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A Woman, a Song, and a Couple of Dreamers Print-ready version

Eine frau, ein lied und ein pa ar traumer

by Arn Strohmeyer
August 2022
Original article: PDF

Translated by Allison "this is a collaboration between me, Chat GPT, and Google translate" Fernley.

Joni Mitchell didn't really know what she had lost among the hippies in the caves of Matala, Crete. Except maybe temporarily giving her heart to a rather wild guy. She immortalized her ambivalent feelings in a piece that became the anthem of that legendary place.

What an Entrance!

She is the “most significant and versatile singer-songwriter of the 20th century," raved Rolling Stone magazine about the now 79-year-old Joni Mitchell. The slender woman with long hair and a guitar, who is also a composer, poet, and painter, stands as an icon for an entire generation. Her music is influenced by many styles: pop, rock, classical, and jazz. She has collaborated with almost all the greats and has released over 20 albums. About herself, she wrote: "I am a painter who writes songs. My songs are very visual. The words create scenes - in cafes and bars, in dimly lit rooms, on moonlit shores, in kitchens, hospitals, and fairgrounds."

In cafes and bars, and on moonlit shores - perhaps she had Matala in mind. I have never personally met Joni Mitchell, but for both of us, this little place on the wild southern coast of Crete, with its caves where dropouts once lived, became a transformative experience. As a young student, I arrived in that hippie mecca in April 1967 with a rucksack full of dreams on my back, driven by a sense of adventure and curiosity, and I stayed in the caves for a few weeks. Afterward, I dutifully returned to bourgeois life, which means I went back to my studies.

In the spring of 1970, the 26-year-old Joni Mitchell spent two months in Matala and wrote one of her most beautiful songs, "Carey," in one of the caves in Crete. She had come to Matala with her friend Penelope. They moved into a small hut in a nearby poppy field, but they didn't stay there for long. Joni's stay took an unexpected turn due to a frightening event. As she made her way to the beach, a deafening bang resounded right behind her, and a man flew out of the open door of the “Delphini” tavern in a high arc. A gas bottle had exploded due to his careless handling of a lighter, but nothing had happened to the man apart from a few singed hairs. His name was Cary Raditz, an American who worked as a cook at the tavern. Joni Mitchell later exclaimed, "What an entrance! I had to meet this guy."

She described him as a "great character" who not only had "fiery red hair" but also a "fiery red personality." He always wore white clothing, an Indian turban on his head and always leaned on a Cretan shepherd's staff. Cary considered himself a gourmet chef and often had an appetite for "fiery red wine." He could be very bossy and authoritarian, a textbook macho. Yet Joni Mitchell fell head over heels in love with him.

The evening after the explosion, she went with Penelope to the "Mermaid Cafe," where the Matala hippie scene gathered. Cary encouraged her to drink a few glasses of raki, which didn't agree with her at all. At some point, she completely lost track of time. She woke up the next morning in Cary's cave, with no recollection of how she had managed to climb the steep ascent to the rock grotto. When she returned to her hut, Penelope was no longer there. Her friend had fallen in love with a Greek man that same night and left with him. Joni Mitchell, consequently, moved into Cary's cave, where he became her lover and protector.

Joni Mitchell later described daily life in the hippie enclave of Matala as very simple and prosaic: lying in the sun and bathing in the sea with cave neighbors from all over the world, going for walks, shopping, cooking, doing laundry, and in the evenings, gathering at the Mermaid to sit together with wine and Raki.

However, by 1970, Joni Mitchell had already released three albums and won a Grammy. She was no longer searching for a fulfilling endeavor and had no interest in excessive idleness. In her travel luggage, she carried a dulcimer (as she found a regular guitar too large and bulky for travel). In Cary's cave, she composed the famous song that only almost bears his name, because in artistic freedom, she added an extra "E" to it.

"Carey" is a mixture of the romantically idealized fascination that Matala and her infatuation evoked in her, and the disgust towards the discomforts of cave life: the nights on the hard, seaweed-covered rock floor, the hair tangled by seawater, the sticky beach tar on her feet, and the itchiness from perpetual flea bites. She missed "clean white linen" and her eau de cologne. In her songs Joni Mitchell often talks about her loneliness and her desire to overcome it through love. She once said about herself, "I can stay calm when playing poker, but I'm a fool when it comes to love." The love she sings about doesn’t usually last long, and the end is foreseeable. Even in "Carey," she engages in a dialogue with her lover and hints at the eventual ending; she wants to leave Matala and flirts with the idea of going to Rome and Amsterdam.

The song later appeared on Mitchell's Blue, an album that was hailed enthusiastically as one of the best in folk music and became her greatest success. It sold over ten million copies in the US alone. Mitchell and Raditz crossed paths again in Los Angeles at some point after Mitchell's further travels, but they had nothing more to say to each other.

Unlike Joni Mitchell, I have preserved memories of Matala as a much wilder and exhilarating experience in my, perhaps romanticized, recollection. My days there were a continuous, exuberant, psychedelic celebration. In the evenings, around the large bonfire on the beach, as we cooked fish soup (the fish gifted to us by fisherman Georgios, much to the dismay of his father), as the wine bottles and hash pipes made their rounds, and the guitars and singing began, a sense of community emerged like none I have experienced since. And after the nightly gathering around the fire, we all jumped naked into the sea with Dionysian cries. The hippie life in Matala had a motto: "Life is today, tomorrow never comes!" One of the cave dwellers had bought a bucket of paint and painted the slogan in giant letters on the quay wall. It still stands there today.

Matala was an El Dorado of counterculture in the late 1960s, a meeting point for "freaks and fortune seekers," as Joni Mitchell described it. It had a magical allure for free-spirited individuals from all over the world, which surely had to do with its magnificent nature. It lies between two mighty rock formations that descend towards the sea, one of which is traversed on the western side by a network of caves carved into the soft rock by ancient people. Throughout history, the grottoes have served various purposes: as dwellings, tombs, leprosy outposts, and storage sites. A beautifully untouched beach stretched between the two rock promontories and beyond it the infinitely vast Libyan Sea, so vast that one could imagine glimpsing Africa in the distance. Here, one could be very close to the earth, the sea, the sky, the sun, and the stars, feeling the rhythm of nature directly. Added to that was something even more significant: life in Matala was simple and inexpensive, with accommodation in the caves being rent-free.

It was a turbulent, if not to say crazy, time. The Americans were bombing an entire nation back to the Stone Age in Vietnam; the first humans landed on the moon; in Western societies, broad sections of the population were enjoying unprecedented prosperity after the hardships of war and post-war years – consumption was the new magic word. Only work, achievement, professional success, career, and possessions counted. In the United States, resistance began to form against a society where the sole determinant of social status was the amount of money earned.

Resistance came primarily from the hippie movement. The flower children, as they called themselves (because flowers are symbols of beauty, love, and peace), didn’t want to drop out or escape into nirvana but rather establish a creative, positive counter-world within established society. Their protest was directed against the uniformity, conformism, and narrow-mindedness of US society and its exclusively materialistic orientation, which stifled the mind and soul. They countered the American way of life with the ideal of a life where values such as mutual understanding, awareness of the meaningfulness of existence, and love should dominate. The epicenter of the movement was San Francisco, but places like Matala were ideal for realizing the hippie dreams of a better world.

The renowned US magazine Life sent a reporter specifically to Matala to interview the dropouts there. "I left America to seek my values," one person said, adding, "Fortunately, there is no television in the caves. I suffer from America; it is sick." The general sentiment was that it was better to escape from America and live in a cave than to subject oneself to the daily struggle of the rat race. Almost everyone saw life in the caves as a journey to find oneself.

Was Joni Mitchell a dropout or a hippie girl? Definitely not. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1971, she expressed her discomfort with Matala. "Everyone was a little crazy there, wanting to walk around almost naked and wearing loincloths as if they lived in the Stone Age” she said. Her biographer David Yaffe writes that she was "playing hippie" in the cave. This is an apt description. Despite her inner conflicts and vulnerability, she was too self-assured as an artist to align herself with a movement. While her songs and compositions were part of the counterculture, like many singer-songwriters and bands of her time, such as Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and many others, Joni Mitchell always remained an artistic free spirit. She did not conform to specific genres or worldviews.

In Matala, Joni Mitchell left her mark. "Carey" became a kind of anthem for the place, where a music festival is held in front of the caves every year. However, Joni Mitchell wouldn't recognize Matala today. After the hippies, tourists flocked to the area. A new infrastructure was created for them, including hotels, supermarkets, bars, and clubs. A fence was placed around the caves, and now they can only be visited for a fee. The hippies, however, laid the foundation for Matala's fame, and Joni Mitchell's stay there contributed significantly to its romanticization. And because myths are so fascinating and marketable, the Matala myth was expanded with a few more notes: Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Cat Stevens are also said to have lived in the caves by the sea and enjoyed their raki at the "Mermaid." However, there is no evidence to support these claims. Myths are often said to contain a kernel of truth, but in this case, a vivid imagination seems to have triumphed over the myth.

Author Arn Strohmeyer, born in 1942 in Berlin, has frequently explored Greece in his books and publications, which has become a second home to him through his numerous travels there. Today, he lives and works as a writer in Bremen.

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Added to Library on July 10, 2023. (1334)


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