Neil Young: He came dancing across the water

I can remember the first time I heard this album, Zuma. I was all of 20 years old, ski bumming in Whistler, BC, and gathered with a bunch of friends after the bars had closed. I can’t remember her name. She was skinny and not very attractive in any traditional sense, but there was something about her that was fascinating. That fascination grew immensely when I saw the sound system she had — all Nakamichi … top flight — and numerous milk crates stuffed with albums.

Zuma. She pulled Zuma. In a room filled with rowdy drunk friends there was me, her and this album, Zuma.

Zuma is the first Neil Young album I ever loved. I had her tape a copy using all that high-falutin’ gear onto the best Denon cassette tape I could find. It practically lived in my deck, for years, until some thief broke into the car and liberated it from me. Decades, I think.

And I think it’s been more than a decade since I last listened to it. Don’t Cry No Tears and Danger Bird. There’s Barstool Blues and Stupid Girl. I picked up the album today, so I could listen to all these songs again, Drive Back as it were, to another time in my life. Drive back to an album that brought one small hint of another life.

All those songs have been lost to me since that tape was lost. I never replaced it, or bought a CD later, so I haven’t listened to it, but for one song, this song, Cortez the Killer. Cortez has followed me around some, and I follow it. My iPod lists five different versions, one a live cover by The Dave Matthews Band, Warren Hayes guesting on guitar and vocals.

I love it for the guitar work, the solo Guitar Magazine lists as #39 on the 100 greatest guitar solos (which seems a rather stingy placement). And I love it also for the story it tells, colonial Europe descending on a proud and extraordinary culture (a romanticized portrayal, but Young did write it in high school while studying history.) I never tire of it.

I’m not sure how long I’d been listening to it before something else in it twigged, this song about Montezuma who is privy to “the secrets of the world.” The story is a third person account of Cortez’s arrival, “dancing across the water with his galleons and guns” and describes people upon whom he’d descended — “The women all were beautiful and the men stood straight and strong.” Then comes the final verse, and just when one would expect to hear about Cortez’s murderous betrayal of the Aztec’s hospitality we are instead plunged suddenly into a first person lament for a lost love from another time.

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
~ Neil Young
Cortez the Killer

It’s odd.

It’s odd, and the interpretations of it I’ve heard have never made sense: “this may refer to Cortez’s Aztec mistress whom he loved dearly” (Wikipedia). Then it struck me. It’s a time-shifted lament for a love felt across the times. It’s a past life memory so vivid the teller wonders how he got from there to here, and cannot separate the time or place of past and present events.

Something about that twigged with me. Made sense. Even if I didn’t particularly believe in past lives. When I look back at the recognition, the strength of the mental image, I wonder if I wasn’t privy to something. Something about it struck very close to home.

Apparently, Neil had written another verse which was recorded as part of the original album. However, that part of the recording was lost, never to be recovered. When the producer took the band aside to tell them Neil reportedly said, “I never liked that verse anyway.” The missing verse has never been recorded or played in concert.

I wonder what it was?

2 Responses to “Neil Young: He came dancing across the water”

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  1. Gary says:

    You know, Peter, I was all set to write a post on ‘Cortez the Killer’ and had already picked the videos including the Dave Matthew’s version in concert in Central Park with the guitar dude from Govt Mule but you’ve beat me to it. Well done. Great post.

    I share your love of Zuma and especially of Cortez. What a song. Breathtaking! That opening line, ‘He came dancing across the water…’, I can’t think of another song with such an evocative line. You can picture it, can’t you? Sails shimmering in the heatwave, armour glinting in the sun…doom arriving.

    And the abrupt switch to first person…NY was smoking some serious stuff.

    I was fortunate enough to catch NY in concert here in Bris last year, and he produced the goods. Zuma is good, but the LP he released before it, ‘On the Beach’ is even better. Young was on fire in the mid 70s: three monumental LPs in a row: On the Beach, Tonight’s the Night and Zuma.

    BTW, I had a Nakamichi cassette player once, too. Those were the days 🙂

  2. Peter says:

    lol — don’t let my post stop you!

    I’d love to see yours.

    And that abrupt change to first person? Maybe the smoke…then again, the string of coincidences surrounding this song today…

    “And you know. It makes me wonder. What’s goin’ on…”

    Or have we all been here before?


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