Warren Ellis: Nina Simone’s Gum (Faber & Faber)
Without doubt, there are many fans out there primed and ready to gobble up a Warren Ellis memoir. As Nick Cave’s violin-wielding wingman in The Bad Seeds and a number of soundtrack projects, he is a shamanic figure with plenty a tale to tell from his days busking round Britain and fiddling up a storm in his band The Dirty Three. But he’s more interested in writing about a twenty-year-old piece of chewing gum.
Said chewing gum was once masticated by legendary jazz diva Nina Simone – to be specific, just before she began her performance at the Cave-curated 1999 Meltdown festival in London. The gum was then stuck on to her piano before she unleashed her remarkable musical voodoo. Instinctively, Ellis retrieved the gum at the end of the show, wrapped it in Simone’s hand towel and held on to it like some weird holy relic for two decades. Its elusive legend grew among Ellis’s coterie, until Cave suggested it should be part of his Stranger Than Kindness exhibition at the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen.
And thus, the legend became both prized exhibit and charming book of words and pictures – fortunately, Ellis overcame his aversion to memoir to provide the former. Otherwise, Nina Simone’s Gum would have been little more than a curious photo essay rather than a perceptively written commentary on Ellis’s almost superstitious attachment to his concert contraband, how we all confer value on our surroundings and Simone herself.
Ellis is an engaging writer, prone to delightful and insightful tangents. It’s not difficult to appreciate why the various craftsman and curators who played a role in the meticulous process of preparing the gum for exhibition felt so invested in the project – they wanted to do right by Ellis as much as Simone. And if he can make such a satisfying literary meal out of an old piece of gum, how much tastier would the story of his own life be?
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