Monday, 17 October 2016

Gilli Smyth | The original Riot Grrrl


Gilli Smyth was a poet, performer and teacher, and the co-founder of avant-garde psychedelic assemble Gong (1968-69), with Daevid Allen, formerly of 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 at the 1968 student riots, which led to them having to flee the city, and the setting up of the Gong community: musicians, artists, poets, writers.

How bloody exciting: teacher life suddenly turns into not having to get up first thing in the morning, politics, passion, 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 the Melody Maker, a woman who received credibility due to her aggressive, heavy guitar playing. Really she couldn’t compete, for me, alongside other current bands of power, like Swans, the Young Gods, but I probably liked the album by nature that it was a woman artist, not just a front woman. (That week Transvision Vamp were the big feature, but the whole page images focused on vocalist Wendy James).

I knew full well that Allen had shouted “Just Do It!” long before punk and was cool, if whacky, but on listening to the Flying Teapot album I quickly grew impatient with his wizardly whisperings, not to mention the synthesizer sounded outdated to my post rave culture. 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 

Witch's Song - I Am Your Pussy, 1973, Gong

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 written word Nitrogen Dreams Of A Wild 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, such as Oz.

Gilli Smyth became my secret weapon and I would play her before stomping out on to the concrete streets, in my black DM’s with bright pink laces, baggy band tee shirt and striped tight 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 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 recognized in the pit of my stomach. Aside from this curiosity, there was also humour and playfulness, something that was still missing in most women’s music of the time. (Younger women artists were emerging into the ‘90s decade, and in the “I’m angry and that’s OK “ phase, but Gilli was already 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 at every subliminal notion of femininity there was, and stayed friends and lovers with the hip guys (like Harry Williamson, her partner after Allen, Robert Wyatt, Robert Calvert).  If only the boy's music could have kept up with her, in terms of  being timely and forward thinking. (See "Robot Woman", below.) Sometimes she took on the character Shakti Yoni, originally created for the Gong album, Caembert 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 e.g. 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…

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