Cortez the Killer

Wherein I go on and on about a magnificently weird song

Hey, There,

So, here in Month 7 of the Weirdest, Worst Time, I’ve gotten really into Neil Young. If you know me, you’ve probably seen this sort of thing before. This just seems to be one of the ways I interface with music; I go deep on some artist, for whatever reason.

Neil Young, holding a guitar so valuable that attaching a numerical value to it is probably impossible, and which he has decided to stick a Santa Cruz sticker onto

But of all the musicians I love, Neil Young has this thing that kicks him the furthest, I think, into the realm of art. He’s had big hits—“Heart of Gold” was a #1 single—but a look at his career makes it really clear that this is just a guy with a head full of weird ideas, wandering around and pursuing them as he sees fit, without worrying about if it’s going to sell or not or if it’s going to dilute the brand or whatever. This, by my lights, is as pure an artistic existence as you can get, and the fact that he’s managed to do it within the confines of the mainstream music industry is nothing more than amazing.*

*For instance, check out Graham Nash’s story about Young wiring two buildings on opposite sides of a lake to serve as a giant stereo system; if that isn’t art, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, one song that’s really stood out in this round of Young-mania has been “Cortez the Killer,” Young’s 1975 song about the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. See what I mean about not caring about sales? I go back and forth on whether it’s a great song; but I’m unshakably convinced that it’s a fascinating song, maybe the purest expression of music-as-weird-highly-personal-art that I can think of. The original studio recording is 7 minutes, 29 seconds long; it would have been longer, but the studio suffered a power failure as they were recording and at least one verse was lost. Young and his producer simply edited the song to fade out before the loss. Live versions get longer, much longer.

If you haven’t heard the song and want to get a sense of it, here you go:

It might not be your thing; there’s a very good chance it isn’t your thing. It’s a very specific thing: almost eight minutes of three chords repeating (Em, D, Am, essentially, if you care to pick up a guitar and plink along), with sparse, strange words and a serpentine guitar part that coils repeatedly around itself. I might be overinclined to respect weirdness, but I think it’s just so weird that it commands respect even if the aesthetics don’t grab you.

The words are minimal but very present: they somehow manage to be both evocative, powerful, ridiculous, and kind of cringey (Young claims he first wrote them in high school after a unit studying the Aztecs; getting fired up about books and then writing songs about them would be an ongoing theme with him). Here’s some of the first verse:

He came dancing across the water
With his galleons and guns
Looking for a new world
A palace in the sun
On the shore lay Montezuma
With his cocoa leaves and pearls
In his halls he often wondered
The secrets of the worlds

They’re not great, but again, they’re evocative, especially when delivered with the already-weird Neil Young voice. And there’s this weird mix of them being admirable for centering the Aztec experience—definitely not the normal thing for white rock musicians to be doing in the 1970s—while also being suuuper cringe-inducing with the way they exoticize Aztec people (and then there’s the weird faux-Jamaican accent he adopts for a few lines towards the end of the live version). I’m never sure where I come down on this… I think any Native person would be 1000% justified to tell Neil young to stay the fuck in his lane; on the other hand, I think there’s something of value in writing a song, however weird and flawed, that examines genocide from the nonwhite perspective.

“Cortez the Killer” isn’t remotely jazz, but there’s this weird jazzy spirit to it, in the sense that it’s simple enough (again, just three chords looping endlessly) but evocative enough that it inspires endless improvisation. Young’s versions of it are always excuses for him to take his guitar to strange new places (FWIW, I think his best version of the song is the live one on Live Rust, Jamaican accent notwithstanding). But it’s not just him; I think “Cortez the Killer” is up there in the “Louie Louie” tier of most-covered songs. It is to guitar bands what “When the Saints go Marching In” is to New Orleans-style jazz bands. Spotify has versions by Built to Spill (20 minutes, each of them glorious), Matthew Sweet, Dave Matthews Band (sigh)*, Gov’t Mule, Slint, the Bottle Rockets, John Cale and Nico, and on, and on. Tracking down a long-rumored version of Uncle Tupelo doing it was a highlight of the past couple of years for me. Much like the way comedians like to express their specific (nasty) comedic persona by working up their own filthy version of the Aristocrats joke, “Cortez the Killer” seems to draw expressive guitarists like moths to a flame. I joked the other day about starting a band called Cortez the Killers whose sets would just be 30 minutes of extended jam on the song; now I think that’s not a bad idea.

*By the way, the next time you think of Google as a 100% reliable arbiter of truth, consider this:

I don’t know what this adds up to, to be honest. It’ a really weird song by a pretty weird artist, probably weird enough to be off-putting for you unless you really like strange journeys with the electric guitar. I guess I’m just saying three cheers for people working in any artistic medium who’re willing to just let it all hang out and get weird. More of that, please, and less careful calibration to enhance the personal brand.

Right on. Stay safe.


RECOMMENDATION

I’m not a vegan, but I’ve been a vegetarian for over 20 years and that has meant frequent swerves into vegan country looking for good recipes. And the undisputed champ of that space is Isa Chandra Moskowitz. We have three of her cookbooks, and have yet to encounter a recipe in either that doesn’t flat-out rule. Not just “good for something vegan,” straight-up “this food is so good it ought to be illegal.” So, as we continue on into the Covid  winter, if you’re looking for new stuff to cook, I highly recommend grabbing either I Can Cook Vegan or Isa Does It.


SOME LINKS

I really enjoy Bret Devereaux’s writing on a lot of historico-nerdy subjects; but this piece on the practical case for the humanities is extremely up my alley:
https://acoup.blog/2020/07/03/collections-the-practical-case-on-why-we-need-the-humanities/

In some ways, the 90s and early 2000s were a case of my over and over encountering the work of rad cartoonists and slowly deciding that maybe that art form was for me. One of those rad cartoonists was Chris Monroe, and it’s great to see that she’s finding a new wave of success:
https://mspmag.com/arts-and-culture/chris-monroe-monkey-tool-belt/


CLOSING STUFF

OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.

If you have any thoughts/reactions/what have you about this, I’d love to hear about it, either by email or on Twitter. And if you know anybody who might dig this, please forward it on to them, or send ‘em the signup link! And thanks!