Maybe Greece really is the cradle of civilization.
As someone who majored in Leonard Cohen studies, I’ve always savored the idyllic Cohen creation myth, set on the Greek island of Hydra. In his mid-twenties, the unfledged Montreal poet found himself on a sun-baked isle in the Aegean Sea, competing for the favors of the most beautiful woman alive, Marianne Ihlen.
He won! Ihlen’s husband, a Norwegian novelist hiding from the Oslo taxman, wandered off with an American artist, leaving her with a six-month old child, and a dark-haired suitor living hand-to-mouth on a Canada Council grant.
The rest is history. Cohen and Ihlen embarked on a 10-year long love affair/shuttle romance that found them in Oslo, Montreal and/or New York, depending on circumstance. Cohen jokingly called Ihlen his “Greek muse,” as he launched into a decade of creative fervor, culminating in the ultimate breakup song, “So Long, Marianne.” (“We met when we were almost young. . . ”)
Now we learn from the Wall Street Journal that another Canadian hippie vagabond, Joni Mitchell, was gallivanting around what Lord Byron called “the isles of Greece/Where burning Sappho loved and sung.” On the rebound from a painful breakup with rocker Graham Nash, Mitchell headed for Crete, and spent a couple of months sleeping in a Minoan seaside cave — on a bed of pebbles and straw — with one Cary Raditz.
Yes — that “Carey” (spelling was never Joni’s forte) the “mean old daddy” of the song named after him on Mitchell’s famous 1971 album, “Blue.” Raditz was a lapsed advertising copywriter working as a short-order cook in the village of Matala. He bumped into Mitchell shortly after his American girlfriend disappeared to parts unknown.
Raditz, now an investment strategist in Maryland, did have a mean streak, just as Joni said. “I had a nasty, aggressive character then,” Raditz told the Journal. “And I was feisty. I was always getting into fights at the tavern.” The tavern was indeed called the Mermaid Café, called out in Mitchell’s song. The wind really was “in from Africa,” she really did have “beach tar on [her] feet,” and so on.
Mitchell composed “Carey” as a 24th birthday present to her companion. “I wasn’t blown away,” Raditz remembers. “It sounded like a ditty, something she had tossed off.” The song lasted longer than their relationship, which ran out of gas in the late spring of 1970.
Mitchell, who had been living comfortably in Laurel Canyon outside of Los Angeles, tired of cavewoman-living and confessed to missing her “clean white linens and fancy French cologne.” Like Leonard Cohen, Mitchell mined the relationship for a platinum breakup song, “California,” also on the “Blue” album. The daughter of Fort MacLeod, Alberta, told the world: “California, I’m coming home.”
I love these stories because they feel innocent and romantic to me. Nobody seems to get hurt. Cohen and Mitchell went on to enjoy wonderful careers, and their erstwhile partners seem to have led more or less normal lives. Marianne Ihlen published a 2006 memoir of her life with Leonard Cohen. Raditz seems comfortable talking about his time in Matala, where, by Mitchell’s own admission, she is “more popular than Zeus.”
What are the life lessons here? If you think you don’t have a chance with that Norwegian beauty, don’t give up; maybe she has a weakness for brooding poets. And when your parents forbid you from running off to sleep in a cave next to the Aegean Sea, you can say: But Joni Mitchell did it, and she got her best album ever!
And yes, Greece really is the cradle of civilization.Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.