Tag Archives: Frank Zappa

You Can’t Be a Real Country Unless You Have a Beer and an Airline

Frank Zappa? Apocryphal?

beer07Dear Quote Investigator: Did the Frank Zappa really say that a proper country needs a beer and an airline?

Quote Investigator: In 1989 “The Real Frank Zappa Book” was published by the well-known songwriter and musician, and it included an instance of the remark mentioned above. Zappa was not eager to write a book, but he offered an important rationale in the introduction. Boldface and italics in this excerpt and the next were present in the original text: 1

One of the reasons for doing this is the proliferation of stupid books (in several languages) which purport to be About Me. I thought there ought to be at least ONE, somewhere, that had real stuff in it.

The chapter titled “America Drinks & Goes Marching” contained the following passage: 2

Every major industrialized nation has A BEER (you can’t be a Real Country unless you have A BEER and an airline—it helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need A BEER).

Below are the conclusion and acknowledgements.

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  1. 1999 (1989 copyright), The Real Frank Zappa Book, by Frank Zappa with Peter Occhiogrosso, Section: Introduction, Quote Page 9, A Touchstone Book: Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper in 1999 reprint edition; originally published in 1989 by Poseidon Press, New York)
  2. 1999 (1989 copyright), The Real Frank Zappa Book, by Frank Zappa with Peter Occhiogrosso, Chapter 12: America Drinks & Goes Marching, Quote Page 231, A Touchstone Book: Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper in 1999 reprint edition; originally published in 1989 by Poseidon Press, New York)

The Two Most Common Elements in the Universe Are Hydrogen and Stupidity

Harlan Ellison? Frank Zappa? Anonymous?

zappa02Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular quotation that expresses the following idea:

Hydrogen and stupidity are the two most abundant materials in the universe

This notion can be expressed in many different ways. One version has been credited to the SF writer Harlan Ellison, and another version has been ascribed to the musician Frank Zappa. Would you please examine the provenance of this statement?

Quote Investigator: This saying is highly mutable and difficult to trace. The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in the 1985 volume “An Edge in My Voice” by Harlan Ellison which primarily consisted of a set of columns written between 1980 and 1984. Ellison also updated the content by adding introductory remarks for each column under the section title “Interim Memo”. The following passage was from one of these supplementary introductions. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

At a lecture I gave in Grand Forks, North Dakota in March of this year, someone asked me how do we finally knock the fools and obscurantists and believers in craziness out of the box once and for all. I told the woman that we can’t. Apart from hydrogen, the most common thing in the universe is stupidity.

In July 1986 a syndicated puzzle feature called “Celebrity Cipher” was printed in multiple newspapers. The solution to the cipher was a statement labeled “Zappa’s Canon”, i.e., it was a saying credited to Frank Zappa: 2 3

PREVIOUS SOLUTION: “There are two things on earth that are universal: hydrogen and stupidity.” — Zappa’s Canon.

In February 1987 a column about books in “Omni” magazine printed a quotation credited to Ellison: 4

Harlan Ellison: These would-be censors are monsters. And they will always be with us because the two most common things in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1985, An Edge in My Voice by Harlan Ellison, (Collection of columns that originally appeared in Future Life, the L.A. Weekly and The Comics Journal), Installment 8: Interim Memo, (Introduction written for the book to a column that appeared in April 1981), Published by The Donning Company, Norfolk, Virginia. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1986 July 15, Cumberland Evening Times, Celebrity Cipher by Connie Wiener, Quote Page 19, Column 2, Cumberland, Maryland. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1986 July 15, The Journal-Register, Celebrity Cipher by Connie Wiener, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Medina, New York. (Old Fulton)
  4. 1987 February, Omni magazine, Books: The Real Fahrenheit 451 by Marion Long, Quote Page 22, Omni Publications International, New York. (Verified with scans)

Abstract Art: A Product of the Untalented, Sold by the Unprincipled to the Utterly Bewildered

Al Capp? Apocryphal?

alcappabstract02Dear Quote Investigator: The cartoonist Al Capp was famous for creating the long-running comic strip Li’l Abner. During the 1960s he reportedly described abstract art with the following amusing and acerbic phrase:

A product of the untalented sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.

