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A towering genius, a monumental concert, and an inspirational piece of chewing gum (used): Musician Warren Ellis on the little things that can mean so much

© Bertrand NOEL/SIPA/ShutterstockWarren Ellis in Cannes last year
Warren Ellis in Cannes last year

For some, according to Warren Ellis, it might be a family heirloom, a collection of spoons, say, or a boxful of matchbooks and memories.

We all have, the musician believes, little things that might mean the world to us and nothing at all to anyone else. He calls them totems. Holy relics.

Himself? Well, he has a second-hand German fiddle which smells of biscuits. A moving photograph of his friend and long-time musical partner Nick Cave and, now sadly lost, a book of Scotland’s famous reels and jigs. But, above all, there is Nina Simone’s chewing gum (used).

Nina Simone in 1978 (Pic: Everett/Shutterstock)

It will have meant nothing to the jazz and soul legend, a towering musical genius of the last century whose art and uncompromising attitude won respect and adulation.

But, after he retrieved it from her piano at the end of a “monumental” concert in London more than 20 years ago, it means everything to Ellis, and, over time, has become, oddly, inspiringly, one of his most important possessions, freighted with his own thoughts on love, friendship and creativity.

He kept the gum safe for more than a decade before displaying it on a plinth – complete with an alarm – at an exhibition in Copenhagen in 2019. It has since been cast in silver and gold and he’s even planning for a giant replica to be installed at a park in Sumatra. The gum has also provided the title and starting point for a memoir, published by Faber, charting his life and a maverick musical career.

A holy relic

For the violinist and multi-instrumentalist, who won critical acclaim with his band Dirty Three before partnering fellow Australian Cave, with and without his Bad Seeds, it is not just an old piece of chewing gum. Well, it is, but it has come to mean much, much more.

“I’ve sort of watched over this gum like a holy relic for 20 years and it’s been one of the most important spiritual totems in my life,” says Ellis, speaking on a break from the UK tour he’s currently on with Cave, which arrives in Glasgow tomorrow.

“I was approached about doing a memoir but had no interest in writing one because there’s way more interesting lives than mine that deserve to be read, and I had no interest in writing about myself.

“For me it was initially a photo book but much against my better judgment I ended up writing a kind of fragmentary memoir about why I care about this chewing gum.

“The broader story is that most people have something like this, whether it’s a spoon collection sitting on their shelf or a pile of matchboxes from their grandmother. I just have a feeling that we all have these little places that we can go to and withdraw and feel safe. The chewing gum is the story of mine. It’s my story.”

© Supplied by Charlie Gray
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (Pic: Charlie Gray)

The memoir picks out other moments from Ellis’s life growing up in Ballarat in Australia in the 1960s, from conjuring up imaginary clowns frolicking in his back garden, to his father buying him the violin which he played to destruction as the fiddling, bearded dervish in Dirty Three then Cave’s acclaimed Bad Seeds.

It also describes the moment on an Inverness street when Ellis’ life changed thanks to an expert heckler and a copy of Scottish And Irish Folk Tunes, Book 4.

The grey book landed with a thump in his violin case as he was busking in the Highlands, when travelling around Europe as a young man, playing discordant, dissonant fiddle. The man who threw the book then gave a frank, unenthusiastic critique of the young Australian’s avant-garde stylings.

The book was a collection of traditional Scottish reels and the brusque stranger believed the violinist would benefit from some study of The Dashing White Sergeant and The Muckin’ o’ Geordie’s Byre.

“It was one of those moments when something someone says can have a profound effect on you,” says Ellis.

“All my life people have pointed out things to me and said, ‘Hey that’s good’ or ‘This doesn’t seem quite right, but that’s great’.

“If I hadn’t met that guy I have no idea where I’d have been in my life. If I hadn’t met Nick my life would, of course, be very different.

“These collaborative things, these confluence of streams, have been integral to developing me as a person and realising my better self.

“That incident where this guy threw a book; he could see that I wasn’t going anywhere with what I was doing. I was on a personal quest, and he said, ‘Try this’. And I listened to him.”

A book similar to Ellis’s lost Scottish & Irish Folk Tunes

Ellis, whose Old Testament beard, electrifying, energised performances on stage and musical talent has secured an enduring reputation and popularity, went on to spend a few weeks in the man’s company, learning traditional Strathspey jigs and Irish folk music over whisky and sardine curries.

