Getting naked with hundreds of people you’ve never met is something that sounds like a good idea in theory. But as it turns out, it’s just kinda awkward and weird. Especially when it’s 10am and you haven’t had a lick of alcohol and you’re on the deck of a cruise ship somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.
The nudity itself isn’t the real problem. It’s the lead up. When you know that you’re about to drop your bathrobe and share your naughty bits with the world, all sorts of paranoid thoughts flash through your head. You wonder if maybe you’re the only one stupid enough to actually go through with this. Is everybody else really planning on exposing themselves to complete strangers? Maybe you missed a memo, and “naked” is just a code word for “flesh-toned swimming suit.”
A strong breeze off the ocean has an amazing ability to circumvent even the most tightly-secured bathrobe and find its way to your genitals. If you’re a guy, this can have an adverse effect on the size of your junk. Which is distressing if you’re planning to share it with other people anytime soon. You consider slipping a hand inside your robe to give it a gentle tug, just to make sure you’re “show ready.”
It’s only day two of Ships & Dip, a five-day rock cruise headlined by Canadian popsmiths the Barenaked Ladies, and I’m already about to do something I know I’ll regret. Not in a fun way or a “that was such a crazy trip, man” sort of way, but in a haunting, traumatizing way that could take years of therapy to undo. After all, we’re not just here to get naked; we’re here to have our photo taken. The shared trepidation has a calming effect on the crowd. It makes us feel a little less alone and vulnerable. We’re convinced that if we choose our placement wisely, our shriveled and frightened reproductive organs will be obscured, just another pink blur in the vast panorama of naked flesh.
The nude portrait was the band’s idea. It started at last year’s cruise, when they invited guests to join them for a photo themed on the “barenaked” part of their name. To the band’s surprise, hundreds of passengers showed up. This year, not counting me, there are 953 would-be nudists on the deck.
The air is filled with nervous tittering. From what I can gather, the mob is comprised of equal parts men and woman, young and old, physically semi-attractive and the reason why civilization insists on clothing. The most repeated phrase of the hour is, “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” followed by a nasally Fran Drescher laugh. There’s a very loud guy a few rows ahead of me, who’s pretending to be helpful but actually he’s just making everybody more acutely aware of what can go wrong.
“When you pick up your bathrobe after the shoot,” he reminds us, “please bend with your knees!”
I keep trying to rationalize what we’re doing. I tell myself that it’s carefully orchestrated hedonism to get us into a rock n’ roll mood. We’re like Marianne Faithful dropping a fur rug to tease London cops, only in much greater numbers and on a luxury ocean liner rather than a London flat.
A photographer, perched on a ladder several yards above us, orders the crowd to disrobe, and we do as we’re told. Strangely, it’s not in any way erotic. There’s absolutely no sex in the sexual tension. There are no lecherous grins or roaming hands. It may be because we’re all stone-cold sober, or because most of the participants don’t have bodies that are complimented by direct sunlight. There’s a woman standing near me who’s draped her breasts over a guardrail, and they look like tube-socks filled with gravy. There’s a lot of cheering and laughter, but it’s a blushing, puerile tittering, like a schoolbus full of kids who’ve just learned about the planet Uranus.
“One more second for safety,” the photographer bellows at us. “One more for safety, one more for safety…”
My gaze drifts towards the ship’s bow, and I seriously contemplate jumping overboard and swimming for shore. It’s probably suicide, but at this point it seems like the most reasonable option.
* * *
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up.
A few weeks ago, if you’d asked me if I’d ever consider taking a cruise, I would have laughed in your face. For anybody under retirement age, taking a vacation on a cruise ship sounds about as appealing as an early-bird breakfast special at Shoney’s. A cruise is god’s waiting room, a place to get a tan and relax in the pool while you’re waiting for the sweet release of death.
