I’m standing in line at Mustard’s Last Stand, a hot dog joint, with $240 and my sweaty hand in my pocket. As soon as the guy behind the counter says “Next,” I walk up and buy two Neil Young tickets for his sold-out Live in a Rusted Out Garage tour with Crazy Horse at the Rosemont Horizon. It’s 1986, and I’m fifteen. Scalping, that’s what we used to call this.
What it means to be fifteen: ● Self-involvement, alternating between unrealistically high expectations and poor self-concept ● Complaints that parents interfere with independence ● Extreme concern with appearance and with one’s own body ● Feelings of strangeness about one’s self and body ● Lowered opinion of parents, withdrawal from them ● Examination of inner experiences, which may include writing a diary
My favorite Neil Young song is “Cortez the Killer.” First found on Young’s “overlooked” 1975 album, Zuma, it lasts seven minutes and thirty-one seconds, ranks #39 in Guitar Magazine’s Top 100 Greatest Guitar Solos; has been covered by the likes of Dave Matthews and Warren Haynes, Dinosaur Jr., Joe Satriani, Built to Spill, Matthew Sweet, the Indigo Girls, and Calexico, among others; begins with a mournful, “big, fat, and glorious” return to D from E- and A-minor chords; and contains a strange volta about three-quarters of the way through the song.
On my bedroom door, I post a handwritten sign—I WILL LIVE FOREVER—and start reading J. Krishnamurti’s You are the World. My father finds the sign life-affirming and cute; my mother knows I am on drugs. In the back of my book, I write in loopy cursive: abandon authority.
In sonnets, a volta—also called a turn—is often signaled by a “But,” “Yet,” or “And yet” and is associated with a change of thought or idea. In a Petrarchan sonnet, the volta comes between the octet and sestet, and in Shakespearean sonnets, it comes between the 8th and 9th or 12th and 13th lines. If we think of life like poetry, inevitably there will be a turn, a moment when the meaning changes—a moment perhaps in or beyond your control. A moment when the narrative made perfect sense, “and yet” it no longer does.
My mother wants to give me away. It is just the two of us. My father travels a lot, and my two older sisters are already out of college. Together, we live in an enormous empty house. We are lonely. For me, this means screaming about arbitrary rules, slamming my bedroom door, and listening to my sisters’ Skynyrd and Foghat albums. For her, it means countless hours of classical music and worrying about whether or not I will come home.
In the first verse of “Cortez the Killer,” Young sings, “He came dancing across the water / with his galleons and guns / looking for the new world / and the palace in the sun.” The “he” here is Hernán Cortés, the Spaniard credited with winning Mexico for Spain. What winning meant: greed, hypocrisy, imprisonment, treachery, deceit, and destruction.
I blame my mother for everything, including my own sadness and anger, and I begin to tell everyone, including her, that I am not related to her but rather the daughter Joni Mitchell gave up for adoption in 1965.
When Hernán Cortés arrived in 1519, “On the shore lay Montezuma / with his cocoa leaves and pearls / In his halls he often wandered / with the secrets of the world … And the women all were beautiful / and the men stood straight and strong / They offered life in sacrifice / so that others could go on.”
Later that year, I stay out all night and miss Mother’s Day.
The volta comes toward the end of the song. “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.” Here, Young turns from the genocide of the Aztecs to an anonymous woman living “there” and a first-person narrator that admits he cannot remember how he “lost [his] way.” Listeners are drawn away from the imperialist conquest and into an intimate moment of self-revelation. Now we become both Cortez and Montezuma, conqueror and conquered. And not sure how it all happened. It’s a profound moment in this song, an admission of how we are all implicit in this violence even if we don’t want to admit it.
And yet, the second to last verse is about my mother and me. Twenty-five years later, we are in a hospital room. She rearranges the chairs, opens the curtains, and waters the many bouquets of flowers. I’m forty-one and have breast cancer, and she wants to sit by the light of the window. I want that, too.
“And I know she’s living there / and she loves me to this day” is also about asking for forgiveness and making up for mistakes, recognizing our part in the harm we do to one another, seeing both conqueror and conquered within ourselves.
At the end of the song, listeners loop back to the beginning with a string of “He came dancing across the water /Cortez, Cortez / what a killer.” On October 18, 1986, at the Rosemont Horizon, Young plays “Cortez the Killer” as his twelfth song, the ending of his first set. I’m fifteen, and during the long, mournful outro, some guy spills his beer on my chair. Outside in the dark parking lot, my mother waits for Neil Young to play twenty-three songs; she’s my only ride.
*First published in Ep;phany: A Literary Journal (Beyond the Pale Unknown Fall/Winter 2016)