Song of the Week – Warren Ellis’ Picks

I recently finished reading the book Nina Simone’s Gum, by Warren Ellis, a musician in the Dirty Three and collaborator with Nick Cave in the Bad Seeds and Grinderman.

The book synopsis reads:

I hadn’t opened the towel that contained her gum since 2013. The last person to touch it was Nina Simone, her saliva and fingerprints unsullied. The idea that it was still in her towel was something I had drawn strength from. I thought each time I opened it some of Nina Simone’s spirit would vanish. In many ways that thought was more important than the gum itself.

On Thursday 1 July, 1999, Dr Nina Simone gave a rare performance as part of Nick Cave’s Meltdown Festival. After the show, in a state of awe, Warren Ellis crept onto the stage, took Dr Simone’s piece of chewed gum from the piano, wrapped it in her stage towel and put it in a Tower Records bag. The gum remained with him for twenty years; a sacred totem, his creative muse, a conduit that would eventually take Ellis back to his childhood and his relationship with found objects, growing in significance with every passing year.

Nina Simone’s Gum is about how something so small can form beautiful connections between people. It is a story about the meaning we place on things, on experiences, and how they become imbued with spirituality. It is a celebration of artistic process, friendship, understanding and love.

I have to admit, when I started this book, I was very skeptical that a whole book could be interesting about a piece of chewed gum, even if it came from Nina Simone.  But in the hands of Ellis, it works.

Warren’s memoir weaves stories about his musical influences, his instruments, and his obsession with collecting artifacts into the main thread about Simone’s gum.

But the SotW is about music, so I’ll focus on that.  Although there are no recordings that survived the Meltdown Festival performance, it was contemporaneously reported in a review in The Guardian that she opened with “Black is the Colour (sic) (of My True Love’s Hair).”

This version is the lead track from Simone’s1959 live album, Nina Simone at Town Hall.  I wonder if it is a coincidence that it was still her opening song, 40 years later.

Ellis tells the story of being introduced to the Greek singer Arleta when a girlfriend gave him a cassette by her in 1988.  He writes:

“I stayed in Europe for ten months and I ended up hitchhiking across the continent with my violin, busking in the streets, or wherever, drenched in a song, ‘Mia Fora Thymamai’, sung by Arleta.”

“I loved the whole album but there was that one song called ‘Mia Fora Thymamai’, which stopped time.  I didn’t know what it was about, or anything about Arleta, but I thought it was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard, and it comforted me for 2 minutes, 31 seconds.”

This simple folk song was a huge influence on Ellis.  His band, the Dirty Three, recorded their version under the title “I Remember a Time When Once You Loved Me.”  There’s much more to the story of Ellis’ connection to Arleta and ‘Mia Fora Thymamai’ but I don’t want to be a spoiler.  Read the book.

In 1984, Ellis was looking for a violin instructor.  He was rejected by several teachers until he was accepted by Phil Harrington, who tried to help Ellis select music that fit his playing style.  Harrington introduced him to Beethoven.

“One day he [Harrington] brought in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and every time we rehearsed the second movement, it sent me catatonic.”

Ellis has opened my ears to some wonderful music that I would otherwise have never heard.  I hope you get pleasure from sharing that experience with me.

Enjoy… until next week.