Even more absurd to me was the concept of rock cruises. They’ve been around for years, but always struck me as the musical equivalent of summer stock theater. When the headliners on a cruise are Sister Hazel and Toad the Wet Sprocket and the year isn’t 1997, it’s not exactly a floating Coachella. And those are the modern acts. If you want to watch the surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd limp through “Sweet Home Alabama” for the umpteenth time, there are cheaper (and less personally embarrassing) ways to do so than paying $1000 for a concert on international waters.
But then something bizarre happened. Seemingly overnight, rock cruises — or, as their publicists prefer to call them, “floating music festivals” — stopped being a novelty fad. Musicians who don’t usually play at county fairs and Indian casinos are now hosting their own cruises, like Dave Matthews, Ben Folds, Gomez and Bela Fleck. And audiences who might normally spend their music budgets at festivals like Bonnaroo and Rothbury are showing up in record numbers, boarding cruise ships like Florida retirees with a few more tattoos and a better taste in music.
Believe it or not, rock cruises have become cool. Well, maybe not cool cool, but at least ironically cool.
“Cruise ships aren’t what people think they are,” insists Andy Levine, the spokesman of rock cruise purveyor Sixthman. “Some of them are a thousand feet long. They’re like mini-cities. It’s a great platform for this kind of festival.” When I asked him if people under a certain age might feel uneasy in a cruise setting, which has a (not undeserved) reputation as the vacation of choice for Florida’s elderly, he’s adamant that a rock cruise isn’t something your grandparents would enjoy, or even feel welcome on.
“There are no old people,” he says with just a little too much certainty. “There’s no riff-raff at all. It’s a pure environment.”
It’s unclear what lengths he’s willing to go to ensure the purity of his cruises. One imagines a socialist state, with strict dress codes and undesirables mysteriously disappearing from their cabins in the middle of the night. Levine’s vision of rock cruise utopia – a community of like-minded people who share the same opinions and musical interests, living together peacefully on an oceanic city – is definitely creepy, but also strangely compelling.
But overpriced cultural assimilation isn’t really the reason rock fans are flocking to cruises. Last February, when John Mayer’s Mayercraft Carrier set sail for its debut voyage, photos quickly circulated of Mayer wandering the ship in a Borat-style speedo. It was obviously a wink-and-a-nudge that the cruise wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. It was just silly, self-deprecating fun, and the rest of us land-dwellers too proud or full of self-imposed indie cred to set foot on a cruise ship were uptight, humorless prissies.
Because I easily cave to peer pressure, I was determined to join the rock cruise tongue-in-cheek party scene. I settled on Ships & Dip, the second annual cruise hosted by the Barenaked Ladies. They’re not a nostalgia act playing to aging hipsters, but not so popular as to attract the obnoxious, boob-flashing, date-raping MTV set. And their cruise is the perfect length — five days, roughly the length of a Vegas marriage. Just enough time to get your sea legs and realize why this relationship is never going to work.
The Dame and I spent weeks preparing for the big day, packing and re-packing as we reevaluated the best rock outfits. I received numerous calls from Paula, the cruise’s publicist, making sure I was adequately prepared for a week at sea. She warned me that her last rock cruise had been “wicked rocky.”
I’d planned for pirates and stomach viruses, but not sea sickness. I considered bringing Dramamine, but to hear Paula talk, vertigo and nausea just seemed like another part of the rock lifestyle. She told me a story about her last cruise, when a guitarist became so ill during a concert that, while in the midst of a shredding guitar solo, he walked over to the edge of the ship and barfed into the ocean.
“We had a bucket beside the stage because so many of the musicians who were getting sick,” she told me. “But none of them would stop performing. They didn’t let a little vomit come between them and entertaining their fans.”
As much as I looked forward to puking in the Atlantic for the glory of rock, I was still afraid. How can I explain it in ways you’d understand? If you’ve ever lived in Los Angeles, you’ve experienced that moment when you’re out drinking with friends and somebody says, “Hey, we should drive out to Las Vegas tonight!” So you all pile into a car, thinking you’re being spontaneous and wacky. But about midway through the desert, you finally come to your senses. What the fuck were you thinking, driving to fucking Vegas in the middle of the fucking night? What good could possibly come of that? But you’ve come too far to turn back now.
