In a celebration of imagination, collaboration and the human heart, the metaphysical is made tangible.
“Time is a dictator, as we know it,” Nina Simone (February 21, 1933–April 21, 2003) observed in her soulful 1969 meditation on time. “Where does it go? It does what? Most of all, is it alive?”
If time is the substance we are made of, as Borges so memorably wrote the year the teenage Eunice Waymon began studying to become “the world’s first great black classical pianist” before she made herself into Nina Simone, then there is something singularly haunting and mysterious about the fragments of substance we leave behind after time unmakes us. Their ghostly materiality might be our only real form of time travel, our only undeluded form of immortality — the ultimate evidence that time is, in the deepest sense, alive.
I remember feeling this eerie enchantment one early-autumn afternoon as I climbed the narrow wooden stairs to Emily Dickinson’s bedroom — which was also her writing room — during my long immersion in her life while writing Figuring. My fingertips ran across the soft mahogany on the small sleigh bed she loved and slept in. I ran them over her miniature cherrywood writing desk — those seventeen square inches, on which she conjured up cosmoses of truth in hundreds of poems volcanic with beauty.
In another season, in another city, I felt the eerie enchantment again as I beheld the small round lock of her auburn hair through the museum glass and the epochs between us — the marvel of how it was possible to feel so much by the sheer proximity to a clump of unfeeling atoms that had outlived the temporary constellation of consciousness they once animated with humanity, with poetry, with feeling. A self-conscious, shimmering strangeness.
That eerie enchantment comes aglow in Nina Simone’s Gum: A Memoir of Things Lost and Found (public library() By an Australian composer and musician Warren Ellis — a strange and shimmering book, alive with the deepest questions of what makes us who we are and why we make the life-stuff we call art, using the chewing gum Ellis once pried from under Nina Simone’s piano as a lens on memory, mortality, and our search for meaning.
What emerges is something not fetishistic but belonging to the stream of time, which casts ashore the artifacts of the lives it inescapably washes away, just like it will wash away yours and mine and Ellis’s, like it washed away Nina Simone’s. This flotsam of objects — the stories they carry, the past selves they carry — becomes the only time travel available to us, mortal creatures made of dead stars in an entropy-governed universe whose fundamental laws aim the arrow of time at one destination only. These artifacts shimmer for us with meaning beyond their materiality, because somewhere in the core of our being, we recognize them as our only “bright star of resurrection.”
Ellis — who began playing the violin at age 7, fell under the instrument’s lifelong spell after learning the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and continued playing the same violin for twenty-one years, through elementary school and college, through busking in the streets of Europe and playing with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — had long worshipped Nina Simone, “the divine incarnate,” whose voice seemed to carry the same cosmos of emotion that bellowed from the violin’s reanimation of Beethoven. The thought of Ellis’ atoms ever coming within close proximity to his seemed almost as amazing as the idea that Beethoven would be there.
Then, on a sunny summer day, 1999, it happened.
His longtime friend and collaborator Nick Cave — himself an uncommonly soulful and penetrating thinker about loss, memory, and transcendence — was directing London’s Meltdown Festival, and Nina Simone was to perform. Nobody yet knew it — for such is the murderous cruelty of lasts shot by time’s error — but it would be her last show in London.
Cave relates the bizarre and nested events of that fateful night.
Nina Simone is a God to me and my friends. Nina Simone, the great Nina Simone. Nina Simone is a legend. Nina Simone, the troublemaker and risk-taker that taught us everything about the nature artistic disobedience. I was tapped on my shoulder by someone who said Nina Simone would like to visit me in her dressing room.
Cave had been summoned to her aid. Sitting there in her billowing white gown and Cleopatraesque metallic gold eye makeup, “imperious and belligerent, in a wheelchair, drinking champagne,” with “several attractive, worried men” lined against the wall, she looked at him “with open disdain” and declared that she wanted him to introduce her — as “Doctor Nina Simone.” (She had received her first honorary degrees in the 1970s at Amherst College, a block from Emily Dickinson’s bedroom, just as Ellis was beginning his life in music.)
Cave issued an overeager “OK!” (In my mind, he curtsied.) And so, after his introduction, the show — which would end in “mutual rapture”: the audience in a state of grateful transcendence, Doctor Nina Simone “restored, awakened, transfigured” — began with intense emotional discord.
