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Thursday, January 11, 2024

Comment of the Moment: Neil Young & Crazy Horse's "Cortez the Killer"

Hernán Cortés
16th Century Spanish Conquistadore

With all of the excitement over the DUME album's vinyl release (see DUME Coming Feb 23rd - Another "Lost" Neil Young & Crazy Horse Album)  it seemed like as good a time as any to revisit what  many consider to be one of Neil Young and Crazy Horse's finest moments in the studio: "Cortez the Killer".

 Dume - Release date: Feb 23rd
Neil Young & Crazy Horse
 (see  DUME Coming Feb 23rd - Another "Lost" Neil Young & Crazy Horse Album)


Our Comment of the Moment is from the post 1st REACTION & ANALYSIS: Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer" by Classical Musician Amy Shafer by Ron:

Late to this but really enjoyed watching and listening to this today. Then again I could quite happily listen to Cortez all day long...

A great comment by LeeKennison and I share some of his reactions to Amy's comments and analysis. 

Like many over the years I have often wondered about the pivot from 3rd person to 1st person which comes as such a surprise when you first listen to the song. I think this comment from @ronaldwilhelm3449 might be the answer though - sounds quite plausible to me.

"This song has many layers of depth to it.

It is a song about Cortez and the Aztecs, but in the context of the whole album, Zuma, it also serves as an allegory to human relationships, which is what the entire Zuma album is about. 

The theme of the album follows the singer's emotions as he deals with a personal break-up. How he blames the woman (Don't Cry No Tears, Danger Bird, Pardon my Heart), how he tries to restart his life (Looking for a Lover, Barstool Blues), how he shows contempt for the women in his life (Stupid Girl, Drive Back) and how he realizes, finally, that the fault is his (Cortez) dancing in and destroying the life of another person ("I still can't remember when or how I lost my way"). 

"Through my Sails" ends the album, with the singer reaching a new realization about himself and relationships. In the context of the album, it all makes sense. It is amazing to me, that the climax of the album, when he finally realizes that he is Cortez, Neil uses an allegory to the destruction of the Aztec civilization. 

What happens when a selfish spirit, invades the tranquility of another person and destroys their world. Since individual relationships, and civilization relationships are all "human relationships", Neil is giving the Zuma singer the ultimate moment of realization. 

[Neil Young] is Cortez." 

Thanks so much for sharing this comment Ron.  Agree. Ronald seems to nail ZUMA themes and tie them in together with the song Cortez quite nicely. Obviously, another one of the more fascinating Neil songs.

Here's a nice 18+ minute "Cortez The Killer" from Barcelona, Spain Concert of Neil Young + Promise of the Real on June 20, 2016 .  What makes this interesting -- awesome performance aside -- is the concert location in Spain.  

Why you ask? 

Did you know that in the 1970's, Neil Young's  song “Cortez The Killer” was banned in Spain because it offended General Franco’s regime. In Spain, Hernando Cortez (or Hernán Cortés) is considered a national hero as the conquistador who conquered Mexico's Aztec Empire for Spain. 

Lyrics Analysis of 'Cortez the Killer'

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

"Cortez the Killer" 
 J Mascis & Warren Haynes
Music Hall of Williamsburg, New York - 12-2-23
(see VIDEO: Dinosaur Jr., Warren Haynes, Kurt Vile Cover Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer )
A First Reaction To Neil Young's Music - "Cortez The Killer"

 More analysis of Neil Young's song  "Cortez The Killer".

Also, see Perhaps the Longest Version of "Cortez the Killer"  Ever @ 22 minutes?! 

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At 1/12/2024 07:52:00 AM, Blogger Alan said...

I enjoyed the song analysis, thank you. Great post, Thrasher, and the Art is haunting.

I never felt Neil saw himself as Cortez in the song. He may have been speaking for Cortez in saying he had lost his way, as in “Not doing God’s will” or not doing what he is supposed to be doing.

Neil is like a time traveler in the song, giving eyewitness account to the Aztecs men & women. In saying he didn’t know when or how he lost his way, if the singer is speaking for himself, he may be yearning for a bygone age in a faraway place, one that he saw and sang sings about, but he lost his connection, could no longer see it, or be there, as in a dream when one wakes, the fleeting memory of what was.

Either way, no wonder it was censored in Spain! The Truth hurts! Egos bruised. And Chris Columbus was not a hero!

Your Brother Alan in Seattle

At 1/12/2024 09:37:00 AM, Blogger thrasher said...

Thanks Brother Alan.
Your interpretation makes sense as well.

We should mention that song interpretations, like much art, is subjective obviously. No right or wrong really.

That said, we do find these kinds of discussions fascinating even to do this after hearing Cortez a thousand times.

Which is what makes the song so enduring. How it impacts folks in all sorts of different ways.

Awhile back we came upon a whole discussion thread on Cortez. Maybe folks were Franco-philes or something but they were not happy w/ Mr Young's history lesson. At all.

That's where the song finds detractors. The song is historically inaccurate. OK, got it. Maybe Cortez wasn't meant to be taken so literally?

At 1/12/2024 12:07:00 PM, Blogger Dan Swan said...

Frankly I think most history is inaccurate, and should never be accepted as fact. Columbus never set foot in the United States, yet we have a holiday that says he discovered the place. Several humans walked on the moon, yet there’s no holiday for them. Of course there are those who believe that it was all fake; hence no holiday. Our politicians are revered as saints after they die, when in fact most of them were completely corrupt individuals. So if Neil Young wants to use a historical event to make his point, then I’m okay with it. And as you said, interpretation is subjective.

Peace 🙏

At 1/12/2024 02:42:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

Thanks Dan. Good to see you. Hoping your 2024 is looking promising thus far.

Good points on history. They say history is written by the victors.

it seems that we are in an age where a hundred years or more from now, the history books are likely to record something very different from what so many have experienced.

a bit of a tangent, but after we started this blog over 25 years ago, we often found ourselves trying to set the record straight after a concert. We found ourselves correcting reviews that stated things like "nearly half the audience had walked out by the time the lights came back up." And we'd provide our little facts to dispute that account. And so on.

Now correcting history for concerts is one thing. Trying to cover the fog of war is an entirely different matter of gravity.

The fog is thick out there. Be careful. The truth is our friend. Keep shining that light on what is REAL.

Hopefully, some day, we'll get to write the history.

At 1/12/2024 03:51:00 PM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

My broad reading of ‘Cortez the Killer’ is that it’s narrated not from the viewpoint of the conquistador, but from an Aztec watching as his culture gets attacked and eroded: “He came dancing across the water with his galleons and guns” presents Cortez (and by extension Spanish colonialists) as aggressors or invaders. The lyrics give a litany of Cortez’s sins, while simultaneously offering what some have argued is a romanticized view of First Nations cultures. This “romanticization” makes more sense when we realize we’re hearing the words of someone who has seen his home and people decimated.

By the end of the song, it seems the lonely Aztec may have not only lost his lover, but somehow inadvertently time traveled to contemporary (1970s) America: “I don’t how or when I lost my way”. Or maybe he’s a ghost, haunting the land? Then there’s the mysterious lost woman, only mentioned passively as the object of the narrator’s quest. This could be a literal love story. The woman could also be a figurative representation (symbol) of the lost homeland. It wouldn’t be the first or last time the earth, the land itself, has been imagined as a woman conquered through the masculine art of war.

At 1/12/2024 04:13:00 PM, Blogger Greying Rider said...

Graham Nash did a terrific Desert Islands Discs on the BBC this morning:

Good stories in a good format.


At 1/12/2024 06:19:00 PM, Blogger Dan Swan said...

I feel that there may be as many interpretations to this story as the number of times I’ve heard it. I get a different picture in my mind every time I hear it. But the one constant is just how cinematic it is. It feels important. Epic even. And I’m not even sure if an interpretation is even necessary. The song allows me to feel the intention without necessarily knowing what it’s about. If that makes any sense. I feel the story, and in many ways that’s more powerful than the story itself. Sometimes songs can hit you in a different way depending on how you’re feeling when you hear it. Different day, different take. So perhaps it comes down to one’s own state of mind when listening to a song, as to their personal interpretation of it. All I know is that Cortez the Killer is one of Neil’s greatest achievements in song craft, and one that I return to often.

Peace 🙏

At 1/13/2024 09:24:00 AM, Blogger Alan said...

Hell yes, everyone! Well spoken. It’s a song that moves me emotionally in a strong way.

Let’s witness it in Boise for a TW meetup, if it is in the fates!

Your Brother Alan in Seattle

At 1/13/2024 01:51:00 PM, Blogger Abner Snopes said...

I suppose that there will never be a "right interpretation" in the strong sense of "right" ((irrefutable, deducible from principles, or empirically verifiable). But let's not go crazy here. (Yes, there is a sense in which interpretation is "subjective.") It is clear, however, that some interpretations are better than others, much better than others. Yes, people fight over nuance and even radical differences but there is evidence and inference from the evidence. The above interpretation by Lee is an outstanding example of what counts as a "good interpretation." It is holistically coherent and much of what he says is deeply explanatory. Is everything he says simply "right," obviously not. But there are good arguments for all his views.

At 1/13/2024 01:54:00 PM, Blogger Art Symbol said...

It was great to hear Anne Shafer's thoughts on Cortez and it was an opportunity hear this track, which I’ve heard countless times since first buying it on its release in 1975, with fresh ears.

It always seemed to me that what elevates the Zuma version of Cortez The Killer is the actual performance, which no other version I’ve heard from Young comes close to matching.

This is arguably the most sublime guitar playing in the whole of the rock canon.

You really get the sense that he’s channelling something that's coming from a very profound place. As Anne Shafer points out, the musical theme is incredibly simple. That and the elemental slowness give weight to the music’s expressiveness. The repeated minor key, three chord structure with no verse gives it a sense of mounting inexorability leading to that beautiful fade out.

It’s almost as though the lyrics are there only trying to make sense of the music rather than the other way round, which is why they come in so late in the piece. Is it describing the journey between the two tracks on either side of the record, the ego bound Driveback and the transcendence of Through My Sails?

Even without the lyrics you might still be getting a notion of this incredible emanation from the collective unconscious, the fatal meeting of the Animus and the Anima, to use the Jungian terminology (pun only half intended).

If that's the case it makes more sense in understanding why Young was happy to leave out the missing verse, lost allegedly due to a power cut in the control room. (If you don't know it, the lyric sheet is on the track's document card on the Archives).

At 1/13/2024 09:53:00 PM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

Textual interpretation and criticism is a delicate operation. Perhaps the most important question is: what can we learn from this text that helps us today? In other words, what kinds of understanding can this art work be a springboard to? In academic environments, most of textual scholarship is done through a historical or social lens. Understanding an art work in the context of the culture from which it came helps to show what that work can offer us now.

Plurality in perspectives and opinions is inevitable, and not a negative thing. The ideal scenario is for free and open dialogue, or discourse, to show which interpretations have the greatest merit--which ones are well-founded, convincing, revealing, and useful. That is, we can learn from one another. In regard to 'Cortez', my gentle suggestion is that both feminist and/or ecological interpretive lenses would be particularly apropos for a number of Neil Young songs.

"Look at Mother Nature on the run in 1970s."

At 1/13/2024 10:06:00 PM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

Addendum: I'm getting gradually more excited about Dume vinyl. The thought of hearing Cortez and Danger Bird, among others, on pristine vinyl is tempting. As long as the pressing quality is there. Personally, I could have settled for a one LP "highlights" edition focused mainly on the ones that weren't on Zuma plus key classics. For instance:

side A
1. Ride my Llama
2. Hawaii
3. Cortez the Killer
4. Pocahontas

side B
1. Born to Run
2. Bar Stool Blues
3. Kansas
4. No one seems to know
5. Danger Bird

I tried to make one side focused on Native American and historical themes, the other on the love loss/break up angle. 'Hawaii' is almost in a category of its own.

At 1/14/2024 12:34:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

@ Greying Rider - thanks on Graham & DID.

We checked out program and yes, it's a good listen. We'll post on our next update.

@ Dan - You know this subject of Neil's greatest song is certainly a great topic to explore.

Although it is a list type thing, which we know is a no-win sort of thing.

But a good question in light of above and picking one song from Neil as your Desert Island Disc is a tough one.

Obviously we go w/ our name sake song.

But CTK is always near the top w/ Hurricane and many others.

It does seem that CTK has many moods whether acoustic, electric, tight or loose.

We just posted on Nostalgia Trap saying CTK is maybe Neil's greatest song. (see My Neil Young Vinyl Collection | Nostalgia Trap )

With DUME coming, much more on this subject is likely to be covered.

@ Brother Alan - absolutely. Whenever, wherever in 24!

@ Abner - probably right about never a "right interpretation".

Just to be clear on this here @ TW. We generally welcome all interpretations. Like w/ all analysis etc, how is the argument made? Based on style, techniques or emotion, etc.

many find what we do here as over wrought , tedious and academic. and obviously many folks actually like this sort of thing. that's why we're here. it what we do and who we are.

drilling down to understand what makes it all work to better understand what makes us tick. again we go back to what we just mentioned about the Nostalgia Trap's retrospective of Neil's catalog.

He did the program to help himself understand why he has so much Neil vinyl relative to other artists.

It all fits it into the model of: "to truly know oneself". As we're sure you understand all to well, their are a lot of folks running around with all sorts of opinions that don't align with who they are creating all sorts of societal issues.

@ Art Symbol - as noted above, does this make CTK the greatest?

You state "arguably the most sublime guitar playing in the whole of the rock canon." High praise for sure.

Does most sublime guitar make for the greatest Neil song?

Glad you liked Anne Shafer's analysis.

We do get push back on these types of posts that they are useless. So glad you and others got something from her experience.

New eyes bring new ears.

@ Meta Rocker - good observations as always. Again, your contributions here @ TW are invaluable in the sense that your writings (& others) keep this whole blog dialog thing from sinking into oblivion.

So much rancor and argument for the mere sake of argument going on one wonders sometimes: is anyone out there besides Neil fans having a good time and enjoying the small pleasures of life, like awesome music??

Lastly, you mention "feminist and/or ecological interpretive lenses".

Hence the posting of this Anne Shafer's analysis. And last year's analysis by Elizabeth Zharoff (see
REACTION & ANALYSIS: Neil Young's "Old Man" by Vocal Coach / Opera Singer Elizabeth Zharoff )

Obviously, we sorely lack the feminine perspective around TW. While our dear thrashette is always offering her opinions on all of this, she does not care to participate in our little side gig.

So we do try and blend into our writings a bit of "couple's perspective" on Neil things, of course it just isn;t the same as what say Elizabeth Zharoff or Anne Shafer bring to the table.

That said, these 2 women admittedly aren't Neil aficionados. Not saying their contributions aren't worthy whatsoever. Again, we eyes bring new ears. Or even vice versa.

But are there truly any women out there doing serious Neil Young scholarship?

If so, please let us know.

ps - great idea on the single disc DUME!

At 1/14/2024 06:01:00 PM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

Thrasher—While I’ve heard of Dylanologists, and even recall a faculty member who listed the Grateful Dead among his research specialities, I’m unaware of any Neil Young scholarship, assuming we’re referring to academic scholars at accredited schools, subject to peer review. I’m sure there are dissertations out in the wild, but there’s probably prejudice against anything resembling rock journalism. With a few exceptions, popular music is often viewed as not a significant cultural production. It’s the old distinction between high art and… other stuff. Not that the average tenured professor is likely listening to Wagner or Sibelius on their commute home. It seems hypocritical, really, to discard as objects of study some very influential songs.

