4. Cortez the Killer – Neil Young & Crazy Horse [7:32]
Released as: a track on the album Zuma .
What’s it about? Written by Young whilst a student of history at his Winnipeg high school, Cortez the Killer is a slow-burning hard rock song that chronicles the violent adventures of the conquistador, Hernán Cortés. An atmospheric, immersive lyric, Young would later become very cynical about his penchant for fake autobiography: “What the fuck [was] I doing writing about Aztecs in Cortez the Killer like I was there, wandering around?” he exclaimed to biographer Jimmy McDonough; “‘cause I only read about it in a few books. A lotta shit I just made up because it came to me.”
Length explored: Played in double drop-D (DADGBD), Cortez the Killer is a sprawling rock track, with sludgy, snaking guitars whose cannabinoid tones are almost moaning; wails, coaxed from road-worn guitars by feedback wizards. Crazy Horse’s slow approach leaves us with over three minutes of woozy, staggering rhythm and lead before Young actually sings; another longer section of hypnotic, distorted meandering leads us to the song’s end, with lyrics that come and go gently. Young’s playing could almost be heard as one long solo, punctuated by lyrics – rather than the inverse: music as a vehicle for words. The un-repeated lead line almost has its own drunken dialogue with the listener; slugging forward with enough varied expression that it recalls the broader tonalities of speech. Pretentiously, I guess, one can imagine the dry Spanish plains Cortés really rode across – music, perhaps, for clichés. The song fades after seven-and-a-half minutes, but it was meant to go on longer. Unfortunately, circuitry in the recording desk blew, and a final verse, as well as even more instrumental sections were amongst the recordings lost. Young was, apparently, indifferent, claiming that he wasn’t even that fond of the last verse anyway.
Is this the best version? Hard to say. The Zuma recording is pretty definitive for in terms of a clean, studio cut, but depending on how you enjoy the song, some live versions that push ten minutes or so are particularly enjoyable. Young’s playing live is more sporadic; he occasionally strays onto a bum note or allows the rhythm to sag uncomfortably, but for what it’s worth, the tone always sounds that much more sentient as a result. [Find a 9:47 version on Weld]
5. Only in Dreams – Weezer [7:59]
Released as: a track on the album Weezer (a.k.a. ‘the Blue Album’) .
What’s it about? In a typically Rivers Cuomo way, Only in Dreams explores teenage fantasies about ‘the dream girl’. Unlike normal emo, however, Cuomo’s awkwardness spins a very normal fascination into something totally screwball, anxiously passing comment on the scientific makeup of air and self-effacingly imagining a first dance, which ends with an aggressive toenail crushing fantasy.
Length explored: Only in Dreams is the longest song in the Weezer canon. At a second shy of eight minutes, it’s a gorgeous grunge-pop masterwork, weaving together proto-pop-punk chordology with an extremely tasteful selection of feedback noises, glam-rock tones and dynamics ripped straight out of Pixies’ Surfer Rosa (truly, this track’s enormous climax is just something else). Cuomo stops singing after a few minutes, after which the song slips gently into a first-soft and then-cataclysmic second half. At the 6:47 breaking point, the full-weight of a Ric Ocasek-produced guitar band bears down on your humble teenage ears and your face gleefully melts. Then, as the song fades away into nothing, you’re left with the rolling bass-line, which comes to rest very naturally on a note we hear only once, in the final second.
Is this the best version? Yes – it’s the only version, really. Some live takes exist, but this is where it’s at. The end of the Blue Album. What a record.
6. Desolation Row – Bob Dylan [11:23]
Released as: a track on the album Highway 61 Revisited .
What’s it about? No one is really all that sure… Desolation Row’s mammoth ten verses appear to describe an utterly debauched place, where scenes of biblical entropy and social chaos lay ruin to goodness. Death is romantic, images of death by hanging are marketed to tourists and Einstein (disguised as Robin Hood) has found fame as an electric violinist – it’s a mad and ugly rendezvous, indeed.
Length explored: Desolation Row maximises on literarily hyperbolic concepts of good and bad; it accelerates exaggeration to the point of parody and into a sick microcosm that can only exist in abstract. Dylan is, despite obvious knavery and japing, a spellbinding narrator, dragging us kicking and screaming through his hideous landscape for what unfolds into an unfelt eleven minutes, brilliantly musical, brimming with harmonica and accompanied by an improvised acoustic lead from Nashville player, Charlie McCoy. For its epic dimensions, Desolation Row has been described by as a ‘marathon’, ‘the ultimate cowboy song’ and ‘Fellini-esque’. Its closing verses, staged upon sinking Titanic, and describing cries of ‘which side are you on?’ have drawn particular acclaim for their distressing marriage of politics, literature and history into a relatable, emotionally devastating moment despite the disgustedly joking tone of the track.
Is this the best version? I reckon so, yes. There are many alternate versions of Desolation Row – of the enormous selection present in the recent Live in 1966 box-set, at least ten are listenable and each is, in its own Dylany way, a unique take. These can often wind up running for twelve or thirteen minutes each. There also exist a few outtakes on the 18-disc copy of The Cutting Edge compilation, one of which simply takes the final recording and omits McCoy’s lead. Of most interest to collectors, is an early alternate take featuring Al Kooper on electric guitar. All of these versions are darker and more sombre than the main studio cut. Depending on how you read Dylan’s vision of an earthly hell, this is either damningly appropriate or a whole lot less fun. You decide.