Cortez the Killer

13 Jan


He came dancing across the water
With his galleons and guns
Looking for the new world
In that palace in the sun
On the shore lay Montezuma
With his cocoa leaves and pearls
In his halls, he often wandered
With the secrets of the worlds
And his subjects gathered round him
Like the leaves around a tree
In their clothes of many colors
For the angry gods to see
And the women all were beautiful
And the men stood straight and strong
They offered life in sacrifice
So that others could go on
Hate was just a legend
And war was never known
The people worked together
And they lifted many stones
They carried them to the flatlands
And they died along the way
But they built up with their bare hands
What we still cant build today
And I know shes living there
And she loves me to this day
I still cant remember when
Or how I lost my way
Cortez, Cortez
He came dancing across the water
Cortez, Cortez
What a killer

Off Neil Young’s 1975 album, Zuma, Cortez the Killer is about the explorer Cortez and his confrontation with the Aztecs. To me, CTK is a metaphor that illustrates the finding of the thing you’ve been looking for the hardest and that you cherish as perfect or your heart’s desire and by finding it, you destroy it — realizing it was just a dream after all.

The original:

Neil Young

Two GREAT covers:

Warren Haynes and Dave Mattews

Grace Potter


6 responses to “Cortez the Killer

  1. shrewspeaks

    January 13, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    Nioce…very nioce.

  2. Pingback: War Music
  3. brc

    January 14, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    Well I actually like the lyrics to this one better than the performances. They all seem sort of plodding to me. Maybe because I’m such a melody/sing-a-long girl and this doesn’t lend itself much to that.

    I think your interpretation is very interesting. I’m curious who you think the “she” refers to in the song?

    BTW, the link to the original isn’t working.

  4. music maven

    January 14, 2008 at 5:50 pm

    link is working for me.

    As for the “she”, I happen to ascribe to the notion that Young jumped into a first-person “Cortez” in the last verse and is referring to Dona Marina who was a native that was Cortez’s interpreter. She became his mistress and had a son by Cortez before he returned to Spain.

    I think the “killer” label is more about killing the way of life among the Aztecs, who previously were thought to have a near-Utopia. By exposing them to Eureopean ways and methods, he retarded what everyone regarded as the ideal and so longed to find and replicate. He also brought disease and illness that the natives had no resistance to, so in that way, I guess he is also considered “a killer”.

    Or, Neil Young could have just got a hold of some good grass….

  5. brc

    January 14, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    I think you’re probably right. “Killer” is likely intended to be both literal and figurative.

    “Good grass…” tee hee 🙂

  6. brc

    January 15, 2008 at 8:05 am

    Some interesting tidbits from DH who just got his master’s degree in Spanish Colonial Literature…

    Dona Marina (aka Malinche) was a Mayan noblewoman who was captured by the Aztecs and put into slavery. When Montezuma heard that the Spaniards were approaching Tenochtitlan he sent many gifts, among them women (including Malinche). Malinche spoke Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs as well as her own Mayan language. She translated through Geronimo de Aguilar who knew Mayan and Spanish, having been captured on a previous expedition. Soon Malinche became Cortez’ lover and quickly learned Spanish. Eventually she bore his son (Cortez was already married). After the conquest of Mexico in 1523, Cortez married her off to one of his captains. (DH maintains that Cortez never loved her as he was very well known as a womanizer).

    One of the reasons that the Spanish were able to conquer such a vast empire with only 500 men is that the Aztecs were hated among other Indian groups because they had invaded the area two centuries before the Spaniards arrived. Because of that Cortez was able to make alliances with other native groups who were keen to see the end of the Aztec domination.

    So the net, net is that DH thinks this song WAY idealizes the Aztec empire/culture and, while he thinks the “she” could be Malinche, he doesn’t think Cortez really loved her as the song would suggest.

    Now how’s that for more information than you ever wanted 😉


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