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Even without their electric-green festival wristbands, it wasn't difficult to distinguish the Bruise Cruisers from the rest of Imagination's travelers. Immediately upon boarding, brightly colored tattoo ink stood out against pasty skin in the Miami sun. Waifish hipsters and bearded punk rockers in comically short swim trunks ordered overpriced Bahama Mamas — which came in novelty glasses sporting the phrase, "Officially the best day ever!" — right alongside clean-cut accountants and pre-tanned housewives.
The Bruisers made their way through lounges adorned with garish '90s decor — carpet writhing with vaguely postmodern squiggles, gold-colored fixtures plastic and gaudy enough for a low-rent Vegas casino. They settled into their respective cabins, emerging immediately in their complimentary bathrobes, gratis bottles of wine already half-consumed. They ordered sushi, Mongolian barbecue and cold cheeseburgers on the ship's Lido Deck — victuals that Neil Hamburger described as consisting only of "Sweet'N Low and food coloring."
The irony of their surroundings wasn't lost on the Bruisers — nocturnal, pallid punk-rock barflies sipping Mai Tais in the tropics is innately funny stuff. But hedonist appeal overcame any hipster resistance.
"I think the cool thing about this is you walk around, you sit down at a table, you talk to people — men, women that are into cool music," says Fucked Up frontman Damian Abraham, whose magnanimous, big-man-on-campus persona earned him both the figurehead position of Bruise Cruise director and a solo photo on the cover of Spin magazine's December issue. "They're kind of like — I don't want to say from the same world or anything, but they're all from a similar mindset musically or culturally. So you can talk.
"If I was on this cruise, just my wife and I, chances are if I sat down at a table and they were like, 'Oh, what do you do for a living?' It's like, 'Oh, well, I play in a band called Fucked Up' ... dead silence for the rest of that meal. It would be awkward as fuck."
But united by their fish-out-of-water vibe, the Bruisers found themselves enjoying the luxuries of the cruise most unironically — whether it was New Orleans hip-hop/bounce artist Vockah Redu's dance-exercise class, the Abraham-hosted Dating Game (the prizes included a year's supply of condoms and a vibrator), or general shipwide events like hot-tubbing and mini-golf.
Asked if he'd ever considered going on a cruise before, scruffy Bruise Cruiser Joe from Chicago says emphatically, "Fuck, no." Then he adds, "I actually just had this really great conversation with this guy — he's also from Chicago — and I talked to him for, like, an hour about how I should treat my nieces and nephews. ... I knew that cruises are weird, but I did not expect to meet a stranger who was not a Bruise Cruise person."
For Stein, inspiration came from an unlikely source: debauched glam-metal party-rockers Mötley Crüe. More specifically, Stein was inspired by the work of his father, Burt Stein, a veteran Music Row manager who's represented artists such as Steve Earle, Ronnie Milsap and The Smithereens. As then manager for Mötley Crüe singer Vince Neil, Stein conceived and helped organize Vince Neil's Motley Cruise, which made voyages in 2007 and 2008 on Imagination's twin ship, the Carnival Fascination.
"It's an absolute, total fan experience," Burt Stein says of Vince Neil's Motley Cruise. "The fans get to not only see the artists that they love, but they get to bond with one another. ... I guess Jonas must've parked that experience in the back of his mind when he came up with the Bruise Cruise."
"It was the first time I'd ever been on a cruise, and I was very prejudiced," says the younger Stein, who tagged along on both Motley Cruises. "I was just like, 'Oh man, it's just gonna be a bunch of old people on there, a bunch of families.' Which there were, but it happened to be an awesome time. I was on a cruise ship in the middle of winter, in the sunshine drinkin' booze, having a good time, and a light bulb popped on over my head like, 'Oh, man, this would be a lot more fun if all of my friends were here and we had a lot of garage bands [playing]. ... The seed was planted in my brain."
But it took a few years for that seed to bloom. When Turbo Fruits wrapped up a spring 2010 tour in Miami, seeing the cruise ships docked there rekindled Stein's garage-rock-fest-at-sea fantasy. He relayed the idea to his booking agent Michelle Cable, president of New York's Panache Booking, then consulted his pops, who told him to talk to the cruise line.
"That's pretty much the only bit of advice I got from him. Which is fine, because I didn't really need much more," Jonas says.
"I didn't know if he could pull it off or not," says his father, "But he jumped in and he worked his ass off to make this thing happen."
For months Stein and Cable spent hours a day spitballing ideas and discussing logistics on Skype, while going through bureaucratic rigmarole with the powers that be at Carnival. They eventually paid a 10 percent deposit to reserve a couple of the ship's event spaces and a couple hundred of its cabins — startup capital that they spent out of pocket in three installments, while they made up the remainder hustling tickets at around $700 a head, not including airfare.
