I know some people have trouble with the voice. Sometimes there’s just no getting past it - even ardent fans of Neil Young might not love every performance. If you’d never heard him sing, but you had heard him described as “the Godfather of grunge”, the oddly weak-sounding, sometimes strained, uncomfortably high in the register delivery might come as a bit of a shock.
But it’s hard not to warm to Neil Young: he has a unique ability to exist as both Neil Young the folksy balladeer and Neil Young the rock god; he has a self-belief that led him to record a rockabilly album in response to his label’s displeasure at the failure of the experimental Trans, and refusal to release the country album he offered as its follow-up; he is unapologetically insistent that an oddly triangular portable music player is going to save the music industry - a subject that he is not shy of bringing up in his charmingly unstructured autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace.
It’s also hard not to admire Young’s extensive and varied back catalogue. As well as a long solo career he has enjoyed success as a member of Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Nash, Stills & Young, he recorded an album (Mirrorball) with Pearl Jam, and has a long-standing and fruitful working partnership with Crazy Horse.
Cortez The Killer is taken from Young’s 1975 album, Zuma. After the success of the largely country-folk albums After the Goldrush and Harvest, and the death of friend and Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, Young retreated, as he put it, “to the ditch”. He wrote and recorded a musical outpouring of grief in the form of Tonight’s The Night, and released the live tour album Time Fades Away. A new studio album On The Beach was released in 1974; the following year saw the release of both Tonight’s The Night and Zuma.
The song’s lyric loosely and innocently documents the arrival of Hernán Cortés into the court of Montezuma, and the death and destruction wreaked by the conquistador and his cavalry. The main attraction, though, is the drawn-out, jam-like structure of the song and the guitar solo that flows through it. At over seven minutes long (it would have been longer, had a verse not been lost due to electrical failure, replaced on the album by a fade), you feel Young could keep this one spinning forever, gently teasing new variations on the basic melody.
Like September Gurls yesterday, Cortez The Killer is in the “before my time, but an influence on later artists” category. In fact, the same artist, Teenage Fanclub, was influenced by both: Cortez isn’t too hard to spot in their track Gene Clark, from Thirteen, released in 1993: