Cortez the Killer

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"Cortez the Killer"
Song by Neil Young
from the album Zuma
ReleasedNovember 10, 1975
RecordedJune 16, 1974 – August 29, 1975
GenreHard rock, blues rock
Songwriter(s)Neil Young
Producer(s)Neil Young, David Briggs[1]

"Cortez the Killer" is a song by Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young from his 1975 album, Zuma. It was recorded with the band Crazy Horse. It has since been ranked No. 39 on Guitar World's 100 Greatest Guitar Solos and No. 329 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.[2]

Young has stated in concert that he wrote the song while studying history in high school in Winnipeg. According to Young's notes for the album Decade, the song was banned in Spain under Francisco Franco. According to El País and book author Xavier Valiño, the album Zuma was released in Spain in full following Franco's death, with the song renamed to the less inflammatory title "Cortez, Cortez".[3] [4]

Lyrics and interpretation[edit]

Hernán Cortés, the inspiration behind the song's title

The song is inspired by Hernán Cortés (Cortés' name has an alternate Anglicized spelling in the song title), a conquistador who conquered Mexico for Spain in the 16th century. "Cortez the Killer" also makes reference to the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II and the Spanish conquest of the New World.

Instead of describing Cortés' battles with the Aztecs, the lyric in the last verse suddenly jumps from third person narrative to first person, and possibly over a time span of centuries as well, with a reference to an unnamed woman: "And I know she's living there / And she loves me to this day. / I still can't remember when / or how I lost my way." Young had recently gone through his breakup with Carrie Snodgress around this time.

On a more cynical note, in Jimmy McDonough's biography of Young, Shakey, the author asked Neil if his songs were autobiographical. Young replied, "What the fuck am I doing writing about Aztecs in 'Cortez the Killer' like I was there, wandering around? 'Cause I only read about it in a few books. A lotta shit I just made up because it came to me."[5] He continues in a December 1995 interview for Mojo Magazine: "It was a combination of imagination and knowledge. What Cortez represented to me is the explorer with two sides, one benevolent, the other utterly ruthless. I mean, look at Columbus! Everyone now knows he was less than great. And he wasn't even there first (laughs). It always makes me question all these other so-called icons."[6]

Rolling Stone critiqued the song's idyllic view of Mesoamerica.[7]


The song is typical of the Zuma album—simple, big chords and a bass line that sometimes becomes very powerful and fades again. The song repeats the chords Em7, D and Am7sus4 while Young adds his signature solos throughout. It is played in double drop D (DADGBD).

The lyrics start 3:23 into the song. First the words picture Cortés and his "galleons and guns" on their quest of the new world shores. There lived Montezuma, emperor of the Aztecs, inconceivably rich and full of wisdom, but in a civilization doomed despite its beauty and amazing achievements. By immense human toll of building, their huge and still existing pyramids had been erected, and are praised in the song.

Also of note is that the song fades out after nearly seven and a half minutes, as (according to Young's father in Neil and Me) an electrical circuit had blown, causing the console to go dead. In addition to losing the rest of the instrumental work, a final verse was also lost. When producer David Briggs had to break this news to the band, Young replied "I never liked that verse anyway." The additional verse has not been identified or recorded officially.[8]

Cover versions[edit]


  1. ^ "Neil Young Discography: Zuma". Archived from the original on 2006-02-07. Retrieved 2015-07-23.
  2. ^ "Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Rolling Stone. April 7, 2011. Retrieved October 1, 2015.
  3. ^ Manrique, Diego A. (2012-01-20). "Los discos prohibidos del franquismo". El País.
  4. ^ "Neil Young with Crazy Horse - Zuma". Discogs. Retrieved November 13, 2023.
  5. ^ Shakey: Neil Young's Biography by Jimmy McDonough, Vintage Canada; 1st edition; (May 13, 2003), ISBN 978-0-679-31193-5, ISBN 978-0-679-31193-5, page 128
  6. ^ Kent, Nick (December 1995). "I Build Something Up, I Tear It Right Down: Neil Young at 50". Mojo. Retrieved August 26, 2023.
  7. ^ "RS Fact-Checks Famous Rock Songs". Rolling Stone. 2011-02-23. Retrieved 2020-07-14.
  8. ^ Young, Scott. Neil and Me.p. 149–150
  9. ^ Performance of the Jammys on YouTube
  10. ^ "". 2012-05-18. Retrieved 2012-05-24.
  11. ^