Today this description could be applied to several products. Is this quotation accurate?

Quote Investigator: Al Capp did make more than one comment of this type. The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in a 1961 newspaper column by Capp who presented a comedic conception of a “Library of Creative Art” in the year 2000, i.e., thirty-nine years in the future.

Capp indicated that contemporary TV commercials would be preserved in the future museum because they embodied “man’s supreme achievement in the realm of wild, impossible fantasy.” However, abstract art works were labeled “incomprehensible messes”, and they would not be present in the museum. The fictional curator stated the following. Boldface has been added to passages below: 1

By excluding their messes from the library the place will look cleaner, and maybe our time will be forgotten as one when the creations of the untalented, the unhealthy, and the unhousebroken were praised by the unearthly and sold by the unprincipled to the totally bewildered.

We’ll all look better in the year 2000 if we retain only the work of artists now called hacks, but who stubbornly kept alive the traditions of Michaelangelo, da Vinci, and Rembrandt.

Although, the museum and its curator were exaggerated satirical devices they did reflect some of the opinions held by Capp.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1961 May 4, Boston Globe, Slim Pickin’s in an Art Library: A Sad Commentary On Sick Century by Al Capp, Quote Page 7, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)

Rock Journalism is People Who Can’t Write Interviewing People Who Can’t Talk for People Who Can’t Read

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.

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Writing About Music is Like Dancing About Architecture

Laurie Anderson? Steve Martin? Frank Zappa? Martin Mull? Elvis Costello? Thelonius Monk?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have a difficult riddle for you. A mailing list I belong to has discussed the following quotation several times during the past ten years, and the question of its origin has never been satisfactorily resolved.

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

Laurie Anderson, Steve Martin, Frank Zappa, Martin Mull, Elvis Costello, Thelonius Monk, Clara Schumann, Miles Davis, George Carlin and several other people have been credited with concocting this extraordinarily popular and enigmatic simile. There is another common version of the quote: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Is there any chance that you could attempt to trace this famous saying?

Quote Investigator:  With the help of some wonderful music librarians and an individual who left a comment on this blog post QI can report some revealing citations. The first cite known to QI appears in a magazine dedicated to the history of rock and roll called “Time Barrier Express”. The September-October 1979 issue contains a profile of the group Sam & Dave by Gary Sperrazza in which he discusses the interplay and rapport of the duo [TBEM]:

All quick, very natural, and captured on vinyl. It’s so hard to explain on paper, you’ll just have to find the records and listen for yourself (because I truly believe — honest — that writing about music is, as Martin Mull put it, like dancing about architecture).

The second earliest cite was found by Mike Kuniavsky who presented a pointer to its location in a comment. In December 1979 “Arts Magazine” published an article about the painter Michael Madore by the critic Thomas McGonigle. The saying is attributed to Martin Mull; however, the domain of the quotation is knowingly transformed to painting. Even in 1979 McGonigle refers to the expression as a “famous dictum” [AMTM]:

So with Madore we have the classic situation: no limits, thus all limits, or to slightly alter the famous Martin Mull dictum: Writing about painting is like dancing about architecture.

Based on current evidence QI believes that Martin Mull is the most likely originator of this expression. It is not clear how Gary Sperrazza and Thomas McGonigle heard or read about the quotation. Mull did release several albums combining comedy and music in the 1970s. He also appeared in the television soap opera parody “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”, and the talk show parody “Fernwood 2 Night” (later renamed “America 2-Night”). It is possible that he used the phrase in one of these venues, or perhaps he said it during a stage performance or interview.

Researchers have been attempting to trace this well-known saying for many years. It is a recurrent topic in discussion forums and on mailing lists. Alan P. Scott was the key pioneer in this endeavor, and he has created a wonderful webpage that records his gleanings and includes a comprehensive list of people that have been credited with the quotation [APSM].

The clever maxim was probably not created ex nihilo. QI has found similar expressions that date back to 1918. There is a family of related sayings that comment about such difficult exertions as: writing about music, talking about music, writing about art, and talking about art. This backstory helps to illuminate the aphorism, and it begins with a remark involving “singing about economics.”

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