Stafford: ‘I’m not sure I’ll ever really make up my mind’

Aug 12, 2018
Tom Stafford

It was after the British Invasion of the early 1960s, so men’s hair was getting longer when an American group called the Lovin’ Spoonful rose to popularity. Its lead singer and songwriter was a handsome guy with joyous eyes and lamb chop sideburns named John Sebastian.

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To be clear, he was named John Sebastian, not his sideburns.

“Summer in the City,” one of the Spoonful’s hit songs, featured the sound of a snare drum recorded in a staircase to create a crack-of-lightning sound welded to an echo that, once you’d heard gritty, driving tune, always identified it.

Sebastian’s “I Had a Dream” was the lead song on the Woodstock album, which also included his “Rainbows All Over Your Blues.”

Between “Summer in the City” and Woodstock came “Nashville Cats,” a tribute to all “thirteen hundred and fifty-two” guitar pickers in Nashville he admitted could play “twice as better than I will.” I remember it because while I was singing it on the school bus on the way home one of the popular girls looked at me and laughed out loud.

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Later, I learned a girl that liked me better, my wife, had a particular liking for “You and Me and Rain on the Roof.” It’s an intimate and innocent song about a boy and girl talking and laughing their way toward a first kiss beneath a tin roof in the course of a summer shower.

Sebastian appeared again on the scene in 1976 with “Welcome Back,” the theme song for a popular sitcom called “Welcome Back, Kotter,” a show that introduced John Travolta to a nationwide audience.

I last saw Sebastian decades ago at Mick Montgomery’s Canal Street Tavern in Dayton, where he confessed to the audience with some embarrassment about writing music for the Care Bear movies. In an obscene but funny remark inappropriate for a G audience, he disclosed Care Bears were rich little “fur-balls” that paid him accordingly.

I thought of Sebastian the other day for another of his songs, “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?”

His song addresses a problem I did not contend with, though he did: which of the many young women interested in him he should spend time with.

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I’d dismiss his conundrum with the an “Aw, poor fella,” had he not, in true Sebastian style, sung the following:

Sometimes you really dig a girl the moment you kiss her,

And then you get distracted by her older sister.

When in walks her father and takes you in line,

And says, “Better go on home, son, and make up your mind.”

Although there was no hint of romance involved, that song came to me when I was sitting at some outdoor tables with two women. We were 15 minutes into a conversation about which things have seemed permanent in our lives over the years and which had not. By this time, I had confessed about how mistaken I had been over the years about which things belonged to which categories.

Although all this has nothing to do with romantic relationships, it has everything to do with my and I think maybe all our ongoing relationships with the world around us. And it’s interesting to me how, at my age, my approach to answering that question has changed.

What from all that new technology offers is worth latching on to? What is not?

Given all the aspects of human behavior I’ve never been able to figure out, is it time to cut my losses doing that and instead spend what time I have left exploring other things - say, the natural world? Then again, would doing so cut me off from a truly essential concern?

As often happens in the midst of interesting conversations, I found myself talking aloud for the first time about an idea that had been swimming beneath the surface like a fish I couldn’t see until the sun penetrated the pool on a particularly clear day.

The notion is that what endures does not involve principles and ideas, which tend to come and go, as we invent them to explain our ever changing world, but the play of human experience along the way. As a species, we have been reacting to changes from the coming of the black plague to the industrial revolution to the digital revolution - and that’s to cut a small swath from human history.

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These kinds of changes alter the way our societies function and, as a consequence, change our relations with one another and the world.

And it’s the changing experiences we have as creatures of this world that most concerns us.

Although I can hear my daughter’s voice from her adolescent years saying “Duh” as I reread this, I don’t think I have so much landed on an answer to the question of what’s enduring, but found another angle for examining a question to which I’m not sure I’ll ever really make up my mind.