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Travel

Exploring Joni Mitchell’s Greek cave-dwelling hippy commune

@TomTaylorFO

In 1970, Joni Mitchell was in need of a getaway. She watched her Rome burn culturally, and on a personal level, things were also falling apart. She needed some spiritual comforting. The azure blue waters of Greece can offer you that with such abundance and immediacy that if it was transposed into a painting a critic might point out that it lacks subtlety, such is the bounty of its beauty.

At the time, Mitchell felt stranded in an America on the slide. “There were so many sinking,” she told Michelle Mercer, “But I had to keep thinking I could make it through the waves. You watched that high of the hippie thing descend into drug depression. Right after Woodstock, then we went through a decade of basic apathy where my generation sucked its thumb and then just decided to be greedy and pornographic.”

When peace and love crumbled and cynicism or else comatose upheaval seemed to arise in its wake, Mitchell felt out of time and out of place. “I was being isolated, starting to feel like a bird in a gilded cage,” she told Rolling Stone. That same sense of entrapment of fame, increasing commercialism, and industry cajoling seemed to riddle her thinking when it came to relationships at the time. 

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While still in a relationship with Nash, Mitchell packed up from their home that once seemed so idyllic and travelled to Europe alone. Therein, she sent Nash a telegram explaining that the relationship was over. Her ambivalent feelings at the time are summed up on the gut-wrenching track ‘River’ that contains the lyrics, “He tried hard to help me, you know he put me at ease/ He loved me so naughty he made me weak in the knees/ I wish I had a river I could skate away on/ I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad/ Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I’ve ever had.”

Amid this state of turmoil, there was one beauteous place where she found most peace: the Greek caves of Matala. “In Greece, Penelope and I spent the first few days in Athens,” Mitchell once told Marc Myers. “I didn’t think I looked like a hippie, but I definitely didn’t look Greek. My fair hair made me stand out … 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.’”

And Mitchell was never averse to finding her own people in this world. Even if the suggestion was offered as an insult. After all, it was the following passage in an old book that made her move to Laurel Canyon: “Ask anyone in America where the craziest people live and they’ll tell you California. Ask anyone in California where the craziest people live and they’ll say Los Angeles. Ask anyone in Los Angeles where the craziest people live and they’ll tell you Hollywood. Ask anyone in Hollywood where the craziest people live and they’ll say Laurel Canyon. And ask anyone in Laurel Canyon where the craziest people live and they’ll say Lookout Mountain. So I bought a house on Lookout Mountain.”

Matala may well be termed the Lookout Mountain of the Meditteranean, only as Mitchell puts it “most of the hippies who had travelled there slept in small caves carved into the cliff on one side of the beach,” as opposed to Californian condos. In this sun-kissed alcove of Crete, the languid lifestyle of the sixties prelapsarian dream was still alive, madness ruled the roost and it resided in caves. In short, if you wanted a getaway then that is quite the place to arrive at. 

Mitchell would soon find herself enveloped in this wondrous alternative world making connections therein. “After we arrived, Penelope and I rented a cinder-block hut in a nearby poppy field and walked down to the beach,” Mitchell once recalled. “As we stood staring out, 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 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.”

And with that ka-boom came unforecast catharsis. To revel in the sort of place where the eternal midday sun lights up the crystalline sea like a sequin pattern of scales, the warm sand sifts through fingers like your running your hand through spiritual honey, and the sunset erupts the sky with a kaleidoscope of colour as though it’s a reward for those hardy enough to take it in, is one thing, but its transfigured even further to be part of it. 

Back then, “there weren’t any homes in Matala, just two grocery stores, a bakery where the owner made fresh yoghurt and bread, a general store with the only phone in town, two cafes, and a few rental huts.” It was a place where drunken sailors visited and people spiritually reclined. However, Mitchell was well aware that she was merely a spiritual tourist in these parts and her home lay elsewhere, as she beautifully summarised in her anthem ‘Carey’:

The wind is in from Africa
Last night I couldn’t sleep
Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here Carey
But it’s really not my home
My fingernails are filthy, I got beach tar on my feet
And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne

Come on down to the Mermaid Cafe and I will buy you a bottle of wine
And we’ll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down

Let’s have another round for the bright red devil
Who keeps me in this tourist town

The night is a starry dome.
And they’re playin’ that scratchy rock and roll
Beneath the Matalla Moon

Thus, she might have left the tourist town and returned to California, but it certainly made a mark on her and it continues to do so on those who flock to the shores—it always has done. The artificial caves date back to the Neolithic Age, they earned their place in Greek mythology as Zeus’s swooning ground, and then the Romans made them more livable, proving that this picturesque pasture has always been plundered for its cleansing beauty.

The hippies may not have lasted there for too long, driven out by the church and the military junta, but the ghost of their smoke still lingers, so to speak. In fact, it is literarily revived every June for the annual Beach Festival which sees the counterculture spirit come back to the fore. And the sands remain a basking ground with the amphitheatre rock on either side—an amphitheatre pitted with opera boxes where Mitchell once slumbered and sheltered from the blazing noonday sun.

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