Nina Simone’s Gum: Warren Ellis (in conversation)

In 1999Nina Simone gave her final performance in London. It was at the Meltdown Festival, which that year was curated by Nick Cave.

In an introduction to a new book by his bandmate and collaborator Warren Ellis, Nina Simone’s Gum, Cave recalls being summoned backstage by the legendary singer, who demanded he introduce her as follows:

“I am DOCTOR Nina Simone!” she roared.

“OK,” Cave replied.

In front of an awestruck audience, Simone sat down at the Steinway. She took a piece of chewing gum from her mouth and stuck it on the piano. “She raised her arms above her head and, into the stunned silence, began what was to be the greatest show of my life – of our lives – savage and transcendent,” Cave writes.

At the end of the show, Ellis lurched towards the stage as though possessed. Reaching the Steinway, he peeled off Simone’s gum and tenderly wrapped it in a stage towel. This he kept with him for the next two decades, until it went on display at Cave’s Stranger Than Kindness exhibition at Copenhagen, Denmark in 2019.

And now the gum is the subject of a short, wryly funny book. It poses a number of questions: what meaning do we place on seemingly insignificant objects? Why do we imbue them with sometimes irrational sentiment? How can they forge unlikely connections between disparate people? More importantly, who the hell holds on to a stick of gum chewed by anyone, even pre-Covid times? Is Ellis just taking the piss?

Ellis will join me at Guardian Australia’s book club over Zoom next Thursday to tackle these questions and more – including some of yours.

Now based in Paris, Warren Ellis first came to notice as the fiddle-playing frontman of Dirty Three, the instrumental three-piece he formed in Melbourne in the early 1990s with Mick Turner and Jim White. They have released eight albums. Ellis is also a celebrated soundtrack composer (The Road, The Proposition and many more).

Nina Simone died on 21 April 2003. The last years of her life had been hard. Since picking the gum off her piano in 1999, Ellis had opened the towel occasionally, to check it was still there. “Her tooth print was still visible,” he writes. From 2005 to 2019, however, he only opened the towel once – in 2013 – until it was time to display it in Copenhagen.

Text messages passed between Ellis and Cave before the exhibition took place are printed early in the book:

CAVE: We could exhibit the gum

CAVE: In its own glass case

CAVE: On a fucking marble plinth!!

ELLIS: With lights and an alarm

CAVE: And a velvet rope

CAVE: And a guard

ELLIS: That puts me at ease.

Before then, every time Ellis opened that towel, he worried “some of Nina Simone’s spirit would vanish”. And that one day, when he was no longer around to protect it, this artefact from the mouth of one of the greatest singers of the 20th century would just end up tossed in a bin. Until he realised it might be an object of fascination for others, too.

Join us as we talk about the book, the gum, music, collecting, and the strange relationships we form with the found objects in our lives.

First published in the Guardian, 21 September 2021. 

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