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The Great Songs: Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Cortez the Killer

by Eric Melin on October 13, 2010

in Columns,The Great Songs

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.

Live Rust Young Crazy HorseOf 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:

The Great Songs: Big Star – Thirteen

The Great Songs: The Kinks – Waterloo Sunset

The Great Songs: The Jayhawks – Blue

The Great Songs: Pavement – Summer Babe

The Great Songs: The Zombies – Care of Cell 44

The Great Songs: The O’Jays – Back Stabbers

The Great Songs: Queen & David Bowie – Under Pressure

The Great Songs: George Jones – He Stopped Loving Her Today

The Great Songs: Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart

The Great Songs: KISS – Deuce

The Great Songs: The Flying Burrito Brothers – Hot Burrito #1

The Great Songs: The Flaming Lips – Do You Realize??

The Great Songs: Pink Floyd – Astronomy Domine

The Great Songs: The Beach Boys – Surf’s Up

The Great Songs: Marvin Gaye – Let’s Get it On

The Great Songs: Slayer – Angel of Death

The Great Songs: Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Beyond Belief

The Great Songs: The Replacements – Unsatisfied

The Great Songs: Cheap Trick – Surrender

The Great Songs: Guided by Voices – Motor Away

The Great Songs: The Louvin Brothers – Knoxville Girl

The Great Songs: Badfinger – Baby Blue

The Great Songs: Ray Charles – That Lucky Old Sun

The Great Songs: Television – Marquee Moon

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of and writes for The Pitch. He’s former President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls, Ultimate Fakebook, and Truck Stop Love . He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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