I woke up this morning to the sad news that Gilli Smyth, founding member of Gong and space whisperer extraordinaire, had passed away last night. I had seen her countless times with Gong over the past twenty years after she’d rejoined the band, the last occasion in Paris in 2012 – when she and Daevid toured Europe with the line-up which, with the addition of Kavus Torabi, has since taken over the Gong banner – when it seemed obvious it would be her last tour with Gong.
While working on the book I exchanged e-mails with her and she replied at length to my questions on minute details of the Gong saga, evidently keen to set the record straight on facts and ideas that were of prime importance to her as an artist and person. One aspect we touched on that didn’t really find a space in the book was her history and early career prior to Gong, which even her book Politico-Historico-Spirito did not really address. So that was my first question, to which she replied :
My early professional history is quite brief. I did three degrees at London University, then went to France and met Daevid, more or less as I was just out of college. I had always done poetry and acting, and when in a couple of roles I brought the audience to a “pin drop”, I knew early on that was to be my destiny.
I told her I had read that while a student she had edited a university magazine that caused controversy to the point of articles being written about it in mainstream newspapers. I asked if she could elaborate on her early “artistic” and.or militant activities…
I was always intensely “political” and in fact was expelled from a Catholic convent at the age of twelve for refusing to say I was – as a woman – an original sinner and for questioning their beliefs. As editor of Kings News – college newspaper of Kings, London University – I did publish political/feminist stuff which in the early Sixties was “shocking”. There was still the hangover from Simone de Beauvoir being imprisioned for “perverting public morals” with her book The Second Sex. Two horrible tabloid neewspapers, Daily Mirror and the Daily Express, ran articles of the same kind on me, that the government should not waste money – I was on a grant – sending slags like me to college, assuming I was living a wild life, which I wasn’t. These newspapers were sold everywhere and it was one of the worst times in my life, seeing them sold on every newsagent and having no right of reply. People forget how tough it was for us then… The reaction of the dean of women students at college was to call me in for a talking to and suggest I cut my long hair off “because it gave people the wrong impression”. No concept that these were serious political ideas of women.
How, then, did she end up living in Paris, where she eventually met Daevid ?
In fact instead of the wild life, I was extricating myself from an unfortunate student marriage I made, and ran to Paris to avoid legal custody problems. The judge’s attitude at the time was that I must be unstable and immoral to want to leave a firm marriage with a guy with a good job. I hid in Paris with my baby, sometimes homeless, bought an old condemned boat from a gipsy, José, for $20, begged, etc., until I got a job at L’Institut Britannique, affiliated to the Sorbonne. A really contradictory time it was, but I learned to survive on hardly any money – very useful for a life with Gong ! Paris was a haven of tolerance compared to the uptight English, as the black musicians from the U.S. also found.
In the early days of Soft Machine (and later with Daevid’s Banana Moon band), she was only marginally involved and only made sporadic appearances. Where was she at in her own artistic life ?
I was “entourage” in so far as I was not a musical member of the Soft Machine band. It was a different style of music to what I was actually engaged in. So at that time I was mainly a writer. I produced a couple of books : Nightrogen Dreams, Outposts, Mind Book… Lots of single poems in magazines, newspaper articles etc. I did poetry performances, and two or three times with Soft Machine – Roundhouse, a boxing ring in East London, the name of which name I forget [Deptford], etc. I was going to do something with Soft Machine on the famous occasion at the Palais des Sports that turned into a riot [January 1971].
I was also curious to know more about her family background, having seen her described as a “Welsh poetess”.
My passports are English and Australian, but my family is in fact deeply Welsh… We are Morgans and the Morgan family goes way back to ancient times !
My sincere condolences to Gilli’s children, relatives and friends at this sad time. May they be comforted in the knowledge that she lived her life to the full and left an indelible mark on the lives of many who were touched by her art.