Gilli Smyth was an underrated lyrical luminary. Ngaire Ruth remembers the former Gong member and avant-garde psych icon
Reading music press obituaries for 83 year-old Gilli Smyth in the summer, I cried over a stranger for the first time in my life.
Gilli Smyth was a poet, performer and teacher, and the co-founder of avant-garde psychedelic ensemble Gong (1968-69), with Daevid Allen, formerly of the eclectic Soft Machine.
She met Allen in Paris where she was teaching at the Sorbonne. The pair, united by political motivations, performed a guerilla gig during the 1968 student riots, which led to them having to flee the city. Together, they set up of the Gong community: a collective of musicians, artists, poets and writers.
How bloody exciting: the routine of teacher life was suddenly upturned. She focused instead on politics, her passions, and music and word jams with hot guys and girls.
At the time my record collector boyfriend played me Gong in the 90s, I had just reviewed a Sylvia Juncosa album for music paper Melody Maker. Sylvia was a woman who garnered credibility as a result of her aggressive, heavy guitar playing.
Really, for me she couldn’t compete alongside other contemporary bands of power, like Swans, or The Young Gods, but I probably liked the album by virtue of the fact that it was a woman artist, not just a ‘frontwoman’. (That week Transvision Vamp were the main feature, but the whole page showcased images focused on vocalist Wendy James).
I knew full well that Allen had shouted “Just Do It!” long before punk, and that he was cool, if wacky. But on listening to Gong’s 1973 album Flying Teapot, I quickly grew impatient with his wizardly whisperings, not to mention the fact that the synthesizer sounded outdated to my post-rave culture ears. Then Gilli Smyth’s voice melted into the mix…
“Not often lonely/As you see/I’m a cat with a flat cap/Be careful or I might scratch you/Or turn into a witch and fly away on my broomstick,” she sang.
Mother Gong, they eventually called her; a title she used to release albums of her own after leaving the group (as Allen also did eventually), after 1974. In the absence of any mother of my own (since the day of my seventh birthday), I adopted her, in my head, as my elder woman role model.
By setting out to trace her first book of poetry Nitrogen Dreams Of A Wide Girl (1966), I discovered a fanzine and art sub culture that was pre punk, and this in turn gave me an insight into the history of the underground press, including Oz magazine.
Gilli Smyth became my secret weapon and I would play her before stomping out on to the concrete streets dressed in my black DMs with bright pink laces, baggy band tee and tight striped jeans, heading to the Bull & Gate, Falcon or Sausage Machine for some slacker grunge at a DIY venue.
Sometimes it was fucking weird growing up in the old-skool, male-dominated world of music, not least because women were described according to a typology, and I was expected to like anything created by a woman because I was a woman. I wanted a new sound and a new language that would challenge my creative writing and critical thinking skills. I wanted to avoid generic muso words, like ‘seminal’ and ‘undulating’.
When Gilli Smyth sang, sometimes it almost sounded like it was in a different tongue, but nonetheless it was one that I recognised right in the pit of my stomach. Aside from this to draw me in, there was also humour and playfulness, something that was still missing in most women’s music of the time. Younger women artists were emerging in the 90s, in the “I’m angry and that’s okay” phase, but Gilli had already moved on to sarcasm.
Her poetry was absurd, woven into the tapestry of a Gong mythology created by communal living and too much LSD, but in fact there was deep meaning and bite in her words and performance. Often she would play up to the generic ‘type’ – as witch, girlfriend, whore – with irony and flair.
She poked and prodded at every subliminal notion of femininity there was, and stayed friends with and made lovers of the hip guys (like Harry Williamson, her partner after Allen, Robert Wyatt, Robert Calvert). If only the boys’ music could have kept up with her, in terms of being relevant and forward thinking.
Sometimes, she took on the character Shakti Yoni, originally created for the Gong album, Camembert Electrique (1971). I was promised I would get stoned just by listening to it.
I still want to be Gilli Smyth when I grow up: to live a full, emotionally adventurous life, working in the creative arts, loving learning – and the human race – to a ripe old age. I’ve cried. I’ve pined. She is omnipresent in my thoughts, and I thought she’d never die.
“Yoni…Yoni… Where are you?/Yoni…/She flies out of the sky with a great swoosh of wings and a flapping of feathers swirling by/Dissolving dream destroyers who stamp like mice in jackboots on imaginative schemes/But dreams come through like lighted train windows in the night and the wind whirling in the trees/Reality thieves shout fear and doubt/O it’s a nightmare, nightmare… Sailing in the sky with Yoni on high… Yoni…”