By gum! The most peculiar book I’ve ever read: It’s not a biography of fiery singer Nina Simone, but rather the story of a lump of chewing gum
Nina Simone’s Gum
Warren Ellis Faber £20
For centuries, pilgrims would journey across land and sea to cathedrals in which relics of saints – a bone, a rosary, an item of clothing – were on display. These days, the most venerated relics come not from saints, but from singers and musicians.
A large jar of Elvis Presley’s hair fetched $72,000 at auction, his Las Vegas jumpsuit and cape made $1,012,500 and his personal Bible, ‘complete with handwritten notes’, was sold for £59,000.
There is a market, too, for more macabre items. The LP cover signed five hours before his death by John Lennon for his assassin, Mark Chapman, raised $532,000 at auction; nine pill boxes prescribed to Elvis the day before he died raised $46,321; and a blood-stained medical drip supposedly removed from the arm of Michael Jackson on his death bed raised a comparatively modest $4,792.
On July 1, 1999, the great blues artiste Nina Simone (above) played a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. A sublime singer, she was also an extremely ferocious character
On a perkier but no less messy note, one of my favourite little museums, The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History in East London, includes a jar that is full of used condoms taken from a hotel room in which the Rolling Stones once stayed while touring.
All of which brings me to this week’s book, one of the most peculiar I have ever reviewed.
On July 1, 1999, the great blues artiste Nina Simone played a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. A sublime singer, she was also an extremely ferocious character: it was often said that the job of her bodyguard was to protect the public from her.
At the opening of a club in Casablanca that was called The Nina Simone Room in her honour, she started snapping at the audience. When a female fan called out that they loved her, and just wanted to hear her play, she began berating her.
The fan replied, ‘I don’t have to sit here and listen to this,’ and walked out. At this point, Nina Simone leapt up from her piano stool and chased her with a knife. Thankfully, her guitarist ran after Ms Simone, and held her back.
Her contract with the Royal Festival Hall in 1999, included the instructions: ‘Always refer to the Artist as Doctor Simone’ and ‘Dr Simone’s limousine must be no more than two years old’.
She also required ‘Six bottles of Cristal (champagne) for personal use’, and a special room to be freshly constructed by the side of the stage in which she could take shelter during her performance.
Thirty minutes before she went on, the sound engineer asked her if there was anything else she needed. She immediately demanded ‘some champagne, some cocaine and some sausages’.
What sort of sausages would she like? ‘I don’t care, just some goddamn sausages.’
Warren Ellis, Nick Cave’s bandmate and author of this bizarre book, remembers looking at her at the side of the stage while Cave was introducing her. ‘She was chewing gum, which I thought was the coolest thing ever… She was just standing there, chewing with this look of tired defiance on her face. There was no smile. She looked mean. Staring at nothing and everything. She looked angry.’
As she arrived on stage, she was still chewing gum. She raised a clenched fist in the air. ‘I had the feeling she loathed everyone. It was the most powerful thing I’ve ever seen, terrifying and awesome.’
Then she walked over to the piano, wiped her brow with a towel, took the chewing gum out of her mouth and pushed it on to the piano.
As its suitably blunt title makes clear, Ellis’s book is about that particular piece of chewing gum. When she left the stage after a concert that was, Cave recalled, ‘the greatest show of my life – of our lives’, Ellis made his way to her piano to see if the gum was still there.
‘Seated in the audience, I’d thought she had stuck it on the piano, in fact it was on her towel. I folded the towel over the chewing gum and I walked away with it.’ He then put the towel containing the gum into a yellow bag, and left the hall with it tucked under his arm.
The book is beautifully produced, with countless photographs of this little piece of chewed gum. In his introduction, Cave writes about how ‘this humble chewing gum’ could ‘transform, through an infusion of love and attention, into an object of devotion, consecrated by Warren’s unrestrained worship, not just of the great Nina Simone, but of the transcendent power of music itself’.
IT’S A FACT
Simone originally intended to be a classical musician and said of German composer JS Bach: ‘He made me dedicate my life to music’
Depending on your viewpoint, you will think this is either (a) a powerful statement of aesthetic and spiritual truth or (b) codswallop. Speaking for myself, as I read the book I kept swinging between these contradictory positions.
One moment, I would be smirking at the sheer absurdity of turning a disgusting old piece of gum into a sacred relic, and the next I would be wondering if he might be on to something.
After all, objects associated with both heroes and villains possess a strange, supernatural power over even the keenest of rationalists. Those who oppose statues of controversial figures are as gripped by their force as those who revere them.
And which of us is not moved by, say, an item of clothing – a hat, a shoe, a glove – that was once worn by a dead loved one?
It is the magnetic pull between these two opposing poles that lends this book its bizarre force. And the book grows progressively weirder and sillier and more beguiling as it goes along.
It emerges that Ellis, as well as being a fine musician, is such an inveterate collector of random objects that, in some other life, he might have featured on a Channel 4 show about crackpots with hoarding disorder.
Since the age of nine – and he is now aged 56 – he has been collecting little lead weights from car tyres. ‘It can ruin my day,’ he confesses, ‘Walking past one and not bending down.’
And it doesn’t stop there. Among much else, he has collected peacock feathers, yo-yos, statues of the Eiffel Tower, snow globes, cotton reels, Winnie the Pooh books, velvet cushions, Ugg boots and wooden coat hangers.
For two years, he kept Nina Simone’s gum in his Samsonite briefcase and took it on tour with him, all over the world, along with a wide variety of other objects including a brooch in the shape of bagpipes that his grandmother used to wear on her kilt, some sachets of Nescafe instant coffee, a broken silver chain, an eraser and ‘a photo of Andy Gibb someone gave me’.
But he never told anyone about Nina Simone’s gum. ‘I didn’t show it to anyone or mention it in conversation. I figured the fewer people who knew about it the better, and I also didn’t think anyone would be interested, to be honest.’
For the next ten years or so, he barely looked at it, though in 2013 he took a peek, and was pleased that ‘her tooth print was still visible. I was both surprised and relieved to see it was there.’
It was only when Cave texted him in 2019 to ask if he had anything suitable for an exhibition he was curating at the Royal Danish Library that he re-examined it. ‘The idea that it was still in her towel was something I had drawn strength from… My connection to a woman touched by the hand of God… I would derive much comfort imagining the gum silently sitting there in the towel in the bag, waiting for some sort of communion.’
From this point on, the book progresses from batty to battier to battiest. The gum is accepted for the exhibition and, armed with a scalpel and tweezers, an expert conservator extracts it from the towel.
‘Nina Simone’s fingers were the last to touch it. Her mouth and teeth and tongue. Her spirit existed in the space between the gum and the towel. That concert was in the gum.’ Well, yes and no.
Eventually, Ellis was spurred on to have exact copies of the gum turned into 20 silver ingots, some of them with silver hoops, so that they could be worn as pendants. The original piece of gum was exhibited in Copenhagen on a marble plinth, in a cabinet of bulletproof glass.
The Head of Exhibitions at the Royal Danish Library contributes a little essay to the book. ‘Having lived with the gum for more than eight months now,’ she writes, ‘I often find myself filled with awe.’
I suppose it’s crackers but, if so, it’s no more so than the Holy Shroud of Turin or, indeed, the last piece of gum chewed by Alex Ferguson as boss of Manchester United, which is said to have been sold for £390,000.