EVERYBODY HAS THEIR celebrity stories: chance encounters with the very famous in which somebody regular sees somebody renowned, recasting the day with a patina of enchantment.
In the summer of 2017, my spouse and I were visiting friends in Japan when we spotted the Australian musician Warren Ellis — best known for his work with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, but also with the Dirty Three and Grinderman, not to mention as a composer of film scores — from afar on a quiet street in Kyoto. There he stood in the hot and muggy air, cicadas buzzing in the trees, with his wife and sons, his lanky frame and lengthy beard unmistakable, his shirt three buttons unbuttoned, looking like some kind of hypnotic shaman.
What a thrill to see a person whose work gives a little extra beauty and meaning to our lives casually inhabiting the same physical space! Visiting shrines, hanging out with his family, just being so normal — an elevated person down on the same ground. We didn’t try to approach, not wanting to bother him on his own vacation, nor did I sneak off with any of his discarded detritus, but I think of that distant encounter semi-often: a gold nugget we stored away whose shine brightens our brains when recollected.
So when the editor asked me to review this book, it felt like the moment I’d been waiting for without knowing I was waiting, the time to share this small story of an artist I don’t know but appreciate a lot. Here’s why:
In 1999, four years before her death at age 70, Eunice Kathleen Waymon — better known as Nina Simone — gave a performance at the Nick Cave–curated Meltdown Festival in London. After that show, Ellis snuck onto the stage and grabbed Simone’s blob of used gum from her Steinway. He bundled it in the towel she used to wipe her brow, wrapped that in a Tower Records bag, and proceeded to keep it with him for the next two decades. As befits a memento of an exalted performer called the High Priestess of Soul, Ellis imbued the discarded bit of formless material with a respect and a reverence that befits a holy relic.
In his completely charming and joyful memoir Nina Simone’s Gum, Ellis tells the story of his acquisition and stewardship of this magical keepsake, but also of vocation, understanding, interconnectedness, and the power of artistic communities to support and sustain their members and fans.
Nick Cave provides an introduction, written on the occasion of the installation of the gum in the Hallway of Gratitude, part of his Stranger Than Kindness exhibition at the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen, commemorating the moment when “the chief conservator places the little piece of grey gum on the plinth.” Thanks to Ellis’s willingness to share his revered item with the world, Simone’s gum provides an occasion for visitors to “marvel at the significance of this most ordinary and disposable of things,” as well as “how it 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.”
Ellis’s dedication for the book reads “For Our Teachers.” He spares no praise for the mentors who have encouraged him along his way, from his aspiring musician father in Ballarat, Australia, to a guy in Scotland named Charlie who helped him level up his violin busking game in Inverness in the late 1980s, cluing him into playing folk tunes to please pedestrians and giving him “one of the first real, communal experiences that I’d had playing music.”
Arguably the most important teacher he pays tribute to is Mick Geyer, the guy who introduced him both to the music of Nina Simone at a time when “you couldn’t just look up ‘Nina Simone live in ’69’ on YouTube” and to Nick Cave in person in 1994, a meeting that would change both musicians’ lives. Ellis’s description of Geyer and his influence testifies to the miracle of being in the presence of a natural educator, someone enthusiastic and inclusive who aims to inspire and succeeds:
People like Mick, the aficionados who had that immense kind of knowledge, who were generous enough to pass it on to you, were really invaluable to someone like me, because they seemingly spent their lifetimes reading books, watching films, listening to music. Observing. Refining. Drawing threads together. They had this incredible radar for greatness. Mick was that guy. […] Mick was a walking Wikipedia with soul.
Mick, he continues, “would make you step up to the plate in conversation, always playful and curious.” Ellis’s book gives a similar sensation — that you are in the company of a person with immense joie de vivre, combined with great intelligence and vitality, who wants to pass some of it on to you.
Ellis weaves what he learned from Nina Simone, her fearless music and defiant life, throughout the book as well, including recollections from other people who were present at the show at which he nabbed the gum, creating an informal oral history. Although by that late date Simone was unwell and in considerable physical and mental pain, Ellis documents the way she was buoyed by the audience’s “screams and adulation,” and how she began “tapping into the genius that had defined her all her life,” ultimately “[s]ummoning herself to her own rescue.”
Over the course of plumbing his fellow attendees’ impressions, Ellis contacted the photographer Bleddyn Butcher to see if he’d captured any images of the performance. Ellis includes seven of them, one after another, each powerful on its own but gaining in poignancy as they accumulate. Moving in their intensity, the photos show an indelible artist at the end of her career, but so too are they striking for their rarity. As Ellis notes, the entire experience of the show grows all the more wonderful when you consider that “its witnessing wasn’t a twenty-first-century phenomenon, loaded with iPhones and furious texting while the performance was taking place. From the stage Nina Simone would have only seen the people’s faces.”
Yet Nina Simone’s Gum is not merely an extended version of its title. From the eponymous gum, Ellis radiates backward and forward in time, including saturated detail from his imaginative childhood, charting the development of his superstitious nature and somewhat mystical way of looking at the world, which persists to this day. As he does so, he weaves in ardent anecdotes about artists he’s admired, including the Greek musician Arleta, the jazz composer Alice Coltrane, and the poet Emily Dickinson.
The latter comes up during a project he embarks on in advance of donating the original gum to the museum: having it cast in metal, the better to retain a permanent monument lest something befall the thing itself. He compares his urge to have that effort documented to Dickinson’s Herbarium of flowers and plants which she collected and preserved over the years.
So too is Ellis’s memoir a polyvocal pastiche or collage. Ellis interleaves letters, emails, text messages, and ephemera from his friends and collaborators. Particularly illuminating is a reminiscence by the London jeweler Hannah Upritchard about the time she spent working with Ellis to figure out how to cast the gum in metal without destroying it. “It was fun,” she writes, “meeting Warren for the first time and unexpectedly wandering into his history like this. He was eager and alive and his stories were full of humour and love and nostalgia.” Her words might apply equally to his writing.
Touching briefly on some of the expected tropes of the rock star genre, including the rigors of touring and the ravages of substance abuse, Ellis refreshingly refuses to dwell on any glorification of bad-boy anti-social behavior, instead favoring wholesome sincerity and unrestrained love, exploring the huge questions of “finding the right people to work with,” asking, “How does that happen? What draws us to people? Or them to us? This trust that is needed for collaborations to exist. This beautiful fragile moment each creation has to pass.”
The outcome of this eclectic approach is a glorious testament to “the metaphysical made physical” and to art as not a product, not as a solitarily made end result, but rather as a practice and a community, as well as an occasion — or a self-perpetuating series of occasions — for contact and connection among an array of thoughtful people.
At one point during the casting of the gum into a limited series of metal pendants, Ellis notes that he feels “overwhelmed by Hannah’s care.” By the time I finished reading, I felt as though I could say the same about him — the astonishing care he has for music, for the belief we place in other people and have placed upon us, for “[p]eople following their best intentions,” and for the way “[o]ur actions have repercussions whether immediate or years later.” I hope that someday, if I’m ever lucky enough to spot Ellis again out on the street somewhere, I’ll have the courage this time to say hi, hi and thanks.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, and the author, most recently, of the novels Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey. She lives in Chicago and teaches at DePaul.