Neil Young News
Cortez The Killer lyrics by Neil Young
[Note: This is one of a series of articles which provide an explanation of the meaning of Neil's "Cortez". While the interpretation of lyrics presented here is composed of several viewpoints, there is little consensus on the exact meaning of Neil's songs. The themes and symbolism of Young's songwriting provide a rich tapestry on which to project various meanings and analysis. ]
One song on the album Zuma, “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.
[Listen to sample MP3 clip of "Cortez" from Zuma album.]
In Mexico, Cortez is viewed less favorably. From Wikipedia, the Aztecs lived in what is now considered Mexico. In the early 1500's, Cortez had an army of 600 sail from what is now Cuba to the Aztec nation where he was considered to be a god.
Cortez took their leader -- Emperor Montezuma -- as hostage and then killed many of the Aztecs. He also unwittingly brought new diseases to the Americas, which the natives had no immunities towards. He built what is now Mexico City with slave labor and returned to Spain a hero.
While Neil Young's song is not entirely historically accurate, it does evoke a sense of the tragic collision of the New and Old Worlds. Surprisingly, Young's literary license has been called into question by quite a number of historians.
On the website devoted to Hernando Cortes, Tim Spalding makes the spectacular claim:
A provocative essay on Blog with a View: First Glimpse of Cortez:
"Neal [sic] Young writes some good songs, but his Mesoamerican scholarship leaves a little to be desired."
From the article American Educator - Cultural Literacy Rocks by Matthew Davis, who has some quibbles with Young's lyrical/historical record:
Young also glides over the subject of human sacrifice. It is true that the Aztecs "offered life in sacrifice / So that others could go on." They believed that such sacrifices would appease the gods. But the lives they sacrificed were human lives: sacrificial victims were tied to an altar, whereupon their chests were sliced open and their still-beating hearts offered to "the angry gods." By avoiding the fact that the Aztecs killed human beings and emphasizing the unselfish motives behind these sacrifices, Young puts a cheerful face on a terrible practice and presents a one-sided view of the Aztecs.
"Hate was just a legend, / And war was never known," is more of the same kind of romanticizing, all too common today. The residents of pre-Columbian Mexico were well acquainted with hate and war. In fact, the Aztecs stand out in the annals of history as an exceptionally belligerent civilization: In order to keep their altars supplied with a steady diet of sacrificial victims, the Aztec emperors kept up a perpetual war with neighboring peoples.
It would be more accurate to say that "peace was never known."
More analysis of the song below.
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 03 May 1995 18:48:01 EDT
Subject: Cortez the Killer
We've done some patchwork on the understanding of Cortez, but to me it was not very satisfying yet. I've taken a close look at the lyrics today and I have some ideas now I want to tell you. (Although I'm not sure how much ado one should make about a song where the narrator admits at the end that he's highly confused...;-)
The whole song consists of 8 verses, where the last is not complete. Verse 1 makes us familiar with the theme and introduces Cortez. Verses 2-6 describe Montezuma's world. Verse 7 deals with the mysterious "She" we already discussed, and in Verse 8 Cortez is blamed as a killer.
Verse 1 introduces Cortez, and verse 2 introduces Montezuma as his counterpart: Cortez is moving (dancing across the water), Montezuma is still (on the shore lay Montezuma). Cortez is searching (that palace in the sun), Montezuma has found it (he often wandered with the secrets of the world). So one could say, Montezuma is the idealized image of what Cortez wants to be.
In Verses 3-6 we are allowed to have some closer looks at M's world. V3 describes Montezuma's people as "leaves around a tree", so the whole people is only one entire organism. This refers to an ancestral mythological idea which is known today as Gaia Theory.
In the following verses the description of Montezuma's world becomes more and more fantastic and unbelievable: "the women all were beautiful" (no, I won't comment on that!), "hate was just a legend", and so on. But why does the song more and more lose connection to (historical) reality? Because it has to compensate the irritations we are faced with when we become familiar with M's word, because the bad aspects are focused: angry gods, "they offered life in sacrifice", "they died along the way", a little piece of this information in every verse.
The better we get to know this supposed paradise, the clearer it gets that it ain't what we thought it could be to us. The line "but they built up with there bare hands / what we still can't do today" is the last, desperate defense, claiming that they were at least good workmen. The last word "today" definitely ends this dream and functions as a bridge to reality, where the narrator is longing for the mysterious "she". I've no idea what this She means in detail, a certain woman or "the woman of my dreams".
The last verse repeats the very first line and refers to Cortez, who is accused of being a killer. He's a killer not only in the historical meaning as the murderer of many of those indians. On the metaphorical level he has killed the dream that paradise could be a real place on earth, because he tried to find it, and therefore now "it's all illusion anyway".
Or, as Mr. Young said: Love is a rose but you better don't pick it.
Or: Jesus I don't believe you, you can't deliver right away.
Or: Maybe the Star of Bethlehem wasn't a star at all.
Hope this little tract inspires some of you to add own ideas. Enjoy!
[Listen to sample MP3 clip of "Cortez" from Zuma album.]
Discussion on Dave Matthews Band - Cortez, The Killer
by majii on 09-22-2004 @ 04:29:06 PM