By 1970, Joni Mitchell was done with America. With the counterculture movement at its zenith, all that was left to do was watch it slowly fall apart. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, three of the era’s figureheads, all died within a year of one another. As Mitchell later told Michelle Mercer, “There were so many sinking. But I had to keep thinking I could make it through the waves”.
The singer-songwriter was determined not to get sucked down with the rest of the West Coast and so decided to take a trip to Greece. At the time, she was still in a relationship with Graham Nash. During her solitary journey to Europe, she sent a telegram explaining that their relationship was over, leaving her free to indulge in a new love affair. This being the 1960s, it wasn’t long before romance came knocking.
Recalling her travels, Mitchell told Marc Myers: “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 … 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.'”
When Mitchell arrived on the shores of Matala, she found a community of globe-trotting hippies soaking up the Mediterranean sun, many of whom had made their beds in the small caves dotted along the cliffs. It wasn’t long before Mitchell was introduced to the unique way of life on Matala: “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.”
Mitchell would later recall her time with Raditz in her song ‘Carey’, in which the titular lover seems to represent the transience of her escape from reality. “Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here Carey / But it’s really not my home,” Mitchell sings, revealing her alienation from the hippie way of life. “My fingernails are filthy, I got beach tar on my feet/ And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne.”
Still, Mitchell seems to have acknowledged that she might as well savour every last minute of her time on Matala, as is made clear when she asks Cary to “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.”
‘Carey’ might seem too specific to Mitchell’s own life to be universal, but don’t be fooled. That pull the speaker sings of, that sense that real-life must once again resume is something we’ve all felt at some point. Whether it’s waking from a dream, returning from a holiday, or losing oneself in music, we’re always traversing the gulf between what our lives actually are and what they have the potential to be.