Sitting five rows from the stage — “awestruck and glowing as if from a dream,” in his friend’s recollection — Ellis watched Nina Simone sit down at the Steinway, looking malcontented and angry and in pain, staring unsmiling at her fans while smoking her cigarette, smoking her cigarette while chewing her gum, “chewing with this look of tired defiance on her face.”
Ellis found something about it to be absolutely incredible. It strikes me — the gum, the poetic incongruence of it — as tangible, chewable evidence of Whitman’s eternal insight that we contain multitudes, perhaps all the more multifarious in proportion to a person’s genius, which is always the product of greater interior complexity. Ellis relates what transpired next.
The crowd got to its feet when “Dr Nina Simone” came from Nick’s mouth and she moved onto the stage slowly. Ecstatic people were screaming and clapping. It was the first time I felt such energy in a room. Unimaginable that we could feel her presence. Those moments you don’t believe are real. You will know that your life will be different after you have experienced it.
With great difficulty she walked to the front of the stage and she just put her clenched fist up in the air and just went, “Yeah!” Just like that. And I think there was this kind of reply, like a “yeah!” back, back to her. As I tried to respond, I don’t remember what came out my mouth. And then she did it again: “Yeah.” The sound of two thousand people gulping and their breath being sucked out of them.
There is no romanticizing the fact that this person of staggering genius self-medicated her longtime depression with substances, the abuse of which had caught up to her in a grim way by those final years of her life — a life of greatness staggered short by those very crutches for suffering. She demanded that she be allowed to backstage with drugs like cocaine and Champaigne. Yet, there she was: awestruck in her genius and unsaved by it, chewing her gum. Ellis writes with an empathetic poetry that reflects his view of the world.
It was in the mid-60s that she became really sad. Someone told her, “You know, you’re carrying the weight of everybody on your shoulders. It’s normal that you should crack up.” That we were about to see her perform in 1999 was a miracle.
Nina Simone immediately took out the gum and placed it underneath the Steinway. Ellis, who was transformed from her previous triumphant walk, leapt on the gum as though in a trance and threw it off the piano. The strange find was placed in a bag bright yellow Towel Records and he returned to his hotel.
He began carrying it with him on tour, in the briefcase — that was the era — containing his “portable shrine,” alongside a 2B Staedtler pencil and a theosophical edition of Notes about the Bhagavad–GhitaAn anonymous poem, a ballpoint pen from Munich, a green one from his friend, and an address book from Japan. Maybe because of how one gains strength from an amulet he glanced at the gum in the hotel room. But he did not touch or remove it from the towel. Its existence remained largely a secret — partly the sanctity of the private talisman, partly his self-conscious sense that nobody else would care about Nina Simone’s chewed gum.
It was then that 9/11 occurred. Ellis was subject to constant bomb inspections because of his large beard and odd equipment. His strange and fragile relic was no longer safe in his Tower Records bag and towel, due to the chaos caused by sniffer dogs. It was safe to keep at home. He allowed it to live on top of his piano for some time, until it became too uncomfortable. It remained insecure so he placed it in a vase above his piano. He took apart the piano, and put it back behind the soundboard.
While on tour, he started to experience panic attacks about what would happen to his gum. Even though his wife was always watching, she knew precisely where and what the gum meant.
Ellis created a small studio in his home, with a shrine. He placed the Towel Records bags there along with black-and-white photos of Ellis’ children playing in the backyard and a bust Beethoven. Eventually, that too came to feel unsafe — he moved the gum to a wooden chest he had built in the attic and tucked it away along with his tax returns.
It remained there for many years, until Nick Cave asked his friend whether he still had the gum he had snatched from Nina Simone’s piano that strange and transcendent midsummer night in 1999.
Two decades later, with Nina Simone gone to canon and stardust, her gum appeared inside a velvet-lined, temperature-controlled wood-and-glass box on atop a marble pedestal at the Royal Danish Library, part of Stranger Than Kindness — Nick Cave’s Copenhagen exhibition turned book, exploring “the wild-eyed and compulsive superstructure” of creative influences beneath any artistic body of work, a subject he has contemplated with uncommon poetry of insight.
From afar, you can see the miniature pedestal rising in the warm-lit box like a votive at an alien temple altar.
