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Joni Mitchell on the Muse Behind ‘Carey’ Print-ready version

by Marc Myers
Wall Street Journal
November 11, 2014

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Despite retiring from recording and performing in 2007 to focus on painting, Joni Mitchell remains a muse to many young singer-songwriters today seeking their own voice. In 19 studio albums released between 1968 and 2007, Ms. Mitchell's deeply personal lyrics, serpentine melodies and swooping alto voice won her eight Grammys and several generations of fans, particularly women who came of age in the 1970s.

Among Ms. Mitchell's most critically acclaimed albums is "Blue" (1971), which set new standards for emotional, autobiographical songwriting. One of the album's best-known songs is "Carey," which Ms. Mitchell includes on "Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting to Be Danced" - a newly remastered four-CD set of previously released material due out on Nov. 24. In an interview at her Los Angeles home, Ms. Mitchell, 71 years old, recalled the song's evolution. Edited from an interview:

Joni Mitchell: Everyone said I broke Graham Nash's heart when our relationship ended in late 1969. But that's not quite accurate. We both knew it was over, and it wasn't an ugly ending. Reasons for the break are complicated, but Graham and David Crosby were becoming inseparable, which was increasingly tough on me. In late January of 1970, David asked me to sail with him on his boat, the Mayan. But when I came aboard in Jamaica in early February, no one told me that Graham would be there. It was an awkward thing to do, to put us in that position. When we reached Panama, I left, flying to San Francisco to meet my friend Penelope and start a preplanned trip to Greece.

The truth is after Graham and I separated, I was really depressed. I believed in that relationship and suddenly it was over, so I had a hard time believing in my own word. I also lost most of my Los Angeles friends who had been my constant community. When I left him, they took his side. All of this was very painful.

In Greece, Penelope and I spent the first few days in Athens. I didn't think I looked like a hippie, but I definitely didn't look Greek. My fair hair made me stand out. During the day, I'd pile it up on my head. It was a conservative look, like a schoolteacher. Still, my hair seemed to offend people, mostly men, who called out with a big grin on their faces, "Sheepy, sheepy, Matala, Matala." I asked around about the phrase and was told it meant, "Hippie, hippie, go to Matala in Crete. That's where your kind are."

A few days later, Penelope and I were on a ferry to see what Matala was all about. We arrived in Heraklion on Crete's north coast and stayed in a hotel the first night. The next day, I rented a VW Bug and we drove 45 miles to Matala, a fishing village on the south coast. There weren't any homes in Matala, just two grocery stores, a bakery where the owner made fresh yogurt and bread, a general store with the only phone in town, two cafes and a few rental huts. Most of the hippies who had traveled there slept in small caves carved into the cliff on one side of the beach.

After we arrived, Penelope and I rented a cinder block hut in a nearby poppy field and walked down to the beach. As we stood staring out toward Turkey, an explosion went off behind us. I turned around just in time to see this guy with a red beard blowing through the door of a cafe. He was wearing a white turban, white Nehru shirt and white cotton pants. I said to Penelope, "What an entrance - I have to meet this guy." He wasn't hurt, but all the hair on his arms and legs had been singed from the blast. He was American and a cook at one of the cafes. Apparently, when he had lit the stove, it blew him out the door. That's how Cary [Raditz] entered my life - ka-boom.

The next night, Penelope and I went to the Mermaid Café for a drink with Cary. Several hippies were there along with some soldiers. Someone recommended this clear Turkish liquor called raki. I wasn't a big drinker, and after three glasses I woke up the next morning alone in Cary's cave. The stacked leather heels of my city boots had broken off, apparently from climbing a mountain the night before. I had no recollection of the climb. Later, when I returned to my hut, Penelope was gone. I was told she went off with one of the soldiers from the Mermaid the night before. That was the last I saw of her for many years.

