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Friday, April 13, 2018

"Hate was just a legend, And war was never known": Critical Analysis of Neil Young's Song 'Cortez the Killer'

Hernán Cortés
16th Century Spanish Conquistadore

Here is an intriguing lyrics analysis of Neil Young's song 'Cortez the Killer', from the 1975 album "Zuma".

From African Exponent by Peter LJ Hesen:

Looking at the lyrics - 7 verses in a 7:29 track - one might glance over them and say “well, okay...”. Detached from the music they may appear as a loose collection of impressions. To fully appreciate however their richness and (probably) multi-layered context, one has to listen to them in conjunction with the music.

When Young says [it was] "a lotta shit I just made up because it came to me", I don’t believe that for one second. If it just came to him and he scribbled the lyrics on a piece of paper, my question then would be “Where did it come from?” Was it Montezuma’s ghost speaking to him, enacting his wisdom instead of his revenge for which he is better known for?

In any case it is an artist’s prerogative to keep the deeper meaning - or the absence thereof - from one of his creations to himself and let the listener make up his own mind; which I am about to do...

The ’simple’ big chords, guitar solo, rhythm and pace of the song paint a picture of doom heading for a continent that up to that moment was pretty much untouched and unscaved by Western ‘civilisation’. I think by now you are getting where I am heading with this...

When I first listened to the track, armed with only bare-bone knowledge of Young’s work and the history of the conquistadores, images of the movie “1492” rose to my mind. Yes, “1492” isn’t about Cortés but Columbus. The point made here being the imagery not the historical context, although they belong to the same narrative. That of conquest.

Full lyrics analysis of Neil Young's song 'Cortez the Killer' at African Exponent by Peter LJ Hesen.

"Cortez The Killer" Concert Video - Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Casa de Campo, Madrid, 25/4/87

Also, see the Thrasher's Wheat Lyrics Analysis of 'Cortez the Killer'.

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At 4/13/2018 10:06:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 4/13/2018 10:07:00 AM, Blogger NYBD11-12 said...

The most powerful part of the song is when Neil connects Cortez's conquest and suffering to his own life.

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.

Like Joni does in Big Yellow Taxi when she connects ecological destruction to her life.

Late last night I heard the screen door slam
And a big yellow taxi took away my old man

At 4/13/2018 10:08:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

What about the deleted last verse? What are the lyrics?

At 4/13/2018 10:15:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

"Ship is breaking up on the rocks. Sand beach... so close" to the end of the song while on his 2003 Greedale Tour. Is this the lost verse when thetransformer blew??

At 4/13/2018 11:54:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I LOVE this song. One of my absolute faves.

Having said that, the lyrics are historical bullshit. Montezuma and the Aztecs, far from being the peaceful and idyllic folks Neil describes, dominated and enslaved the neighboring peoples and generally used THEM for sacrifice. Which is why Montezuma’s neighbors fought on the side of Cortez (that and with his horses and technology they thought Cortz would win). As with so many things in history, both sides had their good and bad aspects.

Bad history but a great, kickass song that does what Neil does best - creating a mood, a feel, a dreamlike state and sustaining it over the whole course of the song. One of the handful of songs I would play to someone who asked, “so, what is this whole Neil Young thing anyway?”

At 4/13/2018 02:26:00 PM, Blogger Ears, Eyes & Smiles said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 4/13/2018 02:27:00 PM, Blogger Ears, Eyes & Smiles said...

I always thought Neil was pointing out that modernization leads to overlooking simpler times & taking basic joys for granted

At 4/13/2018 08:32:00 PM, Blogger Greg Mantho said...

Wow, Anonymous 10:07, after all these years listening to one of my faves, I never could tie that last verse in with the others, until now. Not that I know it’s what Neil meant- and maybe the verses that fell victim to the recording malfunction would put a different light on it, but as far as lyrics meaning whatever the listener takes from them, this is what it means to me. It’s not difficult to find something outrageous in the world to obsess about, just take your pick. What is difficult to do, is to see it for what it usually is- a projection of inner discontent. I’ll never forget something one of the Red Wing players said in the afterglow of winning the Stanley Cup- “If my house burned down right now, it wouldn’t mean a thing to me.” Another way of saying the same thing. What counts most is your inner peace, or lack thereof, and when the women of your dreams is nowhere to be found, or the man you just had right in front of you just walked out of your life through a screen door, it might be easier to distract yourself with the erroneous when a good peach can’t be found. How’s that for mixing a bunch of metaphors? Who knows what the song means exactly? But this is the first time it’s made sense to me in its entirety.

A Freind Of Yours

At 4/14/2018 10:57:00 AM, Blogger Syscrusher said...

Just a thought, but Neil Young spoke in one of his books about 'Cortez The Killer' and 'Hitchhiker' as if they were written around the same time, possibly even as a pair.
It's almost like he swapped the bridges of these songs.

If you look at Cortez, I don't know if it's really a bridge or just a final verse but it kinda comes out of nowhere, after sing about a historical figure for the first couple verses, he switches in the final verse to singing about himself and a lost love. "And I know she's living there and she love's me to this day/I still can't remember when, or how I lost my way". Very 'Hitchhiker', if you slot it in right after the verse about "We had a kid and we split apart..."

And then for 'HItchhiker', he's singing an autobiography song all about his personal history, and then in the final verse/bridge he begins to sing about a dream he has to live in the Inca's or the Aztec's of the past.
So if you switch the last verses of the two songs, it Cortez would go:

And they carried them to the flatlands
But they died along the way
And they built up with their bard hands
What we still can't do today

I wish I was an Aztec, or a runner in Peru
I would build such beautiful buildings to house the chose few
Like an Inca from Peru

Anyway that's my Neil Young thought of the day. I think they're both in the key of G too.
Mar 25, 2018 Report+ QuoteReply


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