The expression “end of an era” must be used selectively if it’s not to become a cliche. Today we feel, in our gut rather than in our mind, that yes, Mikis Theodorakis’ death marks the end of an era.
Maybe it’s because we look back with nostalgia on the optimism, the spontaneity and the relative innocence of the first years after the fall of the military dictatorship, when groups of people embraced to sing Theodorakis’ songs, while he, in the role of our national conductor, aroused us and stirred our passions. There was, of course, always something very contradictory about Mikis, with his songs being sung by both the open-minded bourgeois and radicalized youngsters. It was as if he was leading a perpetual dance, in which the vast majority of Greeks jumped in.
Over the years, it became somewhat sad to hear some of his most iconic songs being played again and again, becoming cliches, like a pre-packaged part of the post-junta decor. But in our hearts, we always thought of Mikis as something special. We insisted on listening to the real thing, on vinyl, in the coarse delivery of friends gathered around a table – not the Theodorakis who had become elevator music.
Speaking of contradictions, Mikis’ political path was full of them. His political attitude and behavior were defined by passion, sometimes unbridled, and great instability. He always wanted to be the star of the show and that often pushed him into adopting excessive and paradoxical roles.
Distinguishing Mikis from the legend is the hardest thing of all. He went to great pains to accomplish this, actually, but did so in such a heartfelt way that it was hard to be mad at him. His stories were not carefully fabricated lies; he believed them, exactly as he had created them in his mind. We once did a marathon interview in which he described some very powerful stories. It was a unique experience, one of those moments that make you feel your work is worthwhile. But I made the “mistake” of submitting his stories to the torment of verification – a professional habit.
I called the folk and rebetiko singer Grigoris Bithikotsis to ask about Mikis’ account of having first heard the great singer sing while in exile on the island of Makronissos. “Mr Grigoris, I’m calling you about a story that Mikis told me,” I started saying, before he cut me off: “Which one, son? Because there are many and sometimes he makes them up.”
As we bid him goodbye and say farewell to an era, we do not want to untangle Mikis from the myth – we want to preserve him in our minds as we felt him to be, as he affected us. And to hear him say goodbye to us: “Streets I got lost in, corners I stood on, tears I believed in, games in the water, bitter is the night that comes / Nights I wept, bridges I burned, stars I loved, where am I going and what will I find / bitter is the night that comes” (unofficial translation of “Dromoi pou Hathika,” set to the poem by Tasos Livaditis).