With Penelope gone, I was alone - and vulnerable. You have to understand the fragile emotional state I was in. I was still in pain and had no one to talk to. Also, I had a bit of fame by then, and wherever I'd go, hippies would follow. I latched myself on to Cary because he was fierce and kept the crowd off my back. Soon I moved into one of the caves.

Originally, the Minoans had lived in the caves and then the Romans came and improved them by carving sleeping crypts and niches for statuary. But sleeping up there was tough. To soften the surface, beach pebbles were placed on the stone slab and covered with beach grass. I borrowed a scratchy afghan blanket and placed it on top. But there was no real comfort. When the waves were high and crashed on the beach, it shook the stone in the caves.

I enjoyed Cary's company and his audacity. He had steely cold blue eyes and a menacing grin, and he was a bit of a scoundrel. We were constantly in each other's company and spent our days talking, taking long walks, going swimming, cooking and doing the laundry. We just lived. One time we were in a park in Heraklion, where we sometimes went for the day. We were sitting on a bench when one of the tourist photographers came up to us and asked if we wanted our picture taken. He had a colorful box camera on a wooden tripod so we said, "Yes." The pictures developed in minutes.

I also had my dulcimer with me from the States. It was lighter and less bulky than a guitar, and I took it with me everywhere. I used it to write "Carey" over a period of weeks in different locations in and around Matala as a birthday present for Cary. When hippies didn't follow me on hikes, I'd find solitary places to write. My lyric, "Oh Carey get out your cane" referred to a cane Cary carried with him all the time. He was a bit of a scene-stealer, and the cane was a theatrical prop for him. Sometimes he'd twirl it or balance it on his nose. When I played the song for Cary on his birthday, I don't recall his reaction. He was always detached and sometimes even disrespectful - either trying to belittle me or make me feel afraid. I think at the time he felt greatly superior to women, which is why I refer to him in the lyrics as "a mean old Daddy." As for the extra "e" in his name in the song's title and lyric, that was a misspelling on my part.

In April, theater people in Matala cast hippies for a Greek production of "Hair." Weeks later, Cary and I traveled to Athens to see them in the musical. The lead actor was Greek and had shorter than Beatle-length hair parted on the side and a Frank Sinatra-style beige raincoat over his shoulder as he sang, "I'm a hairy guy." We cracked up. It was so funny.

Athens was a turning point for me. I had had enough of Matala and, as I wrote in the lyrics to "Carey," I missed "my clean white linen and fancy French cologne." My hair was matted from washing it in seawater for months, I had beach tar on my feet and I was flea-bitten - this was very rugged living. I also realized I was still heartbroken about my split with Graham.

Instead of returning to Crete with Cary, I flew to Paris. There, I wrote "California" and referenced Cary in the lyrics as "the red, red rogue who cooked good omelets and stews." "Carey" and "California" are really part of the same musical novella, so Cary is in two scenes.

Back in the States, I wrote additional songs, and in early '71 I went into A&M Studios in Hollywood to record "Blue." "Carey," like the rest of the album is pretty sparse, instrumentally, and we recorded it behind locked doors. If someone came in, I'd burst into tears. I was in great psychological pain while recording all of "Blue." It took several years for me to get over how I felt. On "Carey," I played the dulcimer and Stephen [Stills] played bass.

For me, recording songs like "Carey" about deeply personal experiences presented an artistic challenge. Songs I wrote were already a day, a week, a month or 10 years old when I went into the studio. To rekindle my emotions, I used sense memory - which is like method acting. It happens naturally with me and helps me recall my feelings - the joy, anxiety and vulnerability I felt when composing the song. I was emotionally wide open when recording "Blue" and incapable of guile.

I haven't spoken to Cary in years. We remained friends, he married and we lost contact. But every so often Matala comes back into my life. A couple of years ago, a friend sent me a newspaper article about Matala. It has been built up a bit, and there's an annual musical festival held there now. The article said that in Matala I'm more popular than Zeus. I thought that was funny, you know?

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Added to Library on November 11, 2014. (9093)


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