Las Vegas is never as good as you think it’s going to be when you’re buzzed. Hitting on middle-aged cocktail waitress and watching a Wayne Newton show is only hilariously ironic in theory. In reality, it’s just kind of depressing and icky.
A rock cruise is Las Vegas with all the exits cut off.
The Dame and I are standing in line at the Port of Miami, waiting to pick up our boarding passes with a throng of sweaty, pushy tourists.
There’s a palpable anxiety in the air. If I didn’t know better, I’d think we’d stumbled onto a sad scene of deportation. But unlike illegal immigrants, these people are terrified of being left off a ship, not herded onto one. Their vacation hasn’t even officially begun yet and already they have the panicky expressions of theme park tourists. Their faces are strained in impatient joviality, trying to understand why the fuck they aren’t having fun yet.
There are hopeful signs that the Dame and I aren’t the only ones here in on the joke. The crowd is a sea of Hawaiian shirts, Bermuda shorts and (inexplicably) homemade Viking helmets. We don’t question whether their fashion choices are meant in jest. We have to believe they are, as the only other explanation is too terrifying to contemplate.
Just in front of us in line, there’s a teenage girl with purple hair and a faded Fugazi t-shirt. Judging from her eye-rolling and impatient huffing as she waits for her father to check in, she couldn’t be less thrilled to be here. We try to ignore her, but she’s our canary in a coal mine. When the hippest person in the room would rather be anywhere else, it doesn’t bode well.
Tickets in hand, we drag our luggage onto the ship, and it takes several hours just to find our cabin. The Carnival Victory — the boat’s name makes me wonder if we’ll be exchanging cannon-fire with British galleons — is an endless maze of stairs and hallways, all leading back to the central dining room. I don’t know who designed this ship, but I suspect the architect had a fondness for Escher’s Relativity and hash brownies.
We eventually stumble onto our room, a windowless cell with what we’re convinced is a cum stain on the carpet, and quickly change into our cruise attire. We wander up to the Lido Deck just in time for the launch party and the first concert by the Barenaked Ladies. But I’m in no mood to celebrate. It’s only late afternoon and I’m already haggard and hostile and prepared to hate everything about this cruise.
And then somebody offers me a coconut filled with rum.
“You can use it later as a coin bank,” a waiter explains, as if this is a major selling point.
Three or four coconuts later, I’m ready to mingle. It’s easy to make new friends on a rock cruise. Every conversation has a built-in introduction: “How many times have you seen the band?” It’s instant camaraderie for strangers who otherwise have nothing in common.
The Dame and I meet a 30-something couple named Marie and John (they’ve seen the band three times in concert) and their friend Harriet (eight times), who proudly informs us that she’s the only African-American on the boat.
“If you see a black person, just yell out, ‘Hey, Harriet’,” she tells us. “It’s probably me.”
We also exchange pleasantries with Sal and Mary Anne from Long Island, who plan their Vegas trips around the Ladies’ tour schedule because “we like the slots.” And Samantha from Orlando, Florida, whose 10-year old son Christopher has spent the last few months helping her train for the Guitar Hero competition, which takes place tomorrow morning. She doesn’t like to brag, but thanks to her son’s guidance she has a 76% proficiency.
And then there are the passengers we’re afraid to approach; the fans best admired from afar. Like the four women in matching sailor suits and hats, their initials stitched in cursive on the breast pockets, who loudly proclaim to anyone who’ll listen that they all live in the same trailer park. Or the woman carting around a child dressed from head to toe like a monkey. The meaning behind this costume has to be explained to me.
“There’s a line in (the Barenaked Ladies’ song) ‘If I Had $1,000,000′ about a monkey,” a helpful man informs me. “‘Haven’t you always wanted a mon-key?'”
I smile and thank him, but the explanation doesn’t put me at ease. I can’t help but wonder, is this woman offering her child to the band as some sort of ritualistic sacrifice? It’s unclear.
