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The Story Behind The Song: How Neil Young created the heartbreaking 'Cortez the Killer'

Neil Young is one of the all-time greats when it comes to the art of songwriting. Whether it be the proto-grunge of his work with Danny Whitten and Crazy Horse, the haunting folk of his acoustic creationsor even the mature wisdom of his more contemporary efforts, Neil Young is one of the most adept songwriters the world has ever known.

One of his greatest accomplishments, however, is without a doubt the 1975 album Zuma. It was the record that saw Crazy Horse reformed after Danny Whitten‘s death, and with new guitarist Frank Sampedro, this was a return to form for both Young and band. Interestingly, Zuma is also a rather depressing album, and at many points, Young discusses the infidelities of his ex-girlfriend, Carrie Snodgress, imbuing the record with a palpable sense of heartbreak something that we’ve all experienced to varying extents over the years.

Possibly the most lamentable track on the album is the masterpiece ‘Cortez the Killer’. Featuring the long, solemn guitar work at the beginning, it is a fan favourite of Young’s songs. Notably, the song’s title is inspired by the murderous conquistador, Hernán Cortés, the man who conquered Mexico and parts of the Americas for Spain in the 16the century. The title also evokes the death of the Aztec ruler Montezuma II, who died fighting Cortés’ forces. 

The lyrics come in at the 3:23 mark, and the first segment described Cortés and his “galleons and guns”, reaching the shores of the New World. Young explains that here lived Montezuma, the Aztec emperor who was full of wisdom and incredibly wealthy, but that his civilisation was doomed regardless of its achievements and serenity. 

Young also took a left-field turn in the last verse. He jumps from third-person to first-person and suddenly discusses an unnamed woman. He sings: “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.” At the time of writing, Young had only recently split from Snodgress, and many commentators believe this part of being about her. 

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In Jimmy McDonough’s biography of Young, Shakey, he asked the Canadian troubadour if any of his songs were autobiographical, to which Young responded: “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 fades out at nearly seven and a half minutes, which has been attributed to an electrical circuit blowing, causing the studio’s console to lose power. This meant that the rest of the instrumental and a final verse was lost. It is said that when producer David Briggs broke the news to the band, Young replied with insouciance, “I never liked that verse anyway”.

Although the identity of this mysterious last verse has never been officially released, in 2003, Young added a couple of lines to the end of the song during his Greendale tour in 2003, singing: “Ship is breaking up on the rocks / Sandy beach . . . so close.” If this was the mysterious final verse, you could argue that the song is almost certainly an allegory for the end of Young and Snodgress’s relationship, regardless of what the typically opaque Young claims.

Listen to ‘Cortez the Killer’ below.