CRAIG BROWN: By the eraser! The strangest book I have ever read


Nina Simone’s gum

Warren ellis Faber £ 20


For centuries, pilgrims traveled across land and sea to cathedrals in which the relics of the saints – a bone, a rosary, a garment – were displayed. The most revered relics today do not come from saints, but from singers and musicians.

A large pot of Elvis Presley’s hair sold for $ 72,000 at auction, his Las Vegas jumpsuit and cape fetched $ 1,012,500, and his personal Bible, “complete with handwritten notes,” sold for 59,000. £.

There is also a market for more ghoulish 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 organizers prescribed for Elvis the day before his death raised $ 46,321; and a bloodstained medical drip allegedly removed from Michael Jackson’s arm on his deathbed fetched a comparatively modest $ 4,792.

On July 1, 1999, the great blues artist Nina Simone (above) gave a concert at the Royal Festival Hall.  Sublime singer, she was also an extremely fierce character

On July 1, 1999, the great blues artist Nina Simone (above) gave a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. Sublime singer, she was also an extremely fierce character

On a more cheerful but no less messy note, one of my favorite little museums, the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History in East London, includes a jar full of used condoms from a hotel room. in which the Rolling Stones once stayed on tour.

This all brings me to this week’s book, one of the strangest I have ever seen.

On July 1, 1999, the great blues artist Nina Simone gave a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. A sublime singer, she was also an extremely fierce character: it was often said that her bodyguard’s job was to protect the public from her.

When a club opened in Casablanca called The Nina Simone Room in her honor, she began to attack the public. When a fan told her that she loved her and just wanted to hear her play, she started berating her.

The fan replied, “I don’t have to sit here and listen to this,” and walked out. At this point, Nina Simone jumped up from her piano stool and chased her with a knife. Fortunately, her guitarist ran after Ms. Simone and held her back.

His contract with the Royal Festival Hall in 1999 included the following instructions: “Always record the artist as Dr Simone” and “Dr Simone’s limousine must not be more than two years old”.

She also needed “Six Crystal bottles (champagne) for personal use” and a special room to build next to the stage in which she could shelter during her performance.

Thirty minutes before continuing, the sound engineer asked her if there was anything else she needed. She immediately asked for “champagne, cocaine and sausage”.

What sort of sausage would she like? “I don’t care, just a few fucking sausages. “

Warren Ellis, Nick Cave’s bandmate and author of this bizarre book, remembers looking at her to the side of the stage as Cave introduced her. “She was chewing gum, which I thought was the coolest thing ever… She was just standing there, chewing with that weary defiance on her face. There was no smile. She looked mean. Watch nothing and everything. She looked angry.

When she arrived on stage, she was still chewing gum. She raised a closed fist in the air. “I felt like she hated everyone. It was the most powerful thing I have ever seen, terrifying and awesome.

Then she walked over to the piano, wiped her forehead with a towel, pulled the gum out of her mouth, and pushed it onto the piano.

As its concise title makes clear, Ellis’ book deals with this particular piece of gum. When she left the stage after a concert that was, Cave recalls, “the greatest show of my life – our lives,” Ellis walked over to her piano to see if the gum was still there.

“Sitting in the audience, I thought she had stuck it on the piano, in fact it was on her napkin. I folded the napkin over the gum and walked away with it. He then put the napkin containing the chewing gum in a yellow bag and left the room with it under his arm.

The book is beautifully produced, with countless photographs of this little piece of chewing gum. In his introduction, Cave writes how “this humble chewing gum” could “be transformed, by an infusion of love and care, into an object of devotion, consecrated by the unbridled cult of Warren, not only of the great Nina. Simone, but from the transcendent power of music itself ”.


Simone originally wanted to be a classical musician and said of the German composer JS Bach: “He made me devote my life to music”

Depending on your perspective, you might think of it as either (a) a powerful aesthetic and spiritual statement of truth, or (b) a wake-up call. For my part, reading the book, I continued to oscillate between these contradictory positions.

At one point I would smile at the sheer absurdity of turning a disgusting old piece of chewing gum into a sacred relic, and the next I wondered if he could be on something.

After all, items associated with both heroes and villains possess a strange, supernatural power over even the most ardent of rationalists. Those who oppose the statues of controversial figures are as gripped by their strength as those who revere them.

And who among us is not moved by, say, an item of clothing – a hat, a shoe, a glove – that was once worn by a deceased loved one?

It is the magnetic attraction between these two opposite poles that gives this book its bizarre strength. And the book just gets stranger and sillier and more alluring as it goes along.

It turns out that Ellis, in addition to being an excellent musician, is such a die-hard collector of random items that in another life he could have appeared on a Channel 4 show about Weirdos With Hoarding Disorder. .

Since the age of nine – and now 56 – he has been collecting small lead weights from car tires. “It can ruin my day,” he admits. “Skip an hour and not bend over.” “

And it does not stop there. Among other things, he collected peacock feathers, yo-yos, Eiffel Tower statues, snow globes, cotton spools, Winnie the Pooh books, velvet cushions, Ugg boots and wooden hangers.

For two years, he kept Nina Simone’s chewing gum in his Samsonite case and took it on tour with him, all over the world, as well as a wide variety of other objects including a pin in the shape of a bagpipe. that her grandmother carried with her. kilt, a few bags of Nescafé instant coffee, a broken silver chain, an eraser and “a picture of Andy Gibb someone gave me.”

But he never told anyone about Nina Simone’s chewing gum. “I didn’t show it to anyone or mention it in the conversation. I figured the fewer people who knew about it the better, and I also thought no one would be interested, to be honest.

For the next ten years, he barely looked at it, although in 2013 he took a look and was happy that “his tooth print was still visible.” I was both surprised and relieved to see that he was there.

It wasn’t until Cave texted him in 2019 asking if he had anything suitable for an exhibit he was preparing at the Royal Danish Library that he re-examined it. “The idea that he was still in his briefcase was something I had drawn strength from… My connection with a woman touched by the hand of God… bag, waiting for some kind of fellowship.

From that 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 restorer extracts it from the towel.

“Nina Simone’s fingers were the last to touch him. His mouth, his teeth and his tongue. His mind existed in the space between the eraser and the napkin. This concert was in the gum. Well, yes and no.

Eventually, Ellis was inspired to have exact copies of the gum turned into 20 silver bars, some of them with silver hoops, so they could be worn as pendants. The original piece of gum was exhibited in Copenhagen on a marble plinth, in a bulletproof glass cabinet.

The director of exhibitions at the Royal Danish Library contributes a small essay to the book. “Having lived with chewing gum for over eight months now,” she writes, “I often find myself filled with admiration. “

Guess they’re crackers but, if so, it’s not more than the Shroud of Turin or, indeed, the last piece of gum that Alex Ferguson chewed on as Manchester United boss, which was reportedly sold for £ 390,000.

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