Recently, a dear friend lent me a guitar he wasn't using.
Not just any guitar. He lent me a Rickenbacker 360-12:
You can be forgiven if the words "Rickenbacker 360-12" don't send shivers up your spine. Guitar fetishes quickly grow tiresome to the uninitiated, and it's hilarious to me that adult men (I've never met a truly committed gearhead of the female persuasion) can be led to believe that ownership of one ax or another will automatically confer on the owner the mojo, the swagger, of the rock star who made it famous. Two minutes spent with Musician's Friend catalog sales-copy will show how silly gearheads can be.
But this -- this is a Rickenbacker 360-12, man! It played that chord!
That chord, man! You gotta know the one I mean!
In our overstimulated time, our computerized, synthesized, digitized, 500-channels-and-nothing-worth watching time, when even the word radical has been drained of its meaning, it's impossible -- we're so burnt! -- to know how brain-meltingly radical, how charged with promise, how laden with possibility, was that one overtone-soaked BLANNNNNG when it was first heard in 1964. Think about it: Was there ever a single noise, a single sonorous crashing KLANNNNG, that more totally changed everything that anyone knew? It was so...so...so... modern! But like all harbingers of change, this single electric crash, joyously, orgasmically received by its audience, was not unambiguously benign.
You could get badly lost -- and many, many people did indeed get lost -- in the universes that that one monstrous chord opens. Those overtones -- those ululating frequencies bashing violently against each other as the chord decays -- scream an unmistakable warning of twisted confusion dead ahead. When did the Sixties begin? Was it when Oswald's bullet hit Kennedy's cranium? When Johnson proffered the Great Society? When troop levels rose in Vietnam? I submit my own candidate for your consideration: That chord.
Like almost everything about that decade, that chord still sows dissension. The Sixties will forever be fought over; the chief, nearly defining characteristic of that decade's history is the hellish ambiguity of the changes it wrought. I confess my own ambivalence over things that I once considered unarguably positive; I can't help but intuit that I might have loathed the self-congratulation of the Woodstock Notion, or the gibbering stupidity of someone under the impression that an idea conceived on LSD deserves particular validity. I have, I suppose, grown up to that extent.
The iconic noise of that chord, as I say, is still fought over. Nothing that large, that explosively clangorous, can be pinned down and defined. Those attempting to do so will find themselves at odds with others in the field -- as this page at Wikipedia will attest. At that page, I count five musicologists -- at least three known to me as excellent scholars of the Beatles' musical output -- who cannot actually agree about the component notes or the harmonic function of that chord! In researching this post, I've found that even the magisterial Ian MacDonald, in my opinion the best and most sympathetic critic of the Beatles' recorded work, gets the component notes of the chord quite wrong, as do the authors of The Beatles: The Complete Scores (and not for the first time!).
What can we say about something so huge and yet so strangely ambiguous, both in composition and in meaning? What is it even possible to say? Best just to let the thing reverberate around in your head, speaking for itself. And speak it will.
Now hand me that guitar!