Saturday, April 05, 2008


Everybody goes through an "MTV phase," I think. It's essentially the one period in your life when you begin to develop an interest in commercial music. I don't mean a time where you merely begin to listen to songs and all that, mind you -- I mean a time in your life where you actively follow the global music phenomenon to the point of saturation. I mean a time when you don't just listen to the radio -- you watch the music videos, you spend your allowance buying the albums, and you identify distinct favorites among the many artists out there.

My phase came around the late 90's, which meant that I was a late bloomer who didn't appreciate most of the 80's-pop-culture songs that pervaded my teenage youth. On the other hand, it also meant that I was privy to the predecessors of twenty-first-century commercial music: the dance-techno mixes, melodic rap, boy bands / girl bands of all shapes and sizes, and the revival of early 80's rock.

It's strange that, somewhere in all that personal history, one of the most vivid memories I have is of a now-obscure artist named Scatman John.

Scatman's World (Scatman John)

As you can see, it isn't exactly the most conventional song. It uses a musical technique known as "scat" -- consecutive nonsensical syllables that are strung together to create rhythm and melody. For that matter, Scatman John wasn't called "Scatman John" for nothing -- having emerged from a jazz background, he specialized in this distinct technique.

While we've probably seen scat singing in one form or another (mostly in jazz vocals), the Scatman's songs were something different entirely. His are some of the few instances I remember where the scat technique is used with a techno-like beat... often to devastating effect. The fact that he always seems to do it so effortlessly doesn't help one bit.

Ten years after I first listened to his music, I found myself leafing through the Internet for more background on this artist and whether or not he was still making records. One of the most interesting things I found was that Scatman John -- real name John Paul Larkin -- had a severe stuttering problem that persisted for his entire life. While this must have made casual life very difficult for him -- it was once remarked that he could hardly finish a sentence without repeating the same phrase six or seven times -- it gave him a natural advantage during his performances. If there was anyone who could talk of spinning silk purses out of sow's ears, it was this man.

Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop) (Scatman John)

I mean, just listen to that. Good grief.

I still enjoy his music, mind you, but part of me will always wonder how the heck he does it.

His old hits are largely forgotten now, I think. Scatman John only really made it big in Europe and Japan, where action figures of him were actually sold in the Land of the Rising Sun. Nowadays most of what we get are American Idols and paparazzi-fed pop princesses, but I suppose that talented scat artists are extremely difficult to come by.

Sadly, I also found that I wouldn't be seeing any more of Scatman John's music -- the man himself died in 1999, shortly after releasing only his third album. It means that I'm going to have a long search on my hands if I'm to find any of his original releases.

I do feel good about dredging up his memory from the corners of my mind, though. Here was a very distinct artist with a very unique style, so much that I still remember him ten years down the line. It emphasizes the prospect of making one's mark on his audience through any form of media -- images, gestures, words, music, what have you -- even if you can barely sing the songs yourself for all the nonsensical lyrics.

"I'm Scatman." Heh.


No comments: