He came dancing across the water
With his galleons and guns
Looking for the new world
In that palace in the sun.

On the shore lay montezuma
With his coca leaves and pearls
In his halls he often wondered
With the secrets of the worlds.

And his subjects gathered ’round him
Like the leaves around a tree
In their clothes of many colors
For the angry gods to see.

And the women all were beautiful
And the men stood straight and strong
They offered life in sacrifice
So that others could go on.

Hate was just a legend
And war was never known
The people worked together
And they lifted many stones.

They carried them to the flatlands
And they died along the way
But they built up with their bare hands
What we still can’t do today.

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.

He came dancing across the water
Cortez, cortez
What a killer.


Lyrics submitted by majii, edited by Mellow_Harsher

Cortez the Killer (Neil Young cover) song meanings
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  • +1
    General CommentJust to back up entrodamc on this one; I love the song and am taking a college class that involves a trip to Mexico and a reading in the book "Triumphs and Tragedy" by Ramon Ruiz. While they have both noble and ignoble aspects to their society, I see a lot of the noble in them. They were an empire based on expansion by war, but unlike most empires of that sort, they did not force their conquered people to adhere to any rule or to change their customs to match the Aztec. They expanded using war, but once in a time of peace they learned the culture of the people they conquered and became very peaceful and civilized, to an extent. What proved to be their downfall was their benevolence- unlike the Spanish, or many other conquering nations, they did not subjugate the people they conquered-- instead they imposed a tributary system allowing the other tribes to keep their culture and cities and just pay the Aztec. Cortez played off of this and fought Montezuma with only 600 Spaniards but 30,000 allied Indians. The one ignoble aspect of the Aztec civilization was their Human Sacrifice, which sounds barbaric but has several asterisks. It started because during their time of expansion, they were suffering from an extended drought and many Aztec were dying. They sacrificed themselves to their Gods and soon after the drought ended and they won a great military battle. They saw this as a sign of the Gods being pleased and continued the practice until the Spanish came. (This practice was also prevalent in most of Central America, including the island that Columbus first landed on). The reason I include the asterisks is because while barbaric, the reason the Spanish felt justified in their pillaging was due to their superior religion; they had just kicked out all Jews and Moslems from Spain. This does not add up with their character, as almost all of the first settlers in Mexico were the greedy or criminals of Spain, left with no wealth or land in Spain and bent on becoming wealthy and prosperous in the New World. Using their religion to appease their conscious and extend their domain, they reaped the benefits and enslaved all of the Indians-- you speak of the Indians having slaves, but as mentioned above they were not slaves by most standards. The Spanish left all of Mexico enslaved, in the sense that they were forced to work for the Conquistadors and the penalty for leaving their land was death.
    Cyguy84on February 23, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General CommentNow that we have our little history lesson (which came at the expense of the paper I am trying to write on the subject) I will add my two cents about the song.

    I find it completely accurate in that it rings true with the bittersweet sense of loss. To me, it is about the loss of innocence- the people of Mexico had never known disease or poverty or hunger before. As much as there was a caste system, the "wealthy" (in this case, nobles) were not living at the expense of the others. You were assigned a role due to your family history, and you did it, but everyone was well fed and lived in peace. Unlike the song says, war was known, as was hate, as that was what Cortez used to ensnare the rival tribes that resented the Aztec rule.

    In reading about this history, I am left wondering how much more they would have accomplished had they not been wiped out by the Spanish. And by wiped out, I mean literally, wiped out. 25 Million people lived in Mexico before the Spanish came, and within 100 years only 1 million were left. This was due to massacres, brutal labor (Most spanish slave-owners were described as brutal and unkind- one even had 6 tribal leaders hung because they did not sweep the path before his arrival) and most of all disease. The interesting note to this- it is also due to their pride. Some tribes forbid their women to give birth, choosing to quietly end their existence as opposed to living under the rule of the Spanish.

    That is why I feel the innocence lost and the oppression aspect of the song. Montezuma ended his reign by giving a gift- he hoped to appease Cortez and so sent him two large gold disks. Picture wagon wheels of solid gold, a noble gift to anyone, but to Cortez it showed the wealth that was still to be had. (One other note- the Governor who sent Cortez was actually annoyed by the way Cortez carried himself after being appointed Conquistador- he became full of himself and was irreverent to any authority, and so the Governor had named a successor and was replacing Cortez. Cortez heard of this and left port early, thus keeping his position and not letting his men know of the plan. That is why, upon reaching Mexico, he was able to burn the ships as a motivational tool for his men- he didn't want to go back. That pivotal moment was what prompted everything that happened afterwards.)

    As for what they could have accomplished, it is all speculation. The Chinese reached Mexico before the Spanish did, around 1423 or so, and they described it as the most developed culture they had yet discovered. Pottery was as well made as the Chinese, they were adept at Astronomy and were able to build rather large monuments such as the pyramids. Even just the city and palace- the capital of the Aztec Nation was built on a lake, with the inner circle perfectly placed in the middle for the nobility and each successive circle a slightly lower caste. It was both well designed and well built and beautiful. With all of this, had the Chinese maintained trading relations and given them gunpowder or other advances, they would have been able to hold their own against the most of the Western Nations that were to come. (The Chinese aspect of this story is related in the book 1421, which is about the massive fleets sent out by the Chinese in the year 1421- they discovered the New World nearly 70 years before Columbus, but while they were at sea the Emperor of China died and his son decided that all travel must cease, going so far as to erase most record of the voyages. He left all of the ships to rot in the harbor, forbidding any ships to be built large enough to travel overseas, and thus another empire was thwarted from developing.)
    Cyguy84on February 24, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General Commentthis song is on the Central Park Concert CD - I believe he played this with Warren Haynes. Originally composed by Neil Young. Obviously refers to Hernando Cortez, the Spaniard who conquered Mexico, but on a deeper level it refers to a loss of innocence ("Hate was just a legend/And war was never known" until Cortez arrived). Not typical Dave, it almost has a Guns 'N Roses ring to it, but a great song.
    majiion September 22, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI think this is a beautiful song, and they do a great job of performing it - I wish I could have been at that Central Park concert! Thanks for posting it, I had no idea who originally wrote it.
    Simpgirl06on February 07, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentDave Matthews and Warren Haynes do an amazing version of the song. Definitely a cover done justice.
    I like the loss of innocence angle you interpret it with, majii, but i see it more as a general anti-violence song. "But they built up with their bare hands / What we still can’t do today." These lines signify the achievements of ancient civilizations, which were ruined and destroyed by the more 'advanced' imperial nations.
    Slakkeron April 12, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI like it alot as well. I think Dave likes it mainly because it has very similar themes to "Don't Drink the Water", what with the whole conquerors wrongly taking land from natives and killing them and what not.
    deathbearon August 16, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis song is saying, things aren't always as they seem to be. I say this because apparently Hernando Cortez came to mexico and made the people there at the time beleive he was a great god and demanded sacrafices, gifts, ect. But in reality he wasnt a god, and when he had the faith and trust of the civilization, he had his men kill everyone living there so he could eventually take over the land. So I agree with deathbear on that it is similar to "Don't Drink the Water" (except its Neil's song, not Dave's), on it is about war, killing, and taking land. But, the overall message of the song, I feel is completly different.
    wildturkey1027on August 19, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis song is saying, things aren't always as they seem to be. I say this because apparently Hernando Cortez came to mexico and made the people there at the time beleive he was a great god and demanded sacrafices, gifts, ect. But in reality he wasnt a god, and when he had the faith and trust of the civilization, he had his men kill everyone living there so he could eventually take over the land. So I agree with deathbear on that it is similar to "Don't Drink the Water" (except its Neil's song, not Dave's), on it is about war, killing, and taking land. But, the overall message of the song, I feel is completly different.
    wildturkey1027on August 19, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis song is saying, things aren't always as they seem to be. I say this because apparently Hernando Cortez came to mexico and made the people there at the time beleive he was a great god and demanded sacrafices, gifts, ect. But in reality he wasnt a god, and when he had the faith and trust of the civilization, he had his men kill everyone living there so he could eventually take over the land. So I agree with deathbear on that it is similar to "Don't Drink the Water" (except its Neil's song, not Dave's), on it is about war, killing, and taking land. But, the overall message of the song, I feel is completly different.
    wildturkey1027on August 19, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis song is a bit confusing. The Aztec empire was based on expansion by war. The temples were built by thousands of slaves who would later be sacrificed upon them. I can see the pity for what was lost but it really wasa rather terrible, no matter how the song portrays it.
    HamiltonIncheson September 04, 2005   Link

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