The story behind the song #3: Cortez the killer

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 coca leaves and pearls

In his halls he often wandered

With the secrets of the worlds

His subjects gathered ’round him

Like the leaves around a tree

In their clothes of many colors

For the angry Gods to see

The women all were beautiful

Men stood straight and strong

They offered life in sacrifice

So others could go on

Hate was just a legend

War was never known

People worked together

And they lifted many stones

And they carried them to the flatlands

But they died along the way

And they built up with their bare hands

What we still can’t do today

And I know she’s living there

She loves me to this day

I still can’t remember where

Or how I lost my way

He came dancing across the water

Cortez, Cortez

What a killer

What a killer


Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” is the eighth track on his 1975 album, Zuma, which was his second outing with Crazy Horse, an American group, who worked with the Canadian rocker on a number of albums. According to Wikipedia, the song reached #39 on Guitar World’s 100 Greatest Guitar Solos and #321 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Cortez the Killer deals with Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador, who with just 600 soldiers, was able to conquer Tenochtitlán, with a population of 200,000, thus bringing down the Aztec Empire in 1521, just two years after starting on his expedition. The song presents a romanticised vision of the Aztecs: apparently all of the native women were beautiful.

But it is Young’s characterization of the human sacrifice which takes this idealisation to new heights. He fails to mention how sacrifices were carried out. Victims were tied to an altar, their chests sliced open and their still-beating hearts offered to appease “the angry gods.” The eighth Aztec king Ahuitzotl, who was Montezuma’s predecessor, is said to have organized the sacrifice of more than 80,400 prisoners during a four-day bloodfest at the 1487 inauguration of the Great Temple to Huitzilopochtli in Tenochtitlán. The killing rate of fourteen victims a minute over the ninety-six-hour period actually outdoes the daily murder record at Auschwitz. Four convex killing tables, which were arranged that the victims could be easily kicked down the pyramid, were the key to this macabre production line. The teams of executioners were periodically replaced to keep them fresh. These sacrifices were designed to intimidate their opponents. Of course, according to Young they were willing victims, prepared to sacrifice their lives so that others could go on. How public spirited of them!

In no way could the Aztec society be described as a peaceful utopia. The Aztecs and their neighbours were perfectly well acquainted with hate and war. The Aztecs were a belligerent civilization, perpetually at war with neighbouring peoples. What is true is that they had traditionally fought differently to the European style. Victor Davis Hansen has pointed out how they were subject to significant cultural and geographical constraints without horses or oxen, or even the wheel. Without pack animals the operational range of Aztec armies was limited by the amount of food and supplies their human porters could carry. Military historians describe their mode of combat as “flowery war.” This was a special ritualised form of warfare, where two enemy states would plan battles through mutual arrangement. Aztec warriors were used to capturing their enemies in battle rather than killing them. Fighting was rare in the rainy period between May and September and night combat was frowned upon. Europe, on the other hand was a brutal school of war. The Spaniards were perfectly willing and able to fight all year round, day or night, at home and abroad, on land and sea, with few natural or human restrictions. It was war without quarter. The Spanish swordsmen and pikemen had been drilled expertly drilled in the art of killing with a single stroke.

The Spanish conquest was not just accomplished by a small number of white Spaniards. Cortes was able to enlist the cooperation of a number of indigenous allies, such as the Nahuas, the Tlaxcaltec and the Totonacs. These allies outnumbered the actual Spanish forces by many hundreds to one. Why did they help the Spaniards? They perceived the Aztecs as an aggressive imperialist power who took prisoners and tribute from them. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Cortés could not have conquered Tenochtitlán without the support of these native allies.

The last verse – “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” may be partly autobiographical. The song was written around the time of the break-up with his wife Carrie Snodgress.  The song fades out after around seven and a half minutes. In the book Neil and Me, Neil’s father claimed the recording process had ground to halt after an electrical circuit had blown. Thus the final verse was lost to posterity. However, his son said that that he had “never liked that verse anyway.”

The real story of Cortés and Montezuma is far more interesting than Young’s simplistic vision. The fall of the Aztecs is one of those epic tales in which it is hard to separate myth from reality. The colonisation of the Americas followed different patterns. The early Spanish settlers came to the New World representing church and state; in the north the puritans were escaping from the state and creating their city on the hill. Most of the conquistadors were young men in their twenties, looking to return to Spain by the age of forty with status, money, and vast estates – they would not have been able to acquire all this in the home country. This period is known as the golden age in Spanish history, but really the age of silver would be more accurate. Between 1500 and 1650 180 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver would arrive in Spain from the New World.

Apart from the aforementioned military factors, the success of the conquistadors can be put down to the devastating effect of European diseases, for which the Indians had no resistance, and the important technological advantages. If you want the big picture of why it wasn’t Montezuma who conquered Europe, read Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel.

The glory days of the conquistadors did not last long. Two decades after the conquest of Tenochtitlán, they had become an anachronistic embarrassment. They were the product of a particular time and place. While one can admire their audacity, their effect on the native populations was catastrophic. In the north the modus operandi was different, but results were the same, if not worse, in terms of the indigenous peoples. In Matthew White’s list of the world’s hundred deadliest atrocities the conquest of the Americas after 1492 comes in at #11 with 15,000,000 deaths.

One Response to The story behind the song #3: Cortez the killer

  1. Alberto says:

    Extremely neutral point of view.

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