This song is about Hernán Cortez, the Spanish conqueror of the Aztec Empire. The Aztecs lived in what is now considered Mexico, and Cortez had an army of 600 sail from what is now Cuba to the Aztec town of Tobasco (yes, where the hot peppers and the name of the sauce originally came from). The Aztecs thought Cortez was a god and bowed before him. They let his army roam free. Cortez, however, became wary of their good nature and took their leader hostage. He then captured and killed many of their people. He also unwittingly brought new diseases to the Americas, which the natives had no immunities towards. On top of all this, he built what is now Mexico City with slave labor. He returned to Spain a hero.
Neil Young's song brings an interesting alternative viewpoint to the history of Cortez' invasion. While not a complete history of Cortez or the Aztecs, it's title alone gives you a very good idea of how Young viewed the invasion. Young's romantic imagery near end of the track highlight the emotional toll (lost romance, etc.) of the invasion.
Joe - Piscataway, NJ, for above 2
Peace is a theme of this song. From verse six: "But they built up with their bare hands, what we still can't do today" indicates that even in the most barbarian times there was still peace, and in present day, as sophisticated as it may be, there is anything but peace. The Aztecs were peaceful, representing sort of a utopian nonviolent society. Cortez and the Spanish brigade used trickery to beat the Aztecs, people who had never committed any offensive acts towards the Spanish. The Spanish could represent the status quo society, completely antonymic from the amicable Aztecs.
John - Manhattan, KS
Neil Young's ex-wife Pegi
is also a singer/songwriter. When we spoke with Pegi and asked how personal experiences inspired her songs, she told us: "I think there's little kernels of our lives in many of our songs, unless you're writing 'Cortez' or something. It must have been in another life my husband was an Incan warrior."
The last verse switches from a third to a first-person perspective, characterizing the faceless, historical figure of Cortez into someone romantically pining for an unnamed somebody: "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." Since the song was written around the time of his split with wife Carrie Snodgress, there's speculation that it's at least partially autobiographical. However, when Jimmy McDoncough, author of the young biography Shakey, questioned the singer about this, Neil simply said: "Its not about information. The song is not meant for them to think about me. 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."
The song fades out after around seven and a half minutes. According to Neil's father in the book Neil and Me, this was because an electrical circuit had blown, halting the recording process. This caused a final verse to be lost; Neil, however, opined that he "never liked that verse anyway." While an official recording of the lost verse was never released, the singer added the lines, "Ship is breaking up on the rocks. Sand beach... so close" to the end of the song while on his 2003 Greedale Tour.
This song has one of the longest intros in rock: Young's vocals done come in until 3:22.
During a show in Manassas, Virginia on August 13, 1996, Young told the audience that he wrote this song after eating too many hamburgers in high school. "One night I stayed up too late when I was goin' to high school. I ate like six hamburgers or something. 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."
The song's slow, rambling vibe was partly down to rhythm guitarist Frank Sampedro's drug use. Sampedro recalled to Uncut: "When we recorded 'Cortez,' I had just smoked some angel dust. The whole song I thought the second chord, D, was the first chord. So I emphasized that every time round, while Neil was leaning on the first chord, E minor. I think that helped keep a really slow tune moving along."