The Matala Moon, Crete & Joni Mitchell

I listened to a lot of Joni Mitchell growing up. My parents met while students at the University of San Francisco in 1971 and between the two of them, they have an impressive collection of rock and folk albums. As a child, I loved sliding the big records out of their jackets and cueing up Joan Baez, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, James Taylor and The Rolling Stones, but Joni was always a particular favorite.

Some of her music was weird and experimental and perhaps fueled by some of the pharmaceutical products of the era, but I loved how her voice sounded completely original and unlike anyone else’s. And those gorgeous lyrics.

“Big Yellow Taxi,” “A Case of You,” “Chelsea Morning,” “California” — I love them all, but for me, nothing beats “Carey.” When I was younger, I liked it because I thought it was pretty and fun and talked about mermaids. Then when I was in college, the song took on new meaning and became an anthem for my wanderlust and desire to live a nomadic life… at least for a little while. I emailed my mom about what significance the song had for her, and she said almost the same thing: “The song expressed my own longing to travel and see the world, and there was so much freedom and joy and excitement in it.”

Come on down to the Mermaid Café 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 a round for these freaks and these soldiers
A round for these friends of mine
Let’s have another round for the bright red devil
Who keeps me in this tourist town…

Maybe I’ll go to Amsterdam
Maybe I’ll go to Rome
And rent me a grand piano
And put some flowers ’round my room
But let’s not talk about fare-thee-wells now
The night is a starry dome
And they’re playin’ that scratchy rock and roll
Beneath the Matala moon

I never bothered to look into who Carey was or where I could find this Matala moon until I stumbled across this travel article from The Guardian. It turns out that Matala is a village in Crete, once popular with hippies and artists (including my girl Joni), and the inspiration for the song.

I liked this description from another Guardian piece:

This song is about her time in a hippy commune in Crete in the late 60s, a place she had found when, in her own escape from the fame and success of her first three albums, she set off around Europe. Carey was the cook at the Mermaid Cafe, who wore his red hair tucked into a turban, the “bright red devil who keeps me in this tourist town”. When Mitchell sings “It sure is hard to leave here, but it’s really not my home,” it is not laced with bitterness and regret but an optimism that the right path is to be found elsewhere.

Brian and I are heading to Crete next week for a few days, and we’ll be staying about an hour from Matala, near the beach town of Plakias. I have been listening to “Carey” on loop for weeks now in preparation. I love the idea that we might hear a little scratchy rock ‘n’ roll under the same Matala moon that she wrote about all those years ago. Sadly, the Mermaid Café is now closed, but we’ll be sure to find another spot to laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down.


1 dk { 06.07.12 at 2:42 am }

Great piece, Gillie.

I hope you two had (are having?) fun in Crete! I read the title quite hastily and read “Creed”. I thought you were about to break out into “Arms Wide Open” or something. Glad you didn’t.

2 Gillian { 06.19.12 at 6:19 am }

Hahaha, I just saw this comment! Oh good god, I’m so glad we went to Crete and not my personal hell, Creed. *shudder* Thanks, DK, it was a wonderful trip, and we actually went to Matala for an afternoon and stumbled across a hippie music revival concert on the beach. And they played “Carey”! It was awesome :)

3 Cecily { 07.23.13 at 4:09 pm }

Very interesting, I love that song and was just thinking about the Matala moon as looked at my (.. my!?) Spanish one wandering what exactly a Matala moon is, now I know thank you. I wanted to link your blog to mine but I don’t really know how!

4 John West { 01.20.14 at 2:38 pm }

Hey Guys – I was actually living in the Caves at Matala in late ’69 . The mermaid bar had guitars and amps ( some said they had been left by Buffalo Springfield ) and they had their double album playing endlessly at the Bar ( hence the reference from Joni in Carey to .. “and they’re playing that scratchy Rock n Roll beneath the Matala Moon “

5 Gillian { 03.08.14 at 5:33 am }

Thanks, y’all! Where in Spain is your Spanish moon, Cecily?

John, that is fascinating. What a wild experience to live in the caves there. Have you been back since?

6 John Connelly { 08.06.14 at 7:10 pm }

About ten years ago I was living in mid Wales just outside Lampeter. One day as I was driving to town I picked up a hitch hiker, I happened to be playing Joni Mitchel on the cassette player and the guy (a scruffy looking scrote) suddenly announced that he had lived in the cave next to her in Matala. As he had also informed me that he was a millionaire – just as soon as he could restore the Louis the fourteenth chaise longue in his squat, I was a tad sceptical. I did go to Crete and made a point of visiting Matala. I clambered all over the caves even though they were out of bounds because the caves were dangerous and could well imagine the place thirty five years previously full of ‘hippies’.
I now live in another Greek island, Naxos. Things are somewhat different to those heady sixties days but the sun and the wine and the Calamari are what keeps me here. And I still listen to Joni Mitchel a lot… :-)

7 bruno nua { 04.24.15 at 3:00 am }

beautifully evocative writing
i feel the same wanderlust and am living half the year on the road
warm wishes [from somewhere in Siam]

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