The Isolated Vocals Neil Young’s ‘Cortez The Killer’ Is Beyond Amazing

Neil Young has long ago solidified his position as one of the most exceptional songwriters in history. His musical repertoire spans various styles, including the early grunge collaboration with Danny Whitten and Crazy Horse, the evocative folk tunes he crafts on acoustic instruments, and the mature reflections seen in his more recent compositions.

Across these diverse expressions, Neil Young emerged as a supremely skilled songwriter and has left many people in awe of his wisdom and imagination.

Among his numerous achievements, the 1975 album Zuma remains one of his best. This record marked the resurgence of Crazy Horse following the tragic passing of Danny Whitten. With the addition of new guitarist Frank Sampedro, the album became a revival for both Neil Young and the band.

Interestingly, Zuma carries a somber undertone, with Young soaking in the depressing thoughts of infidelity by his former partner, Carrie Snodgress. This emotional theme infuses the album with a profound sense of heartache that resonates with universal experiences of sorrow over time.

Possibly the most lamentable track on the album is the masterpiece “Cortez the Killer”. Featuring the long, solemn guitar work at the beginning, it is a fan favorite of Young’s songs. It was also accented by a left-turn change that echoed the heartbreak of Young.

The dismal vibes of the album are even more pronounced by the haunting isolated vocals of the singer, which can be heard below:

Cortez The Singer
In the full version of the track, Young’s voice takes on a haunting and restrained quality, free from the super-high notes and octave jumps that punctuate his broader musical repertoire. This restrained space suits his voice perfectly, creating an atmosphere that feels as though it has reverberated across cultures and centuries.

The song’s title draws inspiration from Hernán Cortés, the notorious conquistador responsible for Spain’s conquest of Mexico and parts of the Americas in the 16th century. The title also alludes to the demise of Aztec ruler Montezuma II, who valiantly fought against Cortés’ forces.

The lyrics enter at the 3:23 mark, beginning with a segment describing Cortés and his formidable armada reaching the shores of the New World. Young narrates the presence of Montezuma, the wise and affluent Aztec emperor, residing in this land. Despite the civilization’s achievements and tranquility, Young conveys the sense of inevitable doom that hangs over it.

Young’s former spouse, Pegi, once noted, “I think there’s little kernels of our lives in many of our songs, unless you’re writing ‘Cortez’ or something,” She humorously added, “It must have been in another life my husband was an Incan warrior.”

The intrigue surrounding the meaning of “Cortez the Killer” captivated many fans. For Young, though, the exact structure and storyline of the song were secondary to the emotions it evoked in the audience.

“It’s not about information. The song is not meant for them to think about me,” Young clarified in the biography Shakey. “The song is meant for people to think about themselves. The specifics about what songs are about are not necessarily constructive or relevant. A lot of stuff I make up because it came to me.”

During a performance in Manassas, Virginia, on August 13th, 1996, Young playfully concocted a tale involving a hamburger binge as the inspiration behind “Cortez the Killer.” He quipped, “One night I stayed up too late when I was goin’ to high school. I ate like six hamburgers or something,” Young said to have told the crowd.

This whimsical story continued with Young saying “I felt terrible… very bad… this is before McDonald’s. I was studying history, and in the morning I woke up I’d written this song.”

Cortez The Broken
In an unexpected twist, the final verse of “Cortez the Killer” takes a sudden turn. Young shifts from third-person narration to first-person perspective and introduces an unnamed woman.

He sings, “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.” At the time of composing the song, Young had just recently ended his relationship with Snodgress, leading many to speculate that this segment pertains to her.

In Shakey, author Jimmy McDonough asked the musician about the autobiographical nature of his songs. Young’s response was candid: “What the fuck am I doing writing about Aztecs in ‘Cortez the Killer’ like I was there, wandering around? ‘Cause I only read about it in a few books. A lotta shit I just made up because it came to me.”

The song gradually fades out after nearly seven and a half minutes, attributed to an electrical malfunction that caused the studio console to lose power. Consequently, the remaining instrumental and a final verse were lost.

Upon learning of this mishap, producer David Briggs informed the band, prompting Young to casually remark, “I never liked that verse anyway.”

Although the content of the enigmatic last verse remains undisclosed, Neil Young introduced a few lines to conclude the song during his Greendale tour in 2003. He sang, “Ship is breaking up on the rocks / Sandy beach . . . so close.”

If this serves as the enigmatic concluding verse, it is plausible to interpret the song as an allegory for the conclusion of Young and Snodgress’s relationship, regardless of Young’s typically enigmatic statements.

Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro, the guitarist, shared that the lyrics of “Cortez the Killer” weren’t his primary focus while recording the song with Young and Crazy Horse. He recalled being under the influence of drugs, specifically angel dust.

Sampedro misinterpreted the chord progression, emphasizing the second chord, D, instead of the first, E minor. This unexpected interpretation, combined with Young’s approach, contributed to the song’s unhurried yet compelling pace.

Experience the full track below:

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