Warren Ellis on the performance that changed him: ‘The room transformed. I could see flames’

The Bad Seed and Dirty Three bandmember had a life-altering encounter with Nina Simone in 1999. At Guardian Australia’s monthly Zoom book club, he reflected on stealing her chewing gum – and its lingering significance

  • Nina Simone’s Gum by Warren Ellis is out in Australia on 11 October through Faber

Warren Ellis hates imagining himself on stage.

“The less I know about it the better,” the Dirty Three and Bad Seed bandmember confessed at Guardian Australia’s Zoom book club this Friday.

Ellis’s live performances may be legendary, but the musician tries not to think about it: “I don’t watch what I do. I always figure that it would make me self-aware and maybe anxious.

“I’ve seen photos. I have to watch footage sometimes for live films. But it’s a moment that doesn’t feel like it’s part of life,” he said. “It’s very similar to taking drugs – you get really addicted to it.”

Ellis was dialling in from London, where he is currently on tour with Nick Cave. “The act of playing with people in a band brings out something that nothing else in life does,” he said. “When you walk onto a stage, something changes.”

It’s electrifying to witness that transformation happen as an audience member too. It was someone else’s performance that became the catalysing incident of Ellis’s new book, Nina Simone’s Gum.

Warren Ellis at Cannes film festival 2021.
Warren Ellis at Cannes film festival 2021. Photograph: Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis/Getty Images

The year was 1999. The location London’s Meltdown festival, where Simone was performing her last show.

“You could feel this real sense in the audience that she probably wasn’t going to be able to perform,” Ellis told the hundreds of participants who logged on to the event. “The first song, she was really railing against everything that was working against her.”

But suddenly “something happened. The shift happened. The room transformed. I could see flames … we watched her rise above everything and just give one of [those] life-changing performances.”

In a warm and thoughtful discussion with Guardian Australia music writer Andrew Stafford, Ellis recounted how he chanced upon Simone’s chewing gum – nestled in a towel left on stage after the show – and its lingering significance on his life, his musicianship, and his relationships with other artists.

The gum “became a totem”, he said. “My entire creative output hinged on it. I kept moving it around – I carried it in my bag and my briefcase … I didn’t want to look at it, because I didn’t want her [Simone] to disappear.

“It was what you couldn’t see that was important.”

It wasn’t until the 2014 documentary 20,000 Days on Earth – which dramatises a day in the life of Nick Cave – that the tale of the gum was first made public. In one scene, Ellis and Cave reminisce on that fateful Nina Simone show. Suddenly “it took flight. You could see it … became an idea that people were getting underneath, and I was really moved by that.”

The gum ended up on display at Cave’s Stranger Than Kindness exhibition at Copenhagen, Denmark in 2019. It also brought him to the attention of Nina Simone’s daughter, Lisa.

“At some point in writing [the book], her daughter reached out to me,” said Ellis, who had planned an interview with her in London. “But then the pandemic happened.”

And if Simone’s family ever ask for the gum back? “If they ever come after me, maybe there’s book two.

“What I would like is for [the gum] to be in a place where anyone can see it who wants to see it. At the moment it’s in a safe at the Royal Danish Library … it feels, to me, important that it’s somewhere where people can see it.”

Warren Ellis
Warren Ellis: ‘It was what you couldn’t see that was important.’ Photograph: Roger Garfield/Alamy

Over the conversation Ellis also reflected on his past struggles, responding to an audience question about his addiction.

“Over 20 years now, I’ve been sober,” he said. “I did things: I did primal scream therapy … I did AA and NA and things like that. I just did whatever it takes.

“Even as recently as 12 months ago … I just found myself sitting there. I just knew I was going to break, and I went and bought a packet of cigarettes. I hadn’t smoked for 20 years – I had to release something.

“With drinking or drugs, I can see where it’ll go … I know I’m gonna jump back into it as voraciously as I was last century. I don’t want that. I know I would not have done creatively what I’ve done since that point.”

Ellis credited his career – and creative output – as much to personal transformation as the guidance of those around him. “I can get up on stage and spit and jump and do a high kick and make a racket … but I needed [other] people to bring out that potential in me.”

To that extent, Nina Simone’s Gum is dedicated simply “for our teachers”.

“Love and care is needed for ideas to take flight … we all have this stuff in us, and it’s who we come in contact with that brings out our better self.

“The gum, for me, embodies all that: the fact that I got it out into the world, for people to share in, and for people to get around.”

  • Nina Simone’s Gum by Warren Ellis is out in the UK through Faber, and is released in Australia on 11 October. Guardian Australia’s Book Club is held monthly on Zoom


Michael Sun

The GuardianTramp

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