Nina Simone’s Chewing Gum Odyssey

This is the story of Nina Simone’s chewing gum, stolen after a concert of the star by Warren Ellis, accomplice-musician of Nick Cave, remained 20 years in a towel, then exhibited in Denmark and today in a safe -strong in Montreal.

“For me it wasn’t a fetish act, I don’t even know why I took it, but very quickly it became very important to me, like a totem, touched by her, I kept it for 20 years, just for me,” says Warren Ellis. It was in 1999, at a festival in London organized by Australian musician and artist Nick Cave, with Nina Simone headlining. Ellis writes in his book “Le chewing-gum de Nina Simone” (La Table Ronde editions) that he went on stage as soon as the diva left to retrieve this “coolest thing there is”. This chewing gum stuck in the towel with which Nina Simone had mopped her forehead, left on her piano.

“I never felt I owned the chewing gum, the idea that it was in the towel was more important than seeing it, like something spiritual”, continues the multi-instrumentalist, faithful to Nick Cave, whom whether on stage, on records, or for film soundtracks like that ofBlonde hair by Andrew Dominik, inspired by the life of Marilyn Monroe.

In 2019, Cave asks his old accomplice if he has an object related to music for an exhibition in Copenhagen. “You worry me,” he replies by text message when Ellis tells him that he still has the famous chewing gum rolled up in the singer’s towel. Cave then remembers the “possessed air” of Ellis, as he writes in the preface, rushing towards the piano of Nina Simone. The idea that this relic is exhibited in a showcase, under surveillance, thrills the two men.

It’s the start of another journey. The chewing gum will be peeled off its napkin by Hannah Upritchard, a New Zealand jewelry designer based in London. She will make molds of them to leave a trace if something bad happens to the original. While Nina Simone’s chewing gum is exhibited in Denmark, another designer, the Belgian Ann Demeulemeester, an acquaintance of Ellis, will make a pendant from the casts. Ellis is always proud to show around his neck his pendant, a silver replica of the original candy.

By writing the odyssey of this chewing gum like no other, Ellis finally told himself. What is a destiny? At a landfill in the suburbs of Ballarat, Australia, where Ellis hung around as a child. One day, among the rubbish, Ellis discovers an accordion there. It will be his first instrument, before the violin. One of his brothers will find a lawn mower engine there and will become a mechanic.

As he writes his book, Ellis understands why he kept this chewing gum at home for so long. This Nina Simone concert and this object coincide with a salutary change of life.

“In the 1990s, I had problems with alcohol, drugs, I was shy, I didn’t like being on stage so when I was stoned it was easier”, he recalls in a perfect French (he lives in the Paris region when he is not on a plane to London, Los Angeles or Sydney).

“But towards the end of the 1990s, I saw that it was working against me: it was becoming impossible to work with me. The music directed me and protected me, I had to stop (the addictions), it was simple as black and white”.

Today, he dreams of finding “a place where the public can see ‘chewing-gum’ all the time”, like ‘the Mona Lisa at the Louvre’.

One day it will be necessary to list these objects recovered by artists from their idols. In the course of an interview, the singer Stephan Eicher confides that he kept a piece of joint that the actor and director Dennis Hopper had handed him during a dinner.


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Nina Simone’s Chewing Gum Odyssey