Every week in Rear-View Mirror, Rich Terfry looks back at a great song from the good ol’ days.
In 1975, Neil Young wrote a song based on a story he remembered from a history class at his high school in Winnipeg. The song was then banned in Spain for it's dark depiction of Spanish colonization of the new world.
The song is about a conquistador named Hernan Cortez who conquered Mexico for Spain by defeating the Aztecs. Accounts of Cortez' life and exploits are few. Because of this, there tends to be sharp division in descriptions of Cortez as either the honorable cavalier or the ruthless conqueror. In his song "Cortez The Killer" -- as you might guess from the title -- Neil Young paints a picture of a figure accused of heinous violence against the Aztecs.
The third verse of the song refers to a relationship with a woman. It's thought that this is likely a reference to a woman known as La Malinche. Accounts of her life and her role in Cortez conquests vary as well. What is known is that she was a native slave given to Cortez, who became his mistress and bore him a son. She has been portrayed in some accounts as a traitor who aided Cortez and the Spanish in their campaign to conquer her people and native land.
This song has often worked as a go-to for Young when he's asked in interviews as to whether his songs are autobiographical in nature. The notoriously private Young once responded to this question by saying, "What the f*** am I doing writing about Aztecs in 'Cortez the Killer' like I was there, wandering around?"
Listen to the full 16th century history lesson from Professor Neil Young here:
Here are some other great editions of Rear-View Mirror:
Bob Dylan, "Subterraneon Homesick Blues"
Little Eva, "Loco-Motion"
Elvis Costello, "Watching the Detectives"
Jimmy Cliff, "The Harder They Come"
The Verve, "Bittersweet Symphony"
Roberta Flack, "Killing Me Softly with his Song"
R.E.M., "Radio Free Europe"
Radiohead, "No Surprises"
Led Zeppelin, "Ramble On"
Glen Campbell, "Wichita Lineman"
Rolling Stones, "Beast of Burden"
John Cougar Mellencamp, "Pink Houses"
on May 15, 2012