Nina Simone’s Gum by Warren Ellis
My rating: five stars
Let’s get something out of the way up front.
Warren Ellis is a fuckin’ delight.
Like, a we’re pretty lucky to have him-level delight.
Nina Simone’s Gum is a rare thing: a shortish book that seems to be filled to the brim with delight. It’s about Ellis, but not really. It’s about chewing gum, but not really. It’s about a sense of the man as conveyed by a worshipful consideration of a legendary singer’s ephemera.
It is inexplicably, joyfully Warren.
For a few decades now, I’ve been a fan, catching Dirty Three shows whenever I’m able – they’re much less common now, but just as essential – and part of the joy of those gigs is the fact that a bunch of their runtime is spent listening to Ellis introduce tunes in a rambling manner that involves drugs, God, soap, Elliott Gould and being real fuckin’ bummed about death. It’s what you’d get if Gandalf was both a beatnik and a leprechaun.
Consequently, it’s not a surprise that the man’s written a book. He’s always had a loquacious streak, so this is the natural extension of that gabbiness.
It isn’t, however, a memoir. In the book, Ellis says he can’t think of anything more tedious. So instead, we get a story about a piece of discarded gum, which broadens out into a meditation on lucky charms, on the revivifying nature of enthusiasms; on the powers of transitory things, and of the incredible hold of music and friendship. There’s brief snatches of biography – the genesis of the author’s musical career (dump-found accordion!); a sequence involving otherworldly clowns; a journey through Europe that never really ends – but they’re there to provide a human context to the work’s titular gum.
Ah, the gum. Well, it’s Dr Nina Simone’s gum, as the title states. Simone left it atop a folded towel at the side of her piano during a gig in London in 1999 for the iteration of the Meltdown festival that Nick Cave was curating. It’s where Simone famously asked for “some champagne, some cocaine and some sausages” before the gig (and was served all three) and where one of the world’s greatest pictures was taken.
The gig was, according to those in attendance, transformative. Simone, towards the end of her life and in poor health, went from an apparently shaky start to a barnstorming, blinding finish. One of those gigs that passes into legend for those that were there.
At the gig’s end, Ellis mounted the stage, and souvenired the gum, placing it and its towel into a yellow-and-red Tower Records bag. This bag then – at least until September 11 introduced a world of baggage-searched hurt – toured the world with the musician, providing some skerrick of Simone’s power to his endeavours.
The book details the acquisition of the gum, its worshipful custody, but also its surrender. See, as part of a Cave-curated exhibition, Ellis offered the gum for display. And that’s really what this work is about: about letting go of things which bring you joy and strength. But not in a way which causes sadness. In a way which perhaps allows everyone to experience a little bit of the wonder which it brought the guy who had guarded it for two decades.
There’s plenty of photography in the book, detailing the ways in which the gum will be preserved and gifted to others. But there’s more than that going on.
Nick Cave’s introduction captures the talismanic nature of the titular gum: the way that it became a charm, an object of veneration for Ellis; a thing that brought good luck by dint of it just being there, a thing that’s imbued with a power that surpasses what it actually is. On one hand, it’s just a piece of gum, but on the other hand it’s the fuck-you power of a titan in her waning years, pulling out all the stops despite everything. It’s about true wonder, the sort that children have before they get too old – a love for the mysteries of the world, for things that seem useless to adults but which have a hidden power, invisible to anyone in double digits.
The book, at heart, is about the power of things, and of the way those things both effect the individual, and how they lead to bonds between people. Those charged with the gum’s care as it makes its way through the world are all affected, and it becomes a chewed baton, a sort of dental torch relay. There’s some kind of power connecting the players in the book, and it’s quite charming to see that Cave – ol’ man grump himself! – is just as taken with it as everyone else.
The gum is one of a few of Ellis’s focal items: there’s the music of Beethoven, particular models of briefcase, fancy shoes, carved clean days on a violin, and a polished stone gifted him by Arleta, the Greek singer whose work the Dirty Three still performs today. And while these items and enthusiasms come and go in physical terms, the reader is never left without the sense that these ephemeral things have lightning-bolt importance. Indeed, one of the key ideas of the book is about the way friendships are deepened by things – empty bottles, old VHS tapes, fading pictures, scraps of paper – that often are lost, but which exercise a power even in their absence.
(I’m probably not doing this justice. But there is something in here which touched me deeply, and I urge you to read it for yourself.)
I’m especially glad I read this as a physical book. Faber’s production really suits the text: it feels like a labour of love, and it’s a real joy – I mean that in the most natural, least cynical way I can describe – to be lost in its pages for a couple of hours.
Should you read this? Yes, you should. Should you donate to Ellis Park, the sanctuary for abused victims of animal smuggling that Warren helped create? Yes, you should. Both are delightful examples of humanity in what’s been a blasted couple of years, and we could all use a bit more of that kind of thing.
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