Finding God in chewing gum

Why did Warren Ellis once grab Nina Simone’s crushed chewing gum from the top of a piano? He couldn’t explain it himself. But whatever. The faded treat is now the subject of a book, as well as one of the centerpieces of an exhibition. Conversation around the spiritual power of music with Nick Cave’s sidekick, who is giving the first of two shows this Saturday at Place des Arts in Montreal.

Posted April 2

Dominique Tardif

Dominique Tardif
The Press

1East July 1999, Warren Ellis, moved by a strange and unprecedented force, rushes on stage after the performance of Nina Simone at the Royal Festival Hall, the last English concert of the legend who died in 2003. He seizes without asking the permission of the briefcase in which the great lady had deposited her eraser, then stuffs her loot in a bag from the record store Tower Records.

The gum, the towel and the bag, slipped into his briefcase, accompanied him for several years on the road, like an amulet, before being placed at the heart of a small mausoleum set up in his home studio, alongside a bust of Beethoven and a sealed CD copy of the album Punishment metal machine music by Lou Reed.


Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds performing at the Osheaga festival in Montreal in 2014

It wasn’t until 2014, thanks to a discussion with his comrade Nick immortalized in the docufiction 20,000 days on Earththat admirers of Cave and his Bad Seeds learn of the existence of this preposterous relic. Today it is one of the objects composing Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibitionpresented in Montreal on April 8. Understand: poor chewing gum is now transported with the same care as a Rodin sculpture.

The old eraser also gives its title to an exciting book by Warren Ellis, Nina Simone’s erasersomewhere between autobiography, tribute to music icons (Alice Coltrane, Greek singer Arleta) and celebration of the power of the creative mind.


Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

“It was while writing the book that I realized that what it was talking about was why music has become a spiritual quest for me,” explained the exuberant and shaggy musician last week in an interview. 57-year-old Australian, revealed in the free rock trio Dirty Three, before joining the bad seeds of Nick Cave in 1994.

Ode to the imagination

Although he had just woken up from a nap in his hotel room in Boston, where the tour took him last week, the violinist spoke that morning with the sweet fervor of a proselyte. However, the man is not a new convert: music has been his religion since he found an accordion as a child in a dump in his hometown. “The first time I heard John Coltrane, I immediately thought it was the voice of God,” he says. On his side of the screen, the journalist, moved and a little incredulous, smiles. “I say this in all seriousness! »

I grew up going to church and being told that there is a god, but I never really knew what that meant. But early on the church instilled in me this thirst for something greater, which I later transferred to music and vibrations. That’s why I say my book is about how we can all create our own god. The world would seem so empty to me if I didn’t believe in something.

Warren Ellis

But this gum, let’s agree that it is only a gum, as millions of people chew it every day. With a smirk, proud of his shot, Warren Ellis recognizes the banality of this little pinkish thing.

“If you look at the eraser, yes, it’s just an eraser. It is for this reason that I say that my book is an ode to the imagination. This gum that we care for represents something that we cannot touch or see, but that we all try to protect, something that is inside of us all, of our imagination. If people are moved by gum, it’s because they’re moved by something that comes totally from within them. The eraser reminds us that ideas need love and care to take flight, but also that imagination can take us far, when we believe in it. »

Reborn on stage

A few days before our interview, Warren Ellis viewed, under the comforter of another hotel room, a video he had never seen before of Alice Coltrane in her Californian ashram. “And I found myself crying in my bed at a certain point, because I was deeply intoxicated by the music. »

The artist’s sense of wonder is therefore visibly intact. There seems to be no cynicism in him, he is told.

I think in life you have to be critical, but being cynical is the easiest thing. I’m obviously guilty of being so sometimes, but I try more and more to detach myself from it, because it’s not a place for sharing and change.

Warren Ellis

” If I tell you : “ Hey manyour hair looks fabulous today”, it will transport you for the day, then you will give this energy to someone else”, continues Warren Ellis.

On stage, during the shows of the current tour which will conclude at Place des Arts this weekend, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis dive with a few musicians and singers into the repertoire of the two most recent albums they have created: Phantomto songs darkened by the mourning of Cave’s son, Arthur, and Bad Seeds keyboardist, Conway Savage, as well as Carnagerecorded during the pandemic. Albums producing an implacable bewitchment, full of the nagging pain of loss and the acute awareness of our common loneliness.


Nick Cave and Warren Ellis at Metropolis, May 29, 2017

“I don’t think they’re heavy songs though. These are songs that lift me up. At the end of each of the shows, I don’t feel drained, I feel recharged, because the most emotionally dense songs are the easiest to get into. They require total commitment, like few other things in life. You can only be completely there. It is this commitment that makes the stage a sacred place. The scene has a transformative power. Every time I leave her, it’s like I’ve just been born again. »

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis will perform on April 2 and 3 at Place des Arts. Warren Ellis will be at a signing session at the Librairie Résonance on April 4. The exhibition stranger than kindness is presented at the Maison du Festival gallery from April 8 to August 7.

Nina Simone's eraser

Nina Simone’s eraser

Faber & Faber


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