“A strange one” – Nina Simone’s Gum by Warren Ellis

IMG_2022-9-16-111811It may be that a simple description of this book is enough for you to judge whether or not this book is for you. Warren Ellis (of The Dirty Three / Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds fame) saw Nina Simone perform her final UK show and, at the end, after she had left the stage, he half inched her chewing gum, which she’d left on a towel on the side of her piano. He kept the gum in the towel in a Tower Records bag for over 20 years, and he attributed at least part of his success in that intervening period to the gum. In 2019, Nick Cave asked Warren if he had anything that he could contribute to an exhibition he was working up. What we have here, then, is a book that is at once about the journey the gum took from the piano to the festival but also the story of Warren Ellis, in that self-same period, custodian of the gum.

“Our actions have repercussions whether immediate or years later. In our lifetime and beyond our years. Tiny depth charges set off miles below the surface of the sea. Watching the ripples form, then expand and vibrate, connecting continents. Actions waiting for an answer in the future. Ideas waiting for people to attach to. Waiting to be heard. To remind us. To connect us. To make us imagine. Dream. With the closure of ideas we make them infinite. A circle. A ring. Eternal.”

Now, it should be said (and in fact it is said, towards the end of the book) Ellis is not someone used to telling tales; he’s a musician for whom music does the talking. He drafted in a couple of people to bounce ideas off and share fragments with and push and challenge him as the project progressed. And, with Nina Simone’s Gum, it is the unusualness of the story that does a lot of the heavy lifting. If you compare the prose style, perhaps unfairly, to say Patti Smith in M Train, where she is eulogising her father’s desk, this is an altogether different kettle of fish.

Which isn’t to say Ellis is a bad writer, by any means, and rather to say that Nina Simone’s Gum is not a book with much in the way of stylistic flourishes; instead it’s the unvarnished honesty coupled with a yearning interest in trying to understand (or perhaps ‘grapple with’ is a better way of putting it) the creative process. You’re spending time in the company of Warren Ellis as he tries to make his peace with the enormity of the thing that has come into his possession. And not just Warren Ellis. We hear from Nick Cave. We hear from the artist who casts the gum in bronze and gold and silver. The museum curator who worries about whether the gum will crack in the sterilised museum space. Nina Simone’s gum casts its shadow wide, until it eventually grows to become a statue in its own right. (And if that all sounds like a David Keenan story, that’s how it struck us at times too.)

Any Cop?: A strange one and make no mistake, but enormously entertaining all the same.

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