The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Tome On The Range

The Things We Collect: An Extract From Nina Simone's Gum By Warren Ellis
The Quietus , September 2nd, 2021 08:55

In 1999 Warren Ellis watched Nina Simone play live at Meltdown. After the show ended he rushed on stage and carefully rescued her chewing gum in a towel from where she'd stuck it to her piano. His new book, sparked off by this incident, is about the alchemy that produces art, obsessiveness and memory

The things we collect are the things that are of significance to us first and foremost. Outside your orbit and people connected they have no significance. They’re specific things. These things that are precious to us are really just precious to us. For some reason I have a hard time throwing out shoes that have served me well. I had a cupboard full of worn shoes in the corridor, and eventually I started photographing each pair to allow myself to get rid of them. There’s a connection there. I can’t just let them go. Shoes I have used only for concerts, shoes that you can’t repair any more, shoes that have been repaired one too many times. I threw out the shoes. A few years later I lost the photos.

I was in a candy store in Los Angeles in 2008 and one of my sons had been told he could buy a certain amount of sweets. When he arrived his friends had full bags and he looked at his bag that was rather meagre and burst into tears. He threw it on the ground and walked out. And then he didn’t want the candy. I guess he understood it’s not always awesome doing the right thing. The injustice of it all. I can still see his face of total distress and heartbreak. I kept the bag with a couple of sweets in it. I placed it in a tin in the kitchen. Every time I saw it, it broke my heart, so I just kept it, for ten years, until it just melted into some sort of gelatine goop sitting there in the plastic candy bag. It became a running joke with me and my son. ‘You still have that candy?’ he would ask me. One day I looked and the bag was empty. Some ants ate it, I guess. I feel good when I see an ant in a puddle of tears in my house, still digesting the saddest little goop of candy on the planet.

I have this postcard that Dave McComb sent me in 1996 when he had his heart transplant. I played in a band with him in the early nineties.

He was the lead singer in The Triffids, and Martyn P. Casey, the bassist, would become the bassist in the Bad Seeds. Dave had asked me to join his band after seeing Dirty Three one night in 1991. I loved him. In 1992, the year the Adelaide bikers made beige amphetamine and left indie rockers’ ankles rattling in their boots, I arrived at his house for a first rehearsal. I’d been to a trash and treasure sale that morning in an abandoned drive-in and the car boot of my ’67 HR Holden was full of stuff:

– a wooden birdcage
– ornate ceramic vases
– a big sign saying YES
– some Ugg boots
– velvet cushions
– a box of snow globes
– painted pine cones
– a hundred wooden coat hangers tied together with pantyhose
– a box of wooden cotton reels
– fourteen oil paintings tied together with stockings

– a box of keys
– a collection of Winnie the Pooh books

‘Proof,’ Dave said, ‘the bikers had it right’.

The postcard has a big sticker of a red heart on the back of it. An ancient emoji from the last century. He wasn’t totally sure I was in London but sent some cassettes to Latimer Road. When Dave passed away, 2 February 1999, it made me rethink my game-plan. Change my life. I couldn’t face his funeral. I was totally fucked up on drugs and alcohol in Melbourne. I had been sleeping on my brother Murray’s couch for a week. Unable to move except to pass out from drinking. He looked at me one day and just said, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ I had no answer. This little guy who’s watched over me most of my adult life.

I got on a plane loaded, continued drinking on the plane, continued from the airport to my apartment in Paris, decided if I arrived alive in Paris then I’d get clean and sober up. I realised that my lifestyle was adversely affecting the music I was making. Without this decision I would have had a very different creative output from 1999 onwards. I woke in Paris and started day one. I understood I needed to do this for me, and no one else. The same year I saw that concert of Nina Simone, and became custodian of the gum and I got married. It was the year I weighed up what was important to me. Throughout my entire life music seems to have continually been taking care of me. Watching over me. The card of David McComb’s was in my Samsonite briefcase until 2001, then I transferred it to my suitcase when I retired the briefcase. I have had the postcard in every suitcase I’ve ever had that’s toured with me. I finally left it in an archive in the Melbourne Arts Centre in 2019 when they proposed taking care of my artefacts. It was the first thing I offered them to start my collection. I knew I’d lose it one of these days.

Nina Simone's Gum by Warren Ellis is out now on Faber