to the deli.” I still do it. 

This makes me think of that moment when you’re talking to the metal artist about the gum and she says, “I get it.” That connects these things you’re trying to say about the moment where one thing becomes another thing. I saw Bob Dylan about sixteen years ago in Washington, D.C. He had two guitar players, and they both played lots of solos. I think one of them was Charlie Sexton. I was seeing Bob Dylan, but it felt so unlike the Bob Dylan I knew, because of all the guitar solos. Dylan played the keyboard and his voice was so fucked up that I thought, “Shit! What if that’s not Bob Dylan and I’m having emotions about Bob Dylan that are not related to anyone in the room?” Maybe it was like MF DOOM, someone sent out to perform with the mask, and it wasn’t Dylan. I wouldn’t have known. But I was still having feelings, and that was down to nothing but the power of imagination. Bob Dylan feelings. I was projecting, trying to guess the song. “What the fuck is this one?” I start thinking about “Tangled Up in Blue” because I hear a fragment of the lyric. The rest of it sounds totally different. So when that woman said to you, “I get it about the gum,” it wasn’t about the gum. She got what you brought to the gum, and what anyone else might bring to the gum.

And instantly that releases my worry. What you’re saying is exactly what I hoped the book would do, that you read different things into it. Jim White read it and he said to me, “I’ve never put much stock in that stuff. But I can see why you do now. It’s made me think about stuff that I have and little things I’ve done all my life.” Jim is usually very black and white, cut and dry, so that’s the greatest compliment.

The gum is a metaphor for the idea that if it’s good, it gets out and is given a life breathed into it by other people. The idea exists and has a life and ignites imagination. For me, the piece of gum represents a bit of music or a painting—it’s the same thing. Given the chance, given that encouragement, the idea will take flight, but it needs other people to help that happen. 


Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in the East Village. He recently finished a memoir.