mysteries of the Scatman

how much of Wikipedia is real?

On Friday morning, I was scrolling through Tumblr when I came across a clip from Ang Lee’s 2003 superhero film Hulk. It shows the exact moment of the Incredible Hulk’s creation, when Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) absorbs an impossible amount of gamma radiation and gains anger-activated super-strength. This clip, however, had been altered. Playing over the 25-second clip was the remarkable musical composition “Scatman’s World” by the artist Scatman John, who is also known for his hit single, "Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)."

In addition to being a hit song throughout Europe, chronicling Scatman John’s dictatorial rule over the nation of Scatland, “Scatman’s World” has also been featured in various internet jokes stretching back decades. It’s not difficult to find various YouTube Poop video from a decade ago that feature the song or the singer. It also served as something of a musical punchline for a video meme last year in which viral videos with unfortunate outcomes were remixed to have wholesome outcomes. At the moment of inflection, “Scatman’s World” plays.

Personally? I love the song.

Anyway, I’m not sure why someone threw “Scatman’s World” on top of the Hulk clip, but regardless, it sent me over to Scatman John’s Wikipedia page, where I read about Scatman John’s death. In 1998, the scatman (otherwise known as John Larkin) was diagnosed with lung cancer. He continued to perform in the meantime, at one point collapsing on stage in late 1999. He passed away in December of that year at the age of 57.

According to Wikpedia, while in decline, Scatman John had much to say.

Even though he was very ill, Larkin remained positive, saying, "Whatever God wants is fine by me ... I've had the very best life. I have tasted beauty."[11]

This is an incredible quote and I have no idea where it came from. “I’ve tasted beauty.” —Scatman John. Googling it, the line only appears in contexts in which people have clearly grabbed it from Wikipedia. The ellipses in the middle of the quote is always present. Perhaps the most high-profile repetititon of the quote comes in the form of a Macklemore tweet from 2017.

Again, I ask, where did this quote come from? This quote, and a second one that also appears in the section on Scatman John’s death, are the only two quotes credited to him on IMDb.

Wikipedia’s editing rules do not allow primary sourcing, or original reporting or research; it only allows for secondary sources. In other words, the facts have to be recorded elsewhere first before they can appear on Wikipedia (for more info on this quirk, I recommend Philip Roth on his war over the wiki entry for The Human Stain). So, theoretically, there’s a record somewhere of the Scatman saying this.

I checked the [11] footnote attached to the quote and was brought to an Internet Archive snapshot of the apparent source, a blog post from IT specialist Pavel Kirkovsky. But Kirkovsky’s blog post was just a blockquote of someone else’s writing — in this case, a 2010 blog post by one jmcguinness03 for Analog Burners. It’s a post about discovering Larkin’s first, self-titled LP, and it includes a summary of Larkin’s life… sourced from Wikipedia.

Even while suffering, Scatman remained positive saying "Whatever God wants is fine by me… I've had the very best life. I have tasted beauty" before passing in 1999 in Los Angeles. After reading the Wiki entry, I went back and listened to the album.

So: Wikipedia’s source for this profound Scatman John quote is Wikipedia itself.

Absent solid sourcing, my next step was to determine when and who added the quote to Wikipedia in the first place. The Scatman quote was added to Wikpedia on October 18, 2005, by a user named M.C. Brown Shoes. It appears like this:

He maintained a positive attitude throughout, declaring that "whatever God wants is fine by me... I've had the very best life".

By December 11, 2005, the quote had been expanded to include the “tasting beauty” aspect, supplied by an anonymous user with an IP address now registered to the United Kingdom. It is the only Wikipedia edit made from this IP address.

I scoured Scatman John obituaries and tried to find coverage of his diagnosis, and could not find this quote recorded anywhere else. I went to the profile page for M.C. Brown Shoes, and look at his profile’s edit history. In his profile on October 27, 2005 — the closest date following the quote’s appearance on Scatman John’s page — M.C. Brown Shoes lists the scatman as one of his “passions.” He writes: “don't laugh. this guy's a legend. he stuttered, like me, and turned his disability into an ability to create awesome scat sounds with his mouth. 90's music owns btw.”

It could be assumed from this that M.C. Brown Shoes (in real life, an Australian musician named Art Rush) is an earnest fan of Scatman John. I emailed him to see if, 15 years later, he could recall where the quote comes from, or even if the quote was something he genuinely sourced from elsewhere. I have not heard back yet.

The dying words of Scatman John have been sitting unsourced on Wikipedia for nearly 15 years, and have become accepted fact. As for the answer to the unsolved mystery of where they really came from, here are my thoughts: Whatever God wants is fine by me… I've had the very best life. I have tasted beauty.


The Yeah Yeah Yeahs Corollary

The Case of the Unsourced Scatman is not the only time I’ve encountered this mystery. About a year ago, I was introduced to the “fact” that the title of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song “Maps” was actually an acronym. It apparently stands for “My Angus Please Stay,” a reference to Angus Andrew, the frontman of the band Liars and who Karen O was dating at the time. This supposed fact is still recited regularly by fans.

From the Today I Learned subreddit, on December 11, 2011:

The source here is (red flag!) Wikipedia. So I went to the Wikipedia entry for “Maps” and was confronted with a similar problem. Currently, as of May 2020, the entry describe the acronym as “alleged” in the section for the track’s music video.

“Maps” is about Angus Andrew, and Karen O has said as much on numerous occasions. Her tears in the music video are real, as she told NME in 2007:

"They were real tears. My boyfriend at the time was supposed to come to the shoot – he was three hours late and I was just about to leave for tour."

"I didn’t think he was even going to come and this was the song that was written for him. He eventually showed up and I got myself in a real emotional state."

But the acronym part, as far as I can tell, just isn’t true.

If you travel back through the edits, you’ll find that the acronym trivia has flitted in and out of existence on the song’s Wikipedia page for years. At one point, it appeared right up top in the intro paragraph in October of 2011.

I checked both the [1] and [2] footnotes attached to the declaration, a 2006 Rolling Stone article and a 2006 cover story for Canadian magazine Exclaim!. Both mention Karen O’s tumultuous relationship with Angus, neither of them mentions an acronym. In the next revision of the entry, in late December of 2011, the fact has been removed by an observant Wikipedian, who comments, “neither cited source contains this information. come on.”

Three months later, an anonymous user has added the trivia back in, clumsily adding a broken link in the middle of the quote that Karen O gave to NME. It was removed in a subsequent edit a few weeks later: “‘(MAPS= My Angus Please Stay)’ is not part of the quote and as far as I'm aware not a confirmed fact.”

By February 2013, the acronym myth was added back to the intro paragraph by another anonymous user. The fact disappears and reappears over the next couple of years, quickly removed by editors who demand sourcing. It reemerges again after a considerable absence in December 2015, and is once again quickly snuffed out.

Unfortunately, no matter how vigilant Wikipedians are, the toothpaste cannot be put back in the tube. In 2013, without citing any source, Flavorwire included the detail in a listicle about “The Real-Life Stories Behind 10 Famous Love Songs.” That was then was cited by the Huffington Post’s own 2015 listicle, “Here’s What The Inspirations For 7 Love Songs Actually Look Like.”

The Huffington Post then gets cited on Wikipedia as source, and the acronym fact is returns once again in May of 2018.

This is exhausting. This rumor will never die. When I looked into this a year ago, I emailed Karen O’s publicist and never heard back. She’s probably busy. Earlier this week, I emailed Rob Sheffield, the author of the 2006 Rolling Stone piece, to see if he knew anything about the rumor. I’ll let you all know if I hear anything.

In my research, I did stumble upon an even better rumor about “Maps,” one that briefly existed on the song’s Wikipedia page in the summer of 2006. In a short “Speculation” section, someone wrote:

The song includes the lyrics "they don't love you like I love you," which are the same lyrics, word for word of the popular Garbage song "I'm Only Happy When It Rains." When this was discovered, it was then believed that the title of the songs comes from the lead singer of Garbage's initials (Shirley Patricia Ann Manson, SPAM), spelled backwards.

Now that’s some Da Vinci Code-ass puzzle-solving right there. It was removed after a month, because “1) info is unsourced; 2) those lyrics do NOT appear in "Only Happy When It Rains"; 3) no web resource gives Manson's middle name as Patricia.”

Other than that, the theory seems pretty bulletproof, imo.


Wikipedia is generally reliable, thanks in particular to its policy of refusing to be a primary source for information — everything must be cited — and because of editors’ willingness to delete unnecessary information. Unlike Facebook, for instance, Wikipedia is comfortable being an arbiter of truth and not just facilitating debate.

Both the Scatman John and “Maps” issues, however, point to a looming vulnerability in the system. What happens when facts added early on in Wikipedia’s life remain, and take on a life of their own? Neither of these supposed truths outlined above can be traced to any source outside of Wikipedia, and yet, because they initially appeared on Wikipedia and have been repeated elsewhere, they are now, for all intents and purposes, accepted as truth on Wikipedia. It’s twisty.

There are currently 6,088,351 articles on the English-language Wikipedia. The site has also had its fair share of hoax entries (handily indexed by Wikipedia itself), some of which have stayed up for more than a decade. Whole-cloth fabrication, however, is a bit easier to factcheck than false information slipped into entries on real subjects. How many Wikipedia entries contain invented facts like these? There could very well be an entire period of early, less rigorous Wikipedia that contains tiny lies and fan theories presented as uncontestable facts. We have no idea how deep this rabbit hole goes.


I will note here as a coda that it’s possible that I suck at research and thus, both the Scatman quotes and “Maps” acronym are real. Let’s not count that out. If you find anything, or you are Karen O, please get in touch.

Elsewhere…


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