A lot of this will change with time and generational shift; already, people involved in what’s known as cultural studies are making inroads, studying stuff that used to be known as lowbrow. Hell, analysis and interpretation is now done on well-known video games. Anything that touches the zeitgeist, really, should be fair game. One day history may have a different perspective, though we may not live to see it.

As a final note, I will suggestcritics are less arbiters of truth and more examples of how we make determinations about what is true. Ideas have powerful consequences, but inasmuch as they circulate or become common currency. Generally, the stakes are different for, say, a clinical trial of a new medication vs. someone’s learned view of the meaning and/or textual history of Hamlet—so different standards of proof apply.

At 1/15/2024 10:07:00 AM, Blogger Abner Snopes said...

A relatively quick search reveals quite a few academic essays on Neil Young. I just read a insightful piece in the Paris Review.

Probably not in the British Journal of Aesthetics but in less stuffy journals, especially some new ones. There is an academic journal devoted to popular music and rock and roll (forget the name).

I sure hope different standards of truth apply for a clinical trial! Lol.

At 1/15/2024 10:52:00 AM, Blogger thrasher said...

@ Meta Rocker - to clarify on Neil scholarship...

actually, what we meant was what we all do here, on RUST & elsewhere. The armchair analysis based on deep experience & knowledge. Nothing really formal or academic was intended.

Yes, the Dylanologists are probably peak of the craft of pop music research & publishing.

That said, awhile back we posted David Briggs and Neil Young: "How Survivals, Grief and Legacies Unfold in American Music" by Caryn Rose .

If you watch the lecture, it all seems rather, deep, formal and very academic and serious. No joking around Neil Young analysis, for sure, in our book.

From 2019 Pop Conference at MoPop in Seattle for the conference's symposium agenda:

Only You and Your Ghost Will Know: Music, Death and Afterlife

Popular music has long been centrally concerned with death and the afterlife.

Songs, recordings, and musical traditions have expressed both mourning and celebration and have—in some cases—helped envision the possibilities of a continued existence where “death is not the end.” From gospel to metal and beyond, music pays tribute to the departed, offers opportunities for ceremony and commemoration, and helps to process tragedies both personal and public. It even blurs the boundaries between states of life and death, offering sonic and symbolic evidence for hauntings, purgatories, and the continued presence of ancestors in the lives of the earthbound. Genres, formats, and media exist in a continual process of transformation, decay, and re-emergence—and boost both active artists and defunct (or deceased) ones. Songs and performances are reborn through new versions, different contexts, and changing relationships with audiences.

At 1/15/2024 10:54:00 AM, Blogger thrasher said...

@ Abner - see above to Meta rocker. Thanks for this.

to add a bit... TW is trying to straddle hard core academic scholarship and make it accessible to what is NY's target market here. Just case no one noticed what we're really trying to do here.

Not high brow but not low brow.

but we think you guys get it.

At 1/15/2024 11:20:00 AM, Blogger Abner Snopes said...

I get it for sure and I appreciate it.

At 1/15/2024 02:37:00 PM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

Thrasher: understood, and thanks for the clarification. I appreciate TW is at least trying for something beneficially stimulating . So much discourse these days is intellectually and spiritually all but inert, especially online.

Abner: Just because I’m unaware of it, that certainly doesn’t mean it’s non-existent, especially as I’m not fluent in musicology. What I have seen focuses on how indigenous and global music traditions, close to anthropology. This likely says more about my interests than anyone else’s.

My example of a drug trial was deliberately bold and obvious. The underlying point is that scholarship in the humanities (philosophy, literature, arts, media studies, et al.) functions from empirical scientific research. Ideas are (sometime) much slipperier than data points. Therefore literary analysis can’t pursue objective, demonstrable conclusions the same way as a double-blind lab study. This doesn’t mean there’s no ethical responsibility in the research, just that a framework of empiricism has limitations in contexts involving critical interpretation and speculative thought.