Something shifted when others became aware of the gum’s existence. It occurred to me that there were many small secrets out there waiting for their discovery. Many people live in secret, with empty dreams and wonder.
Except the relic on the marble pedestal was not Nina Simone’s gum, at least not exactly, and the story of its notness made it all the more a relic:
After Cave asked about the gum, Ellis had gone into the attic, retrieved the yellow Tower Records bag, unfurled the towel, and looked at the gum for the first time in many years — there it was, unaltered by time or memory, with Nina Simone’s toothprint still exactly as he recalled it. He looks back.
From the idea of it still in my towel, I had gotten strength. The Henry Ford Museum, Michigan. Like Thomas Edison’s final breath contained in a sealed tube. As Edison lay dying, Henry Ford telephoned Edison’s son and asked if he could capture the great man’s last breath. Edison was about to slip the mortal coil, so he set up a stack of test tubes next to his bed. The imagination activated by nothing was unseeable and inaccessible. The imagination could not be engaged by nothing. Communal imagination. Nothing could ever be everything.
Everything that is moving us and everything we treasure with great emotion can at the bottom be considered our death shield. Ellis realized that once his own atoms constellate a living person no more, this nondescript piece of chewing gum wrapped in a rag inside a twenty-year-old plastic bag would end up in a garbage bin — unless others become aware of its origin and significance, forming a chainlink of custodians to ensure the survival of this relic with meaning far beyond its materiality.
It suddenly became a matter of duty to get the gum from his orbit and into proper stewardship. Recognizing that the polymers and resins laced with food-grade softeners were not equal to the task of historical preservation, Ellis decided to make a cast of it — an idea inspired by plaster-casts of hands he had seen in while wandering into Melbourne’s antiquarian fair looking for one of the fourteen surviving copies of William Blake’s America a Prophecy. (This is the superstructure for creative catalysts.
Nervous not to “let the gum down as custodian” if anything went awry in the casting process, Ellis set out to find a collaborator he could entrust with this improbable miniature mausoleum. The entire process becomes a meditation on the fundament of art, and how it is created. This aligns with my belief that finding those who can magnify your spirit is part of every aspect of life. He wrote:
Finding the best people to work for you. That’s the thing, isn’t it? What is the secret to this? How do people attract to you? What draws them to you? Collaborations can only exist if there is trust. It is this moment that each creation needs to be able to survive.
A Rube Goldberg machine of trusts follows, beginning with his younger brother’s childhood best friend — an artist from an old gold mining town in rural Australia that greets visitors with a replica of the largest gold nugget ever found there: a colossal 70-kilogram lump of precious metal forged billions of years ago in the core of some dying star as it collapsed into a black hole.
As a boy, Ellis had marveled at the nugget from his bike; as a grown man, his mind’s eye — that prism of memory and association — brought back the gold nugget as a magnified version of Nina Simone’s gum, giving him the idea of finding a jeweler to make the cast.
His childhood friend referred Ellis to the right person after much thought. Ellis reached Hannah Upritchard, an expat New Zealander, at her doorstep in London after he was drenched by a torrential downpour. She remembers him turning up in his wool trousers and waistcoat, “a custodian of something big” — something big she was about to extract from a twenty-year-old towel using needlepoint tweezers and a fine scalpel. Ellis was terrified by the details of this procedure on her toothprinted heart. The delicate item and its material science would require a master surgeon to safely cast it. This was his desperate trusting in someone completely unknown.
Already aware I looked foolish enough as it was, I could feel my ears pop and the sound become muffled, that sensation when you put your head underwater and your heartbeat becomes an industrial pump… I was sort of hovering over her as if she was handling a newborn baby. I was trying to look cool but totally uncool. Instantly, I felt drenched in sweat and took off the fourth button from my floral shirt. Three buttons are for the day, while four is for concerts. I really wasn’t helping the moment so I sat down on the wooden kitchen bench and watched her.
Frenzied with the knowledge that this stranger’s steady hands were the first to touch the gum since Nina Simone’s, Ellis felt an edge of sorrow that any touch might break the spell:
In the gap between gum and towel, her spirit was present. It was all in the gum. This transcendence. This transformation. This realization took some time for me to grasp.