That's a lot of money for a fan demographic that lives paycheck to paycheck — and sometimes lacks even the foresight not to spend the rent money on beer. But Stein was undaunted: "The nervousness wasn't there for me at the beginning because I've been on a music cruise before and I was like, 'Oh yeah, this is gonna be no problem, this is gonna be great, who would resist seeing The Black Lips on a cruise ship?'
"[But] a lot of people thought it was bullshit. Some of those people actually bought tickets and they told us last year, 'Oh my God, I can't believe it's happening. I didn't know if I was getting scammed or not!' "
They were willing to take the risk because ... come on, drinking and partying in the Caribbean with a dozen great bands? All this, plus miniature golf?
"In general, people into rock 'n' roll, garage rock or whatever, they're fun-loving people," muses Blackwell, the cruise's lone performing Nashville resident this year.
Unfortunately, "fun-loving" doesn't exactly mean responsible. While Stein and Cable spend 10 months a year preparing the three-day party that is the Bruise Cruise — three days in which (even with 15 or 20 staffers) they are the last ones to sleep and the first ones to wake — they are anomalies.
"Could you imagine pulling this [event] off?" Kyp Malone asks a crowd of hungover, unkempt slackers midway through his Sunday afternoon performance in the ship's Shangri-La Lounge. "I missed my flight to Miami," the TV on the Radio guitarist confesses.
Your humble scribes were a little more lucky: We made it to the ticket counter literally within the last 60 seconds we had to check in, then sprinted like OJ Simpson in a 1980s Avis commercial through the terminal — only to find that our flight was delayed. But imagine serving as wrangler for an act like The Togas.
"They're fucking great, but they're also of a kind of last-minute state of mind," Jonas Stein says. Less than an hour before their set at Señor Frog's, the band was MIA. Worse, the paperwork and protocols for taking amps, guitars and drums into a foreign country didn't allow rolling the van up to the club minutes before show time.
"Immediately I was like, 'Oh my God, I know exactly what's happening. They're on the fucking Lido Deck drinking beer, deciding that they're gonna leave last minute," Stein says. So he ran back to the boat, tracked the band members down and filled out their paperwork. All's well that ends well — if by "ends well" you mean they made it to the tackiest bar on planet Earth in time to botch "96 Tears" for a packed house.
Almost immediately, the cruise's appeal from a stargazer's point of view was evident. The novelty of being shipmates with Karen O, Malone, Christopher Weingarten and Tom Scharpling soon became the daily norm. Because there are no conflicting events — each activity is the only one in its time slot — the same crowd bounced along together.
From mandatory shipwide safety briefings — where you might discover you and King Khan will share the same lifeboat — to late-night blackjack as Fucked Up bassist Sandy Miranda gambles at a nearby table, these same 500 fans and performers are your daily cohorts. Being star-struck simply becomes too exhausting to keep up.
Each night, Bruisers were treated to "fine dining" experiences in the ship's Spirit Dining Room, where we each found ourselves assigned to a specific table. Our assigned table was No. 393, where we were seated alongside several members of King Khan's all-German backup band, The Shrines, as well as Vivian Girls frontwoman Cassie Ramone — who flew down mid-cruise this year for a DJ set — and a DJ from Chicago who admittedly earns a sizable portion of her income spinning records at "hipster weddings."
All of the Shrines were madly entertaining. There was Rasputin-bearded drummer John Boy Adonis, who chuckled quietly to himself as he trained his camcorder on various goings-on; trumpet player Sam Fransisco, who looked like a young Gabe Kaplan; and perhaps most outlandish of all, saxophonist Ben Ra, who resembled a Bond villain in his ascot, pinstriped jumpsuit and toothy grin. He cackled wildly at his own labored puns — for instance, wiping butter on his face and referring to himself as "buttface."
"We're all eating fancy dinners together and we're all just, like, punk rockers [used to] hanging out in basements and playing rock 'n' roll in garages," Jonas Stein says. "That's when I don't have to do anything except chill out and eat escargot."
Any semblance of a wall between performer and fan vanished. Backstage, punk legend Biafra wandered about in an open Hawaiian shirt, his belly spilling over his jeans. He stood around discussing the Occupy Movement while hawking his merch and yukking it up with an out-of-character Neil Hamburger. During the first performance on the ship, as The Dirtbombs bombarded the Xanadu Lounge with their fuzzed-out blues stomp, drummer Blackwell dragged his entire kit offstage, setting up ferociously among the crowd. As he reassembled his set mid-song, onlookers abandoned their stoic posture to help position cymbal stands and put his drums in place.
To many, the prospect of being isolated on a floating family resort rife with sugar-addled rugrats and punk rockers better acquainted with hot tubs than showers might sound terrifying. Scarier to some was that while traversing international waters, smart phones were rendered utterly useless, thus stranding two generations of media-savvy blog trollers in the tweet-deprived 20th century. Sure, the ship had eye-wateringly overpriced Wi-Fi, but Google loaded at about the same speed that democracy is reaching North Korea. Don't even ask about the roaming charges.
