A piece of Nina Simone’s gum changed Warren Ellis’ life. He wrote a book about it

Multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis (he can play eight, including violin, flute, piano, accordion – “I’ll try everything but brass”) is a long-time collaborator with a tireless brother-in-arms Nick Cave Bad Seeds. Over the past decade, the two have released eight heartbreaking and melancholic film soundtracks, several studio albums (Carnage was number five on MOJO magazine’s “75 Best Albums of 2021”), and numerous side projects, including two full-length documentaries (the latest, What I know to be true, hits theaters in May).

If all that wasn’t enough, Ellis has just published his first book, Nina Simone’s eraser (Faber & Faber), a hauntingly beautiful quasi-memoir about the 57-year-old’s early life growing up in southeastern Australia and his years busking across Europe in the 1980s, as well as a particular and transcendent night that changed the course of his life.

After seeing Nina Simone perform at a concert in London on July 1, 1999, Ellis – “transformed” by what he had just witnessed – took to the stage to flee with the piece of chewing gum that Simone had placed on her used towel to wipe the sweat from her brow. . For two decades, Ellis barely thought about it…until 2019 when he decided to remove it from its resting place.

The book recounts what happens next: the process of molding the gum into handcrafted silver and white gold bars and rings for her loved ones; the story of the gum becoming a main feature (behind bulletproof glass) at “Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition” in Copenhagen, Denmark; and the effect this little object – even if only briefly touched by genius – has had on others. “All I’ve seen gum do is bring out love and care from people who have come into contact with it,” Ellis said. The Guardian. “And that love and care carried the humblest thing imaginable and elevated it to a sacred relic.”

vanity lounge spoke with Warren via Zoom from Asheville, North Carolina at the start of his North American tour and from Nick Cave in 2022.

Vanity Lounge: What was the motivation for taking Simone’s gum that she had placed in a towel on her Steinway piano?

Warren Ellis: People asked me this question when I started writing the book. pseudo [Cave] would tell me that he found it incredible that I took him. And then other people were like, “Of all the people in this room, why you care enough to pick it up? In all truth, I don’t know why. I just thought, why wouldn’t I? I guess it was to have a connection with her. The story developed around the simple act of doing this, and it continues. People are really taken by the story 20 years later.

What does gum represent for you? Has this little artifact taken on new meaning in the past two decades?

Well, it’s funny because I knew right away that it was very precious to me. I kept it really quiet. No one knew I had it except a few. I put the napkin with the chewing gum in a yellow Tower Records bag and then put the bag in my briefcase. I carried it with me for a few years. And very quickly it became a kind of sacred totem for me. We have invested a lot in it. The last person to touch it was Nina. There are very few people who walk the earth like Nina Simone. She’s up there with a group that’s just different from everyone else, which they’ve been able to channel. She’s just someone touched by the hand of God.

My life changed after this concert. I got married, my job changed, my life got better. I got sober. I got off booze and slap. I felt like my fortunes had changed. There were a lot of related things in that little piece of chewing gum. I find it amazing how we make sense of objects and experiences. For me, it’s spiritual.

This eraser could always sitting in that towel.

There were times when I never looked at the eraser. years. A decade or more barely watching it. But I knew that was there. Stories like this take time to happen, to develop. It is a metaphor for ideas. It’s like a song or a movie or a book. If you don’t get the idea, it’s an idea crime. You have to take it out into the world and see if it has life. The eraser represents that for me. For me, this is the essence of spirituality. And I knew to take it out of my case and bring it to [the master jeweler] Hannah Upritchard to London to make jewelry out of it, and then exhibiting the gum itself in the Danish Royal Library where Hans Christian Anderson’s manuscripts are kept, was the right thing to do.

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