Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
In 1975, Neil Young released Zuma, one of several albums he recorded in the ’70s which contained a single song that pretty much eclipsed the rest of the album. In Zuma’s case, it was “Cortez the Killer,” a three-chorder rumored to have been written to make it easier for Crazy Horse guitarist Frank Sampredo to play along on rhythm guitar. Young hadn’t played with Crazy Horse for several years, and during that time Sampredo had taken the place of founding guitarist Danny Whitten, who had died of a drug and alcohol overdose. Clocking in at over seven minutes, “Cortez” was originally even longer — it famously had to be faded out because tape ran out during the session. (Upon learning the song’s last verse didn’t get recorded, Young shrugged and said, “I never liked that verse anyway.”) Bands who have covered the song have been been tacking minutes onto it ever since.
Although covered here and there after Zuma’s release, the popularity of “Cortez the Killer” grew in the ’90s after being played live by jam bands like Gov’t Mule and Widespread Panic, and of course by Young himself. The five covers below are listed from shortest to longest, but as you’ll see, some artists do just as well with less.
Carrie Rodriguez and Tim Easton — Cortez the Killer (Neil Young cover)
Austin’s Carrie Rodriguez comes up with the shortest version of “Cortez,” not even breaking four minutes, but it doesn’t feel like anything’s missing. Recorded for the Neil Young tribute album Like a Hurricane, it starts out like a typical acoustic remake, then transitions into a well-paced slow burner. Tim Easton’s electric guitar slow dances with Rodriguez’s vocals, then rumbles off in the distance as her violin rolls in to rain down with the sadness.
Jason Isbell & Dawes — Cortez the Killer (Neil Young cover)
Jason Isbell may have the distinction of being the only artist to sing about Cortez “dancing across the water” while he was doing the same. The former Drive-By Truckers guitarist was part of a music festival-themed cruise earlier this year called Cayamo, which featured a variety of musicians from Keb’ Mo’ to Richard Thompson. Playing here with the band Dawes, Isbell bails out the bilge water and keeps the song seaworthy as a fairly tight ballad.
Matthew Sweet & The Indigo Girls — Cortez the Killer (Neil Young cover)
Matthew Sweet is one of the earliest recorded adopters of “Cortez,” having released a fantastic live version with the Indigo Girls in the early ’90s. That song was put out on a rare promo CD to promote his album Girlfriend, and would later be incorporated in expanded releases of that disc. In 1992, the Indigo Girls reunited with Sweet to cover the song again, this time at JBTV Studios in Chicago. Typical of acoustic sessions that sprung up at radio stations everywhere after the success of MTV Unplugged, this version shows a true camaraderie among the players (and there’s video of it as well). Sweet strains a bit against his range, but Amy Ray comes in for the last verse to keep things grounded.
Calexico — Cortez the Killer (Neil Young cover)
The first thing that stands out about Calexico’s “Cortez” cover is that it’s not guitar-centric. Instead, the band builds up the vocals with their bare hands (and not a few instruments). It’s a tricky arrangement and it comes off wonderfully. The sound is a bit bright, but the play between the pedal steel and violin slowly increases, only to draw back at the last verse. Where a huge guitar solo usually closes out the song, this time it’s the vox, with Joey Burns wailing “what a killer” over and over.
Built to Spill — Cortez the Killer (Neil Young cover)
One of the longest covers of “Cortez” doesn’t come from a bootleg of a Warren Haynes Christmas Jam; instead, it belongs to a band that rose up from the basements of Idaho. Built to Spill squeezes the Crazy Horse tour bus into an old greasy car wash, then deposits fifty bucks’ worth of quarters in the box and lets it run. Lead singer Doug Martsch has a similar tenor to Young, and the band’s grimy chops prove to be the perfect tribute to the Godfather of Grunge. When it’s over — after almost 20 minutes —everything seems a little bit dirtier than it should be.
What’s your favorite version of “Cortez the Killer?” Tell us in the comments.
Neil Young is currently on tour with Crazy Horse in Europe. His website is NeilYoung.com.