8: Cortez the Killer…Neil Young

In the 70’s the USA was simultaneously familiar and alien. Our television relied heavily on imported series from the states especially comedy, Happy Days was insanely popular, but we would also get reruns or the Monkees on a spasmodic rota. Shows were well crafted and sometime very funny, but they were also saccharine. The USA still seemed to be the land of plenty, people seemed wealthy and happy and confident. The irony was that unless you lived near a tourist attraction you were unlikely to meet a genuine American person. I was slightly the exception to this as I had an aunt who had emigrated there and every decade she would return for a couple of weeks. I must admit though that on basis of that brief encounter I had no evidence to revise my opinion, my Aunt appeared happy and confident and very proud to be an American.

Perhaps because of this cultural disconnect I was slow on the uptake with American music. The like of Alice Cooper and Aerosmith seemed a bit over confident and crass to me, nobody like a show off. Even British bands who toured America a lot seem to return changed, tougher, slicker and less fun.

The early exception was the glut of singer songwriters who emerged in the early 70’s. They were producing music that was more introspective with maybe even a trace of uncertainty. Like all sensible teenagers though I needed more than an acoustic guitar, I would be into my 20’s before I was willing to sit down and really engage with the likes of Joni Mitchell.

The reason why Neil Young was different was that he had two sides, to this day I’ve never listened to Harvest, that sort of thing didn’t really interest me at the age of 16. Post HarvestYoung ‘headed for the ditch’ away from the middle of the road where he thought he had strayed to. The next few years produced some of my all-time favourite music in the form of some troubled downbeat albums. I first picked up on Young  when he was coming out of this time with his new record Zuma.

The most important thing, in all honesty, about the album was that my friend Phil had a copy, so I actually had a chance to listen to it. Records were relatively expensive, it would be a few years before I had enough money to actually buy anything I wanted and by then it was the 80’s so there wasn’t much I did want. If a friend lent you a record you listened to it, it was free music.

The other factor in Zuma’s favour was it was almost entirely electric with his band Crazy Horse. As a band Crazy Horse were simultaneously brilliant and incompetent. It’s a bit like the argument over whether Meg White is a good drummer, their playing was hard to defend on an analytical skill level but the end result surpassed all criticism. Even by the time of Zuma the band had become looser and sloppier than they had been on their debut record ‘Everybody Knows this is Nowhere’, 20 years later they would sound like they were on the verge of disintegrating with every verse they played, but they never did.

As an electric guitar player Young has the same qualities and most importantly he knows about sound, Young and Crazy Horse are a pretty visceral experience which is why as punk was raging, I was listening to Zuma.

The standout track is ‘Cortez the Killer’. Its long but not by the standards of his later work. It’s also lyrically intriguing, there’s not a whole load of songs about the Aztec empire. There’s an ambiguity about the words encompassing both awe and admiration of the Aztecs about to be subsumed by Cortez ‘what a killer’.

But there’s a strange magic in the music itself. I’ve played it in many settings, I jammed it only a couple of weeks ago. When I played in an acoustic duo we would jam the song for ever if an audience appeared disengaged or absent. There’s a dreamy quality to the music the chords can go around and round forever. And that’s the magic, its only three chords, three basic chords at that but chords that are altered a little with suspensions and augmentations. It sounds complicated but really its just adding or taking away a note, it’s not hard to play. What it does mean though is the song never really resolves or comes to an end, it finishes when the player(s) decide.

I’ve stuck with Young over the years, not everything of course, I’m not insane! The last record I bought by him was Psychedelic Pill which offered more of the sonic thuggery of Crazy Horse. Lets face it, I’m unlikely to feel the need to buy anything else from the Young catalogue in the future. 

Over 40 years later there’s still some magic left in Cortez though

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3 Responses to 8: Cortez the Killer…Neil Young

  1. Wil Walker says:

    Interesting. I’ve always kinda like Neil Young without really knowing much of his stuff. Indeed I had no idea what track you were writing about till I listened to link. It’s one of those ‘classics’ that seem to be on rotation on R6. But I do really like it. I saw him on the main stage at Glastonbury when he played there, and there were no strings left on his guitar by the end of the set – I was quite impressed by that! But I own only one Neil Young LP: Trans, which is reputedly the worst record he ever made. It’s not actually that bad…

    Like

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