Frank Zappa? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The most outrageously funny quotation that I know of was spoken by the musician Frank Zappa:
Rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.
The perfect place to say this would have been during an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. But I do not know if he really said it anywhere. Can you enlighten me?
Quote Investigator: Zappa did make this remark in 1977 during an interview with a staff writer for the Toronto Star newspaper named Bruce Kirkland. The dateline of the story was Mount Pleasant, Michigan where Zappa was playing a concert. His precise statement differed by a single word [T1FZ]:
“Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read,” he says. That doesn’t leave much room to like him personally and he makes it obvious he doesn’t like you much either, whoever you are.
This citation is the earliest known, and it comes from the research files of Fred R. Shapiro editor of the Yale Book of Quotations and a top expert in this area. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1932 the legendary comedian Will Rogers published a humorous article that discussed authors who wrote for the movies. He made a comment that was thematically linked to Zappa’s later observation [WRSR]:
The successful author is the one who can write for the ones who can’t read.
In 1958 The Cavalier Daily, a student newspaper, reprinted a satirical article from The Arkansas Traveler, another student newspaper. The article included a joke about two prominent periodicals from the famed publisher Henry Luce [CDTL]:
Also in the Luce stable besides Time, the magazine for people who can’t think, is Life, the magazine for people who can’t read.
In 1971 a book described a campaign commercial televised in 1968 for the politician George Wallace. The following quip was credited to Wallace [RRGW]:
On the press: “Time and Newsweek are made for people who can’t think, Life is made for people who can’t read, and the Saturday Evening Post is made for people who can’t read or think.”
This joke and the other remarks before 1971 are clearly distinct from Zappa’s observation. But they are included here to suggest that weak precursors did exist.
In September 1977 Zappa was interviewed by Bruce Kirkland of the Toronto Star newspaper, and he made his famous comment about rock journalism. The details were given previously in this post.
In December 1977 Zappa’s quotation was repeated in a syndicated newspaper column that was produced by the Rolling Stone magazine [RSFZ]:
Frank Zappa on the merits of writing about rock ‘n’ roll:
“Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” Thank you, Frank. We’ll be in touch.
In January 1978 the Zappa saying was printed in the Chicago Tribune which cited the Toronto Star [CTFZ]:
No offense, all you Rolling Stone and Gig magazine fans, but Frank Zappa said it in the Toronto Star: “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.”
Also in January 1978 the saying appeared in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine but not as part of an interview. The saying was presented in a pullout box section titled “Loose Change” together with some other quotations. The statement was slightly modified by the deletion of the initial word “most”. This created a more forceful quotation that is in wide circulation today [RLFZ]:
“Rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.”–Frank Zappa
In January 1979 the saying appeared in the pages of the Toronto Star again, but this time it was the slightly altered version [T2FZ]:
Oh, that Frank Zappa. Such a nasty guy.
Asked for his views on rock journalism, he replied: “Rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.”
In conclusion, Zappa is responsible for this stinging declaration, and its first known appearance is in 1977. Thanks for your question.
[T1FZ] 1977 September 24, Toronto Star, “Zappa the Zapper” by Bruce Kirkland, Section: D Entertainment, Page D1, Column 2, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Pagesofthepast.ca archive; Verified with database scans)
[WRSR] 1932 December 25, Spokesman-Review, Read More, Remember Less by Will Rogers, Page 8, Spokane, Washington. (Google News Archive)
[CDTL] 1958 February 19, The Cavalier Daily [University of Virginia student newspaper], Portrait of Time As A Newsmagazine, Page 2, Charlottesville, Virginia. (Google News Archive)
[RRGW] 1971, Big Screen, Little Screen by Rex Reed, Entry Dated: September 6, 1968, Page 83, Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
[RSFZ] 1977 December 31, Gazette Telegraph Colorado Springs, Rolling Stone: Sober Season by Michael Duffey, Page 35D, (NArch Page 67), Column 5, Colorado Springs, Colorado. (NewspaperArchive)
[CTFZ] 1978 January 18, Chicago Tribune, People, Page 12, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
[RLFZ] 1978 January 26, Rolling Stone, Loose Talk, Page 15, Straight Arrow Publishers, San Francisco, California. (Verified with optical disk database; Many thanks to Jesse Sheidlower)
[T2FZ] 1979 January 13, Toronto Star, “It’s not personality — just plain cunning” by George Gamester, Section: F, Page F16, Column 2, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Pagesofthepast.ca archive)