nina simone's gum

my baby just cares for me

nina simone's gum

In 1999, Nina Simone was invited to perform as part of Nick Cave’s curation of the Meltdown Festival. Meltdown is one of those things I looked at from over here and couldn’t figure out the money or the time or it was a syndrome of having, you know, two weeks’ vacation into which you have to cram everything you have ever wanted to do; I didn’t go to Patti Smith’s, I didn’t go see the New York Dolls’ reunion (and therefore missed my one chance to see Arthur Kane).

I never got to see Nina Simone but I also to be honest didn’t try hard enough. She didn’t mean as much to me 20 years ago as she does now, when her humor and her artistry and her talent and the centuries of pain and joy in her voice connect with me in ways I don’t quite understand yet. I think about this a lot, the artists I didn’t go see because they were incredibly expensive or everyone told me not to go because they were a shadow of their former selves and it would be better to not see that. Now I know that that is untrue and I will tell you to go see anyone whose work is meaningful to you, because if you have enough of a relationship with someone’s art to want to see them live you are going to get what you need from the encounter while at the same time understanding and acknowledging what it is not. I would rather be angry I saw Aretha Franklin and she spent the entire time introducing the 25 piece orchestra accompanying her than never to have heard her voice in real time. I am capable of both thought processes.

NINA SIMONE’S GUM is a slim, brief volume written by Warren Ellis, who you may know from his work in the Dirty Three or as a member of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds (and overall collaborator). A review copy popped up and I got it because I love Warren Ellis’ general vibe as a mischievous and quasi-malevolent musical force -- I went to the Carnage tour when I was in the UK because I love how he and Nick work together, it’s that exquisite partnership that is emotional and creative and artistic and playful. It’s hilarious but it’s also absolutely brutal.

click for video!

I swear to god the RAH levitated or the world stopped spinning in this moment. It was immersive and gigantic and I was still sitting inside its energy bubble for the rest of the concert. When it was time for the encore break I left because I needed to walk through the streets of Kensington and breathe some cold air and think and also extract myself from the moment.

NINA SIMONE’S GUM is ostensibly about just that. In 1999 when she played at Meltdown she walked onstage, smoking and chewing gum, sat down on the piano bench, took her gum out of her mouth, and stuck it to the towel that was sitting on top. At the end of a performance that was one of her last, which was devastating in every possible way--she was physically fragile, her mind was not entirely present--but it was in front of an audience who were grateful to be there and with every fiber of their being were rooting for her, she walked offstage and Warren Ellis leapt onstage and grabbed the towel holding the gum. He put it into a yellow and red Tower Records plastic tote bag (a thing some of you of a certain age know well) and proceeded to keep it until today, where it resides (resided?) in the Nick Cave exhibition STRANGER THAN KINDNESS.

But that’s not the entirety of the book or the story about the gum. The gum became a totem, became a thing of power, became a treasure. Ellis chronicles his caretaking of the gum, how he held onto it when he did not have many possessions or a permanent place to house them. He shares how many people were enchanted by the existence of this relic, how he found someone to make a metal cast, how the metal cast was enlarged into a statue-like figure, how it was cast in platinum for Ellis to wear around his neck, how Anne Demeulemeester made it into jewelry. It’s also a sketch of his story and his life as an artist, which was unexpected but I was so glad to be able to know it.

There was only one piece of gum. Nina Simone is dead. He cannot acquire another one. It was amazing to learn of other humans who understood what this item meant as a memory and a tribute. As someone who has in the past collected souvenirs that someone who does not understand music the way I understand it may find…questionable, I relished reading about other adult humans treating this item with a respect that was holy. Nick Cave insisted it be placed within glass on a velvet pillow on top of a marble pillar and the curator of the exhibit worked with him and Ellis to ensure it was illuminated in a manner that suited the gravity of the item.

SIDEBAR: I had a beer can that Andy Gill of Gang of Four used as a slide onstage, a towel Mick Jones of the Clash tossed into the audience, and not that long ago I opened up a small bag I forgot i owned and found a handful of popsicle sticks and realized that the last time I used this bag was at Memorial Stadium in Seattle in 1998 when Pearl Jam played a benefit, it was hot, and they handed out free popsicles the first night (but did not do so the second night because most people hurled their popsicle sticks at the Wallflowers). This is what I can think of while I am writing this, I am sure a friend of mine will be texting me with the obvious things I have forgotten.

So as someone who gets why Warren Ellis wanted Nina Simone’s gum and is not above these kinds of relics I delighted in reading about artists who acted the same way I have or people I know have. Stars, they’re just like us. It’s not even that, though, it’s that their joy and their adulation is palpable through Ellis’ retelling and we get the chance to experience it with him and the other individuals who are part of the story. It is warmly engaging, friendly and inviting, and honestly far more fascinating than I anticipated.

be my baby [photo: Janet Macoska]
be my baby [photo: Janet Macoska]


As you may be aware, Ronnie Spector left the planet last week and I wrote a couple of pieces:

Everyone Wanted to be Like Ronnie Spector - for Vulture, I dove into some of her best performances

RONNIE SPECTOR, WE WILL ADORE YOU 'TIL ETERNITY - for Backstreets, I wrote about Ronnie’s brief time hanging out on E Street in the 70’s.

take care, brush your hair, wear a mask, get the vax!