She asked him to keep it but he refused and ran, abandoning his trust. She sent him a photo of the gum, which she had taken after he became uneasy. The photograph was placed in an empty, clearly labeled marmalade glass jar. “Don’t worry, Warren. I get it,” the message read.
It is also a part of how this seemingly silly project can be a miniaturized version of some of the most important truths about art, and the creative spirit. Ellis thinks:
Those three words, “I get it.” It’s that moment when other people give you the confidence to trust and let go. It’s okay to be vulnerable. It is often unspoken. This is telepathically understood. In the studio I’ve experienced this throughout my whole creative life, those moments when people reassured you with the confidence that allowed you to work to your greatest potential. Everyone getting it. To this day I haven’t touched the gum. I haven’t seen it physically since, except in the photo updates of its transformation. You can see the beauty in others carrying on this task.
The assurance was soon amplified by Upritchard’s conscientious craftsmanship and her devotion to rendering the perfect cast, both physically and symbolically. After considering the two possible approaches to casting — making a mould, or scanning the gum and having it 3D-printed — she felt the computerized option was “too impersonal and dismissive” to properly honor this strange and tender relic. Instead, she settled on “something cruder but also more honest and human.”
She warmed a small ball of pink Super Sculpy the size of a walnut and formed two small hemispheres with her fingers before gently pressing the 20-year-old gum between these hemispheres.
She used this mold to create the copy and cast silver.
Ellis sees poetry in the material feat.
The metaphysical made physical… The gum was the relic laid in the foundations of a monument being built through love and care, with Nina Simone as the goddess over all.
The photographs of the process reminded Ellis of Emily Dickinson’s herbarium, a facsimile of which he owns and cherishes. As do I. It has been transformed into an ensemble music-consecrated festival of poetry and science.
Once the initial cast was made and the spell unbroken, Ellis went on to collaborate with other artists, turning the gum into relics both private and public: a silver ring, a white gold ingot, and finally a sculpture the size of the human heart — the same size and shape as the human fist, the fist Nina Simone had raised that long-ago summer night hard with her sorrow and her power, chewing her gum.
Ellis again zooms out from the specifics to the universals, creating creative collaboration.
The best things in people came out of the gum, and that was what I realized. It’s always been other people who have brought that potential out of me. I’m the inverse of the gum somehow. It’s about connection. My inspirations and support have allowed me to push myself to the limit. Allowing ideas to fly. Allow me to fly. It’s the joy of being in a band. Music making with others. I was watching something unfold in a visual way, that I sensed often as an abstract or internalised concept… I could see a process happening in front of me that was familiar. A new idea is born. As a song or piece music. A group of people working together for the best possible song. The song is held aloft.
Something about this entire endeavor is making me think of The Golden Record — Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s poetic gesture to the cosmos, which traveled aboard the VoyagerThe great unknown awaits spacecraft. There were two main purposes to the Golden Record. The overt scientific one, which got the project its NASA greenlight, was an effort to compress, encode, and transmit information about our world to another — an aim both ambitious and naïve, for the probability of this human-made artifact reaching another life-form in the vast expanse of austere spacetime, intersected with the probability of that potential life-form having the tools and consciousness capable of deciphering the disc, approximates zero.
But The Golden Record had a second aim — a poetic purpose that remains, in history’s hindsight, its primary: In the middle of the Cold War, in the aftermath of two World Wars and the assassinations of Dr. King and JFK and Gandhi, here was something holding a mirror up to humanity, inviting us to reflect on who we are and what we stand for, reminding us of our capacity for beauty and transcendence encoded in millennia of music from across our indivisible Pale Blue Dot — that ultimate poetic truth of what makes us human. What Ellis makes of Nina Simone’s gum — cast in gold, imprinted with the spirit from which her music sprang, fisted with a century’s struggles and triumphs, heartened by the timeless human capacity for transcendence — makes of it a sort of Golden Record for our own time.
In the final pages of Nina Simone’s Gum, Ellis captures this deepest dimension of his improbable and lovely personal obsession turned collaborative celebration:
I am reminded of the beautiful truth that this story is all about people. They are compassionate. Their compassion is found within themselves, coming from the most pure of places. The imagination. The divine. The human heart. The human heart.
Giving = Being Loving
Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Consider donating if you feel this work makes your life easier. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.
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