Nina Simone’s Gum is dedicated to teachers and Ellis, now 56, cites the man who taught him crowd-pleasing Scottish folk as one. Cave is another.

Of the few memories from his own career in music in the memoir is a photo taken in 2017 of Cave performing at a sound check in Melbourne with the Bad Seeds, for the first time following the sudden death of his teenage son, Arthur, in 2015.

“I didn’t want to include any band pictures,” adds Ellis. “That one is in there because it was a moment that seemed so spiritual, that scene. We didn’t really know what was going to happen with Nick.

“He could have just quite as easily said he couldn’t do it any more and I’d have totally understood that.

“But it was watching him, his form that I know, come to his rescue that I found so moving.

“I just stopped playing and stood there and looked at him. I was overtaken by a sense of relief for him.

“I could see something coming back. It reminded me of the Nina Simone concert where she was at first so clearly unable to do anything, when something took over.”

Lockdown in Paris

When he’s not on tour Ellis lives with wife Delphine in Paris, where he tends to his garden; it’s an idyllic existence quite unlike the 1990s when he was submerged in drugs and alcohol.

He’s been sober for 22 years now, which he admits became a struggle during lockdown in Paris.

“I was sitting in my flat one evening and I had suddenly, 21 years later, this overwhelming urge to either go to a bar, score some drugs or buy a packet of cigarettes and I just could not do a thing about it,” he says.

“That urge has never been so out of control, I would have sat in a bar or scored.

“Instead I was standing in the rain having a smoke and, sure enough, six months later I was still smoking cigarettes.

“That thing is always there, you just have to do your darnedest to head it off at the pass and circle the wagons. I have a 21 and 19-year-old, I never wanted my kids to see how I was.

“And I know I’ll go back to it as hard as I left it. I just don’t want to test the waters.”

Warren Ellis (Pic: Caroline Blumberg / Shutterstock)

The cigarettes have been stubbed out and replaced by nicotine replacement therapy. Not chewing gum but lozenges.

As for his treasured relics, there’s one that’s lost to time.

“I don’t have the book of jigs and reels any more!” adds Ellis. “That was in a box with my attempts to write poetry in a box under the bed. My girlfriend at the time threw everything in the bin.

“She did the world a great service and tossed my poetry in the bin, but sadly the book of Strathspeys was in there too.”

From the book

It is July 1, 1999, and Nina Simone, for many the greatest jazz and soul artist of the 20th Century, is about to perform at the Meltdown Festival in London, despite concerns over her health.

Here, in an extract from his book – Nina Simone’s Gum, published by Faber – Warren Ellis, sitting five rows from the front, describes her arrival on stage.

She was staring everybody down. I had the feeling she loathed everyone. It was the most powerful thing I’ve ever seen, terrifying and awesome. And then she walked over to the piano, sat down with great difficulty and wiped her brow with a towel that was positioned on top of the piano. She placed the towel on the left side of the piano, next to the bass keys, put her fingers to her lips, took her chewing gum out of her mouth and pushed it on the piano. I clocked that straight away.

She raised her fists and started playing. Hammering the piano. I can’t remember what the first song was. Maybe Black Is The Colour. Only her and the piano. The band watching on…

At the end of the song she got up and walked to the front of the stage again and put her fist up in the air, and gave this ‘yeah!’. And there was some sort of semblance of a softening in her face. Something shifted. She went back to the piano and sat down.

She launched into the second song and the most incredible transformation took place. Her voice lifted and she seemed reborn. She pounded the keys and her voice railed in defiance against her body.

You could see her acknowledging the audience’s screams and adulation. You could see her absorb it, fuelled by it, tapping into the genius that had defined her all her life. A total transformation and transcendence beyond the physical kind of problems she was having; shed of her physical problems, some inner force taking over. Summoning herself to her own rescue. Dr Nina Simone…

The lights came up and the room seemed suddenly normal. People were in shock. Faces wet with tears, not knowing where to look or how to speak. We had witnessed something monumental, a miracle. This communion that had taken place, between her and us. This concert that would inform our lives for ever; to have been in her presence. To watch her transformation was a religious experience. Spiritual.

I left my seat as people left the room, and made my way to the stage…