Nina Simone’s Gum

Warren Ellis

 
Nina Simone's Gum
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Nina Simone’s Gum

Warren Ellis

‘Warren has turned this memento, snatched from his idol’s piano in a moment of rapture, into a genuine religious artefact.’ - Nick Cave


On Thursday 1 July, 1999, Dr Nina Simone gave a rare performance as part of Nick Cave’s Meltdown Festival. After the show, in a state of awe, Warren Ellis crept onto the stage, took Dr Simone’s piece of chewed gum from the piano, wrapped it in her stage towel and put it in a Tower Records bag. The gum remained with him for twenty years; a sacred totem, his creative muse, growing in significance with every passing year.

In 2019, Cave - his collaborator and great friend - asked Warren if there was anything he could contribute to display in his Stranger Than Kindness exhibition. Warren realised the time had come to release the gum. Together they agreed it should be housed in a glass case like a holy relic. Worrying the gum would be damaged or lost, Warren decided to first have it cast in silver and gold, sparking a chain of events that no one could have predicted, one that would take him back to his childhood and his relationship to found objects.

Nina Simone’s Gum is about how something so small can form beautiful connections between people. It is a story about the meaning we place on things, on experiences, and how they become imbued with spirituality. It is a celebration of artistic process, friendship, understanding and love.

Review

When I was a boy, my mother declared chewing gum to be a filthy habit. I dutifully took up smoking. Dr Nina Simone chose to do both, right up to the end. And why not. She was a god. Tempestuous and magnificent.

In 1999, Nick Cave curated the Meltdown festival in London. Simone was the headlining act. Among the witnesses that evening was Warren Ellis, who noticed Simone planting her expired chewie under the Steinway just before the concert began. At the set’s close, the wide-eyed and awe-struck disciple launched himself stage-ward and pocketed the gum.

In Nina Simone’s Gum, Ellis rationalises what might be dismissed as an impulsive act of mindless fanaticism through numerous anecdotes and what are effectively exhibition catalogues from his museum of discarded and forgotten things (Simone’s gum being the penultimate of such things). Over the course of Ellis’ recollections and anecdotes, this hardened glob of minty resin, seasoned with Simone’s spit and venom, and imbued with her irrepressible spirit, acquires talismanic properties for its caretaker, who could henceforth never disassociate its presence from the rising tide of his own creative achievements.

Ellis presents charming snapshots of his childhood in Ballarat and a potted travelogue of his bohemian adulthood, all in the interests of illustrating the magnitude of importance that such a tiny, banal, even vulgar thing can have for its beholder, by virtue of its association to a singular moment of spiritual transcendence. In Ellis’ writing, this item is forever both totemic and substantive, worthy of its place on marble plinth, spot lit and garlanded with velvet, shielded by bulletproof glass.


Roland Bisshop is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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