Last year, Warren Ellis penned one of the finest music-related books of recent times with Nina Simone’s Gum. It joined the pantheon of great texts released in 2021 which also included a (former) Bad Seed in the form of Barry Adamson and his riveting memoir Up Above the City, Down Beneath the Stars. Both texts, above all, expressed the catharsis of creativity and the boon it can provide.
Among many other things, Ellis’ novel is a touching ode to Dr Simone – as she liked to be called – wherein he paints a picture of an artist who proved fiercely captivating—and this teeth-baring fierceness represented a battle hard-fought by the star. Throughout the many trials, tribulations and misuses of her career, Nina Simone learned the ways of a galvanised backbone.
The cantankerous characteristics of Dr Simone are perhaps best defined in a story that comes courtesy of the quasi-concert film 20,000 Days on Earth during which Nick Cave and Warren Ellis describe having booked Simone for a concert at a time when she was ill, ailing and as snappy as a crocodile card game.
The tale of the gum that weaves its mystic way through Ellis’ unravelling memoir belongs at the beginning of that wild night. Warren Ellis describes her performance as “one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.” To which Cave adds, “Do you remember before she started playing, she just removed her chewing and just stuck it straight on the piano.” It was that gum that Ellis soon wrapped in a sweat blotting towel, however, the night already forecasted great things even before she took to the stage.
Prior to taking to the spotlight, a runner went into Simone’s dressing room pre-gig. There she slumped, decrepit and cranky. The unfettered runner then asked her if everything was alright to which she fatefully growled: “I’d like some champagne, some cocaine and some sausages,” aka the holy CCS of debauchery. Off the rider scuttled with a wry smile explaining that he would do his best. Interestingly, in the rock ‘n’ roll world other people backstage probably exclaimed, ‘Where the hell are we going to find sausages!’
This insight into her devil-may-care feistiness is notable beyond the titillating rock ‘n’ roll titbit that it provides. After all, she did once also confess, in a paradoxically charming manner, that she once attempted to shoot a record executive (see the clip below). Her fierce side was not an affrontery as such, it was a mark of the hardships that she endured through life and in her performances, you get a sense of the cleansing catharsis too.
In fact, when James Baldwin feared that the civil rights movement was losing steam in 1971 and music was becoming more commercial, it was his friend Nina Simone who he celebrated as she continued to extol the virtues of liberty in her songs proving herself to be an evergreen supporter of progress. This defiant use of music as a unifier was something that was always part of her arsenal from an early age.
When Simone was merely 12 years old, she was billed to play a church revival. She resolutely refused to play, even at this tender age, after she was told that her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. This instilled in her a view of activism from the get-go. It is one that would prove vital throughout her life.
As Ellis instils throughout his novel: the inviolable sanctity of is art something well worth celebrating. As Nick Cave once ventured: “The great Nina Simone was a living grievance machine — her race, her gender, her misused talents (she wanted to be a classical pianist) — and this rage infused all her work, and is what makes it so multi-layered. Even her most beautiful love songs, which I count as some of the most incandescent works of art ever recorded, were marinated in a sense of resentment and contempt for the workings of the world.”