I had no idea what “gonzo journalism” was before hearing Parlors’ “Lemon Ice.” I’d also never heard of Hunter S. Thompson.
But after falling hard for the hard rock energy of the song then finding out it’s based on a gonzo journalism piece by Thompson titled “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” I figured both of those topics were worth a bit of research. 15 minutes and a few Wikipedia articles later, here’s what I’ve got.
First, the gonzo genre, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Gonzo journalism is a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative.
I actually love that. It feels so similar to what I’ve wrestled with in songwriting – the tension between communication that’s both universal and personal all at once. Gonzo, from what I’ve seen in my (ridiculously brief) study of the genre, is incredibly honest about the difficulty of communicating anything without communicating about yourself.
Second, Hunter S. Thompson, also courtesy of Wikipedia (which is the bedrock of human knowledge):
Hunter Stockton Thompson (July 18, 1937 – February 20, 2005) was an American journalist and author, and the founder of the gonzo journalism movement. He first rose to prominence with the publication of Hell’s Angels (1967), a book for which he spent a year living and riding with the Hells Angels motorcycle gang in order to write a first-hand account of the lives and experiences of its members.
According to his entry, Thomspon would go on to submerge himself into a variety of events and cultures (including the 1970 Kentucky Derby), assuming the identity of the people and places he covered so that he could offer personal exposition and moral critiques from their depths.
He committed suicide in 2005.
I’ll be honest, when I first fell for “Lemon Ice,” I wouldn’t have guessed that the song came from a context like that.
On first listen, this is a track brimming with classic grunge-rock vibes. Over broken minor chords plucked on a guitar, the lyrics emote defiance:
Day in, night out, it’s your rodeo
You can hold the intro
The truth is that we’re looped in if we don’t know
Their type of lingo
It feels like classic fight-the-power grunge rock (or, as the band accurately labels it, “desert rock”) stuff. But when you realize it’s coming from a place of participation – that the narrator is complicit in the situation even if they don’t want to be there – it hits even harder.
And, make no mistake, this song hits hard. Crunchy guitars, stadium drum sounds, and the sheer belief of the vocal performances (with help from Brendan Fletcher) make this a track that bleeds raw crowd-pleasing energy. From the first fateful drop at 0:35 when the acoustic guitar gives way to the band’s enthusiastic power, it’s hard to listen and sit still.
I think that’s part of the point. This is a song that requires participation; you can’t just sit and let it pass over you without becoming involved in it, feeling the defiance, nodding your head.
It’s kinda like I’m down in the dirt
…the band sings, and it’s kind of like we all are, even if we were on the sidelines at first.
For all the newfound respect I have for Hunter S. Thompson’s participatory ideals of gonzo journalism, I think music – especially music like “Lemon Ice” – is the most naturally participatory form of art.
And I love it for that.
If you want to join in, just hit play on the link below. It’s worth it.