Nina Simone’s Gum By Warren Ellis, 208 pgs.

May 15, 2023

Warren Ellis has been Nick Cave’s primary musical collaborator for over two decades now. In 1999, Cave curated the Meltdown Festival in which the great Nina Simone delivered one of her final performances. Walking on stage, Dr. Simone took out the gum she was chewing and stuck it on the Steinway piano. Starting off a little shakily, the performance reached a powerful climax and Simone strode off to rapturous applause. Then Ellis pulled himself on to the stage, crawled to the piano, wrapped the gum in Simone’s stage towel, and stored them both in a plastic bag from Tower Records. This is the story of Ellis’s two-decades-long relationship with that gum-turned-religious-relic.

If you’ve read that description and I still have your interest, then this book is for you. It’s part memoir, as multi-instrumentalist Ellis talks about his musical journey, often carrying nothing with him but his battered violin and the Tower Record bag with its sacred totem inside. Ellis has led a rich and wonderful life, intersecting with a wide range of visual and musical artists over the years. The anecdotes peppering his narrative—from his supernatural connection to the ghost of Beethoven to his touching friendship with an obscure Greek punk singer—are all worth your time and attention. But this short book is really about the creative process. What is the purpose of art? Why do we make art? What the hell is art? Ellis’s reflections on these matters are absolutely stunning.

I should admit I listened to the audio book instead of reading the physical book. I understand the book is chock full of photographs, but I really wanted to hear Ellis provide the narration and it didn’t disappoint. I’ve since ordered the book from my local independent bookshop so I can access those images, but I don’t think they could enhance my love and appreciation of this book any further. It’s the idea of the gum, not so much the gum itself, which is so loaded with meaning and importance. I also haven’t read a single review anyone else has written about this book. I don’t care what they think. This book spoke directly to me in such a way that I feel like I should cherish it as a personal gift, perhaps put it inside its own Tower Record bag. Okay, maybe that is going too far. But obsession is clearly part of Ellis’ conversation here. After all, the impetus for the book is the gum’s inclusion in the Cave-curated Stranger Than Kindness museum exhibition originally created for the Royal Danish Library. If you have even the slightest understanding of why someone might obsess over Nina Simone’s gum then, like me, you might think Ellis’s book is a treasure itself. –Kevin Dunn (Faber & Faber)

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