For those truly interested in analysis and interpretation of books, music, movies, and so forth, I suggested taking the energy to learn about what’s known as Critical Theory. I always maintain you don’t need a degree to understand this, the issue is making the info more widely available. An emphasis on research (information) literacy in K-12 schools would also help.

At 1/15/2024 04:23:00 PM, Blogger Abner Snopes said...

MR, I understood what you are saying, especially given that I have spent my career working on these very issues. I was not trying to correct you or critique you. I just thought it would be interesting for people to know there are some good essays out there.

At 1/15/2024 07:11:00 PM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

Abner, no need for concern. It just seemed worth putting an accent on a couple of nuances on this topic. I admire the imperative to arrive at the truth, to ensure that “alternative facts” don’t cause dissension and distrust. (Damage control is the best scenario at this point.) I suppose I’m not 100% empiricist in certain contexts, but I do value empirical processes in many areas.

At 1/15/2024 07:44:00 PM, Blogger Alan said...

The First Listen video was enjoyable and helped express some of the reasons why I love this song and appreciate it so much.

And I know she’s livin’ there… and loves me to this day….

The woman he has lost is more than a million miles away, given the passing of time. He cannot reach her, can’t call her in any way.

The story teller got lost, separated from her. It’s almost like his ship got taken by a black hole. Time and space no longer add up.

If this is Cortez, why would she love him? But she does, it’s just that our narrator has been plucked from this world, as if a UFO

came along and sped off. He is wondering how in the hell this happened, as if waking from a dream.

This is almost my favorite NY song. But somehow Powderfinger has my heart. I play it and sing it on the guitar, learned how

because I love it so much. I have never tried to play Cortes. I should ! Have a great day. Your Brother Alan in Seattle

At 1/15/2024 07:46:00 PM, Blogger Alan said...

PS- I remember when the Academics told us Roundup was safe. It turns out you can pat yourself on the back all year and still be hoodwinked.

At 1/16/2024 06:16:00 AM, Blogger Acoustic FeedBack said...

YES!!! Neil Young is Cortez. That makes sense.

At 1/16/2024 09:32:00 AM, Blogger Ron said...

Glad to see all the discussion and comments.

I usually try to avoid analysing lyrics too closely - as has been said everyone has different interpretations and our own circumstances affect what we hear and feel. And often there may not be a 'right' analysis.

I do like puzzles though and CTK has always puzzled me! The comment I shared kinda made sense to me, and wasn't an interpretation I had seen or heard before.

@Thrasher - I am with you on the benefit of new eyes/ears and the feminine perspective. After watching one of your posts including a Youtube video I came across another Youtube video which you might appreciate. It's by Abigail Devoe, a review of Harvest as part of her Monday Vinyl series. I don't know her at all and haven't watched any of her other videos but I felt the half hour spent watching this one was time well spent. She seems very knowledgeable and gets her thoughts over well.


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... and symbolism will be their downfall...

Brighter Planet's 350 Challenge
Be The Rain, Be The Change

the truth will set you free
This Machine Kills Fascists

"Children of Destiny" - THE Part of THE Solution

(Frame from Official Music Video)

war is not the answer
yet we are
Still Living With War

"greed is NOT good"
Hey Big Brother!
Stop Spying On Us!
Civic Duty Is Not Terrorism

The Achilles Heel
Orwell (and Grandpa) Was Right
“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.”
~~ Bob Marley

The Essence of "The Doubters"

Yes, There's Definitely A Hole in The Sky

Even Though The Music Died 50+ Years Ago
Open Up the "Tired Eyes" & Wake up!
"consciousness is near"
What's So Funny About
Peace, Love, & Understanding & Music?


Show Me A Sign

"Who is John Galt?"
To ask the question is to know the answer

"Whosoever shall give up his liberty for a temporary security
deserves neither liberty nor safety."

~~ Benjamin Franklin


(Between the lines of age)

And in the end, the love you take
Is equal to the love you make

~~ John & Paul

the zen of neil
the power of rust
the karma of the wheat