Cortez the Killer
|"Cortez the Killer"|
|Song by Neil Young from the album Zuma|
|Released||November 10, 1975|
|Recorded||June 16, 1974 – August 29, 1975|
|Zuma track listing|
"Cortez the Killer" is a song by Neil Young from his 1975 album, Zuma. It was recorded with Young's band Crazy Horse. It has since been ranked #39 on Guitar World's 100 Greatest Guitar Solos and #321 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
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.
Lyrics and interpretation
The song is about 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 other events that occurred in the Spanish conquest of the New World.
Instead of describing the battles of Cortés 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." The lyric suggests a lost love affair and brings a personal aspect to what was otherwise an historical narrative, suggesting a connection between broken relationships and the imperial invasion by someone else. Young had recently gone through his breakup with Carrie Snodgress around this time.
This line may also simply refer to Cortés' Mexican advisor/lover La Malinche (Doña Marina), who proved to be a valuable source of local knowledge for the Spaniards, and cast in the voice of Cortés.
Another possible interpretation is that "she" represents the Aztec main temple, the Templo Mayor. In Mesoamerican literature, the temple is often referred to as "she," since both men and women were sacrificed there and a considerable part of the main temple was dedicated to the Aztec rain god, who is often described as a female. The temple was uncovered in 1978 (three years after the album was released) after being buried beneath Mexico City for nearly 500 years.
On a more cynical note, in Jimmy McDonough's biography of Young, entitled 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."
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." While the additional verse has not been identified or recorded officially, Young added a couple lines to the song during the "Greendale" solo tour in 2003: "Ship is breaking up on the rocks/ Sandy beach . . . so close." 
The simple chord structure lends itself to long jams, and has been covered as such a jam song by many artists. The song was covered on two consecutive nights by The Dead lineup featuring Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring on lead guitars at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in 2004. The song has also been covered live by the Dave Matthews Band, with Warren Haynes, at their concert in Central Park in 2003, during another New York City concerts on Randall's Island in August 2006 and September 2011, with Warren Haynes at West Palm Beach, FL on July 31, 2010, and with Neil Young himself at the 2000 and 2006 Bridge School Benefit concerts. Built to Spill recorded a version for their 2000 album Live that, with several guitar solos throughout, came to over twenty minutes in length. It was also covered by Slint, at a gig in Chicago on 3 March 1989, The Church on A Box of Birds (1999), by The Drones, and by Pearl Jam in Toledo, OH 2004. Gov't Mule covered the song on their 1998 album Live ... With A Little Help From Our Friends. A live version by Matthew Sweet appears on the Legacy edition of Girlfriend.
Widespread Panic has covered the song several times, including a Halloween performance at UIC Pavilion in Chicago on October 31, 2001. Widespread Panic also memorably covered the song with special guest Jerry Joseph at the Oak Mountain Amphitheater with lightning flashing across the sky as a backdrop in one of original guitarist Michael Houser's final performances. Widespread Panic with guest Warren Haynes played the song again in Houston, Texas in October 2009.
One Free Fall covered the song on their 1993 album Mud Creek
The song was also covered with a long jam at the Jammy Awards, featuring Joe Satriani on lead guitar and Grace Potter on vocals and Hammond organ, with Steve Kimock, Reed Mathis, Willy Waldman, and Stephen Perkins. Grace Potter continues to cover the song in her concerts.
Grace Potter and The Nocturnals have been known to cover the song, stretching it into a twenty minute shoegazeresque epic jam.
David Rawlings covered the song on his 2009 album A Friend of a Friend, where it appears as as the latter half of a medley; the first section is the Bright Eyes song "Method Acting."
The Welsh folk group Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog (The Cowboys of Botwnnog Moor) covered the song in their 2010 Royal Welsh Youth Village set. The song stood out as being one of only two English songs sung throughout the entire set.
On October 31, 2013 Phil Lesh and Friends covered the song at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY.
The German Band Zodiac did a cover version on their second studio album (A Hiding Place) late 2013.
Warren Haynes' Gov't Mule with special guest Sonny Landreth ended the show with an epic version at the Saenger Theater in New Orleans, LA, during a late-night show at the 2014 Jazz Festival.
Also alternative rock band Cowboy Junkies covered the song by end of 2014.
- Shakey: Neil Young's Biography by Jimmy McDonough, Vintage Canada; 1st edition; (May 13, 2003), ISBN 0-679-31193-9, ISBN 978-0-679-31193-5, page 128
JMcD: So, are your songs autobiographical?
NY: Its not about information. The song is not meant for them to think about me. The song is meant for people to think about themselves. The specifics about what songs are about are not necessarily constructive or relevant. Songs come from a source and the source may be several ... it could give credence to the theory of reincarnation, where you've been a whole lotta places but obviously you haven't. 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.
- Young, Scott. Neil and Me.p. 149-150
- Video on YouTube
- "Panic's "Cortez the Killer" covers at Everyday Companion.".
- Performance of the Jammys on YouTube
- "Pitchfork.tv". Pitchfork.com. 2012-05-18. Retrieved 2012-05-24.