I don’t know if its because I picked an epic guitar rock tune from last week or if its because I was listening to the new Neil Young album “Le Noise” yesterday and wishing it were as good as “Zuma,” but either way, my choice for this week in The Great Songs series is one of those signature numbers that define an artist. The studio version, recorded in 1975 for “Zuma,” is above. The live version from 1979′s “Live Rust” is below.
Of course, when you’re dealing with someone as slippery and chaotic as Neil Young (acoustic albums, electronic albums, concept records, and electronic vocoder jams), that’s not really true, is it? “Cortez the Killer” defines one era of Young: His signature electric guitar stuff that he did with his backup band Crazy Horse.
Like Young’s best distortion-filled rock, “Cortez the Killer” is sloppy, melodic, and beautiful. It’s almost three and a half minutes before the vocals even come in. There’s something about this simple repeating chord structure that is just plain haunting. Young is soloing in double drop D tuning and drummer Ralph Molina is so behind the beat that he actually loses it every now and then.
If you ever wanted to hear a perfect archetype of Young’s rambling guitar work, this song is it, but the nice thing is that its not based on some lame kind of knee-jerk need to show off what a virtuoso musician he is. It’s emotional and guttural. I hear a ton of Young’s style in J Mascis, for example. The fact that it is ranked #39 on Guitar World’s 100 Greatest Guitar Solos is pretty amazing considering that it flies in the face of what most guitarists would consider technical proficiency.
Lyrically, the song is about Hernán Cortés, a Spanish conquistador who conquered Mexico in the 16th century. But after making sad and reverent reference to the downfall of the Aztecs, Young manages to make it personal: “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.”
An interesting tidbit about “Cortez the Killer” from Wikipedia: The song fades out after nearly seven and a half minutes because (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.” The additional verse has not been performed or recorded to this day.
The Great Songs series so far: