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|
|Genre||Hard rock, blues rock|
"Cortez the Killer" is a song by Neil Young from his 1975 album, Zuma. It was recorded with the band Crazy Horse. It has since been ranked #39 on Guitar World's 100 Greatest Guitar Solos and #329 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. 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."
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 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." The lyric suggests a lost love affair and brings a personal aspect to what was otherwise a 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 song was covered live by Slint, with a version being released on the 2014 reissue of Spiderland.
- The song has been covered live by the Dave Matthews Band, with Warren Haynes, at their concert in Central Park in 2003.
- 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 The Church on A Box of Birds (1999). 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.
- Reed Mathis, Willy Waldman, and Stephen Perkins. Grace Potter continues to cover the song in her concerts.
- Singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler covered the song on a bonus EP to her 2007 album Songs III: Bird on the Water.
- Screaming Females released a cover of this song on a 2008 7" split with "Hunchback".
- David Rawlings covered the song on his 2009 album A Friend of a Friend, where it appears as the latter half of a medley; the first section is the Bright Eyes song "Method Acting".
- Jim Jarmusch, Bradford Cox and Randy Randall covered the song in 2009 for a video on the website of Pitchfork Media.
- Metal band Prong covered the song on the 2015 covers album Songs from the Black Hole.
- Dinosaur Jr. and J Mascis and the Fog frequently cover the song live with lengthy improvised guitar solos. Both bands feature J Mascis on guitar.
- the song was covered by Carl Swartzwelder on an EP released on ITunes
- "Neil Young Discography: Zuma". neilyoung.com. Archived from the original on 2006-02-07. Retrieved 2015-07-23.
- "Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Rolling Stone. April 7, 2011. Retrieved October 1, 2015.
- Manrique, Diego A. (2012-01-20). "Los discos prohibidos del franquismo". El País.
- 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
- on YouTube
- "Pitchfork.tv". Pitchfork.com. 2012-05-18. Retrieved 2012-05-24.