Meaning of Cortez the Killer by Neil Young & Song Story

The Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes (Fernando Cortes de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano) took part in several colonial expeditions in the New World. The conquest of Mexico brought him the greatest glory, during which he deprived the Aztecs of statehood.

The deeds of Cortez so impressed the young Neil Young (Neil Young), that he wrote a song about the tragic events that led to the death of the Aztec empire.

The story and meaning of the song Cortez the Killer

Young claimed to have composed the words to Cortez the Killer in high school:

One night I couldn’t sleep for a long time. I ate, I think, six hamburgers … I felt terrible. I was studying history, and in the morning I woke up and wrote this song.

Concert in 1996

In the song, the author poeticized the Nahua, presenting their civilization as an ideal, harmonious world. His characters live happily under the guidance of the wise Montezuma, and if necessary, joyfully sacrifice themselves to the gods. He either did not know about endless wars, slaves, torture, class inequality and other “charms”, or preferred not to remember. However, the vices that existed in the Aztec empire do not justify the cruel crimes of Cortes and his conquistadors.

Cortez and Montesuma ambassadors

In the last verse, Neil sings in the first person, talking about a certain woman. Since he wrote the song after his breakup with Carrie Snodgress, fans were quick to link the events.

Jimmy McDonough, author of Shakey’s book about Young’s life, asked the musician if he was referring to his ex-wife. The answer was:

It’s not about information. The song was not meant for them to think of me. The song was meant to make people think about themselves. The peculiarity of the interpretation of songs is that they are not necessarily constructive or justified. Many things I composed because they came to my mind.

Perhaps Young was referring to La Malinche, Cortez’s adviser and mistress, whom the Spaniards called Doña Marina. According to another version, the protagonist refers to the Templo Mayor (Templo Mayor), the main temple of the Aztecs, perceiving him as a living being.

When asked if the song could be considered at least partially autobiographical, Neal replied:

Why the hell am I writing about the Aztecs in Cortez the Killer like I’ve been there, wandered around? I just read about it in a couple of books.

Shakey, Jimmy McDonough

Pegi Morton Young, Neil’s ex-wife, also said that the composition cannot be considered autobiographical:

I think there’s a bit of our life in a lot of our songs, unless you write Cortez or something like that. My husband must have been an Inca warrior in another life.

Let’s listen to Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer song online.

Recording and release

Young recorded Cortez the Killer with producer David Briggs. While they were working on the track in the studio, there was a power surge that caused the remote control to fail. They lost part of the instrumental and the last verse. Neil was not very upset by the sad news. He said he didn’t like the last part.

The song was included in the album Zuma (1975), recorded with the band Crazy Horse.

Cortez the Killer is on the lists of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Rollins Stone) and the 100 Greatest Guitar Solos (Guitar World).

Clip Cortez the Killer

Next, you can watch the live video for the song Cortez the Killer – Neil Young.

Cover versions

Cortez the Killer has been played by many popular artists. Let’s listen to the version of Joe Satriani, Grace Potter and famous musicians, performed at the Jammy Awards.

An interesting version of Cortez the Killer was presented by Jim Jarmusch, Bradford Cox and Randy Randall.

Interesting Facts

  • During the 2003 Greendale solo tour, Neil Young sang the lines “Ship is breaking up on the rocks/ Sandy beach… so close” at the end of Cortez the Killer.
  • The liner notes for Young’s album Decade claim that Cortez the Killer was banned in Spain during the reign of Francisco Franco.
  • When the Zuma album was released in Spain after Franco’s death, the song was listed as Cortez.
  • In Cortez the Killer, Young only starts singing in the middle of the fourth minute. This is one of the longest intros in rock music.

Cortez the Killer Lyrics

He came dancing across the water
With his galleons and guns
looking for the new world
In the palace in the sun
On the shore lay Montezuma
With his coca leaves and pearls
In his halls he often wondered
With the secrets of the worlds
And his subjects gathered ’round him
Like the leaves around a tree
In their clothes of many colors
For the angry gods to see
And the women were beautiful
And the men stood straight and strong
They offered life in sacrifice
So that others could go on

Hate was just a legend
And war was never known
The people worked together
And they lifted many stones
And they carried them to the flatland
And they died along the way
But they built up with their bare hands
What we still can’t do today

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

He came dancing across the water
Cortez, Cortez
What a killer…

Neil Young lyrics Cortez the Killer Alternative

He easily crossed the sea
With galleons and guns
In search of a new world.
In the palace of the sun
Montezuma lay on the shore
With coca leaves and pearls.
In his chambers he often meditated
About the mysteries of the worlds.
The subjects gathered around him,
Like leaves around a tree
in colorful clothes,
For the angry gods to see.
And all the women were beautiful
And all men are slim and strong.
They sacrificed their lives
So that others can live on.

Hate was just a legend
And wars have never been known.
People worked together
Lifted a lot of stones
They took them to the plain
And they died along the way.
But they built with their bare hands
That we still can’t build today.

And I know she lives there
And she still loves me.
I don’t remember when
Or how you lost your way.

He easily crossed the sea
Cortez, Cortez
What a killer…

Song quote

She could have something to do with the theory of reincarnation…

Neil Young Shakey, Jimmy McDonough

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