When the ship docked on Day Two, its passengers woke up to find themselves overlooking the tropical splendor of Nassau. Once off the boat, they'd do a sitting-duck walk through a McDonaldized gauntlet of hustlers offering to braid their hair, rent them recreational vehicles (horses!) or sell them weed. For the few hours the Bruise Cruisers occupied the island, they'd see each other whizzing by on rented scooters, eating conch fritters or frolicking on the beach — where one headiner may or may not have been smoking what resembled a "jazz cigarette" — within earshot of Bahamian natives halving coconuts with machetes.
"I always felt like South by Southwest or, to a lesser extent, an All Tomorrow's Parties or CMJ were kind of like rock 'n' roll summer camps," Blackwell says. "This wasn't at all watered down."
No, at this summer camp, instead of ghost stories around the campfire, Bruise Cruisers got Jello Biafra ranting about the evils of war, fast food and homelessness. Sounding like a less jocular Norm McDonald, the sardonic punk legend delivered his musings under antiseptic fluorescent lighting in the ship's packed-to-capacity conference room, not once allowing the Formica walls and fake-iron-curtain windows to dim his passion for the Green Party. Pondering such subjects would've been a buzzkill if not for The Black Eyed Peas booming from an adjacent dance club — reminding us that, on the Imagination, escapism and hedonism were never more than a room away.
From the outset, there wasn't a dry gullet on the ship, but the Bruise Cruisers' intoxication level most likely reached fever pitch Saturday night at Señor Frog's — a venue dubbed "Alcoholism Central" by Neil Hamburger — during (appropriately enough) Fucked Up's set. Fueled by 28-ounce "yard-long" Long Beaches and free vomit-colored blasts of Sex on the Beach, Bruisers went from congaing to Gloria Estefan to bashing senseless and giddy into one another in Fucked Up's mosh pit.
"These people's livers are exploding," Hamburger recounts. "That's why they have an attendant in the bathroom — to mop up these livers from people's genitals just spewing urine that you can bottle and drink. And I think they do that at Señor Frog's."
Despite his band's moniker, Damian Abraham was, for 16 years and until somewhat recently, staunchly committed to the drugs-and-alcohol-free straight-edge subculture. He's since abandoned his prior convictions, as evidenced by his pounding shots alongside the rest of Fucked Up and Señor Frog's patrons. He haphazardly stomped across the bar as he delivered his vocals — bare ass showing as his pants hung at half-mast — even once slipping suddenly and violently from his perch.
"Alcohol's a really good aid when you're a performer," Abraham said, laughing, during an interview earlier that day. "When I was straight-edge, I would be like, 'I don't care if a show serves alcohol or not.' But now I realize people need that drink to loosen up, and without it — when it's a dry environment — it's a little slow to get everyone into the show. I think Señor Frog's, with their discounted drink special, is going to be the right environment. Maybe we should just play frat bars from now on."
And it was the right environment, if only to find even the most unlikely candidates — music reporters, for instance, whose incriminating photos later turned up on MTVHive.com — slam dancing and crowd surfing and later sloppily bopping through Biafra's DJ set.
From there, everyone wearing a festival bracelet somehow managed to stumble back to the Imagination by 2 a.m. The next morning kicked off with a puppet show from Miss Pussycat and another installment of the Abraham-hosted Dating Game. But for those seeking the hair of the dog that bit them, a free cocktail hour directly following another Neil Hamburger set in the Xanadu Lounge was the horizon's shining star.
As Quintron and his wife, Miss Pussycat, burned through a set of their self-described "Swamp-Tech" dancy electro-pop — enhanced by a cameo from Vockah Redu and his crew in choreographed dance moves — servers circulated with cocktail trays that resembled chemistry sets. Despite the off-putting industrial-cleaner hues of the free spirits, everyone in the room swilled and swilled alike, coasting through another flesh-baring, soul-shouting performance from Khan and his Shrines.
Were any drugs aboard, they were most certainly consumed by the time of Neil Hamburger's invite-only late-night set, where he was accompanied by Strange Boys/Togas pianist Ryan Sambol. Technical difficulties abounded and a restless crowd — much too large for the piano-bar venue — filled the room with cigarette smoke until Hamburger and Sambol took the stage a half-hour behind schedule. After delivering a handful of one-liners and exactly two musical numbers — one of which was Marie Lloyd's century-old, double entendre-laden music-hall classic "She Sits Among the Cabbages and Peas" — Hamburger apathetically abandoned his set, leaving alcohol to win the final round.
And with that, the official Bruise Cruise festivities were complete — though as the boat coasted through international waters for those last few hours, a committed faction of Bruisers wandered the various decks, consuming the last of their contraband and making out with one another in plain sight.
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