“Cortez the Killer” hails from Zuma, one of Neil Young’s most overlooked albums, often lost in the shuffle of its predecessor, the much-praised Tonight’s the Night, which came out just five months prior. But there’s really a very simple explanation for the song’s high rating. Just take it from Young himself, who once proclaimed that, “ ‘Cortez’ is some of my best guitar playing ever!”
Remarkably, the song’s structure was largely shaped by an accident—a power failure which occurred in the midst of recording a perfect, transcendent take of the song. Rather than recut the tune, Young just plowed forward and later he and producer David Briggs went back and did some creative editing, which required the lopping off of several verses. “They missed a whole verse, a whole section!” Young says. “You can hear the splice on the recording where we stop and start again. It’s a messy edit…incredible! It was a total accident. But that’s how I see my best art, as one magical accident after another. That’s what is so incredible.”
“Cortez the Killer,” about the Spanish explorer who conquered Mexico with bloody success, is also a prime example of Young’s physical style of lead playing.
“I am a naturally very destructive person,” he says. “And that really comes out in my guitar playing. Man, if you think of guitar playing in terms of boxing…well let’s just say I’m not the kind of guitarist you’d want to play against. I’m just scarred by life. Nothing in particular. No more scarred than anyone else. Only other people often don’t let themselves know how damaged they are, like I do and deal with it.”