Despite the friendly and affable crowd, I’m still uncomfortable here. I feel like a fraud. It’s probably because I’m not a diehard fan of the Barenaked Ladies. I remember “One Week” when it was played incessantly on the radio during the late 90s. And I’ve heard the occasional song since, like that one about Yoko Ono or the one where they rap-sing about monkey postcards. At best, they seem like Weezer for non-hipsters, or They Might Be Giants with a more cheery attitude.
The rum starts to take hold, and I become stupidly hopeful. I’m not just here for the band, I tell myself. I didn’t get on this cruise for the Barenaked Ladies any more than people flock to Mardi Gras for the free plastic beads. I’m here for the experience.
Before long, I lose all track of time. But the sun feels good on my face and the music sounds so sweet to my rum-soaked brain. I’m not sure why, but there’s chili in my shoes. Have I even had chili today? I’m far too drunk to remember.
The band is singing about the joys of poverty and eating Kraft mac-n-cheese in a tree fort. The crowd is singing along with every lyric, and some of them are actually crying. If any of their enthusiasm is meant ironically, they’re playing it very close to the chest. I have the stomach-dropping epiphany that I’m like the guy at the Star Trek convention who realizes too late that he’s the only one who digs the show for William Shatner’s god-awful overacting and the laughable special effects. Everybody else, in their Klingon costumes and Vulcan ears, is taking this shit seriously.
The ship’s horns announce that we’re leaving Miami, and The Ladies are singing one of their non-hits, “Some Fantastic.” The lyrics seem eerily ominous.
“Bye, bye self respect
I haven’t had much of it since you left.”
I order another cocktail and try not to look obviously alarmed.
At 38, I’m not so old and jaded that I don’t see the appeal of Guitar Hero. But there’s a big difference between playing a video game and watching other people play it.
To be fair, the vast majority of passengers gathered in the mid-ship Disco Bar aren’t just here to cheer on the guitar-shredding prowess of their peers. They’ve come to gawk at Ed Robertson.
“I hear you’ve been practicing,” Robertson says to the crowd with a playful sneer. “I look at you as lambs before the slaughter.”
Robertson, the lead guitarist and singer for the Barenaked Ladies, is hosting the Guitar Hero Championships, one of many activities scheduled for the first “Rock Day at Sea.” The Disco is standing room only, and dozens of would-be rockers are waiting on the sidelines, preparing for their musical showdown.
The game is simple: two competitors play dueling guitars to classic rock standards, and the winner is the one who hits the most correct notes. But the real show is Robertson, whose job is to keep the crowd entertained. If there’s a lull, Robertson is quick to create a distraction, usually by covering the players’ eyes or blocking the TV screen with his hands or body.
With his dark good looks and buff, tattooed arms, Robertson is the band’s resident heartthrob, and he’s clearly comfortable with that role. He flirts shamelessly with his female fans, at one point even announcing to one of the contestants that while she’s playing, “I will be touching you inappropriately.”
When Robertson has to leave early, the audience lets out a collective sigh. An attractive brunette named Lisa, who’s wearing a t-shirt with an iron-on picture of Robertson, is so upset that she nearly bursts into tears.
“It’s just not fair,” she sniffles. “I wanted to play for Ed. It’s not the same if it’s not Ed.”
At least on this ship, there’s an expectation among the fans for something more intimate than idol worship. They want a personal connection with the band. And the Barenaked Ladies deliver on that promise. They treat the passengers like friends. They know a staggering number of their fans on a first-name basis, and they’re not shy about sucking up to the customer.
At some point during the day, every band member is somewhere on the ship. If they’re not performing, they’re making the rounds, greeting the guests and shaking hands and posing for photographs, like politicians running for public office. I have yet to see one of them kiss a baby or promise a “change you can believe in”, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
At the Double Dippers show (for fans returning for a second cruise), Robertson wears an “Official Michael from San Dimas Fan Club” t-shirt. Michael from San Dimas, it’s explained to me, is just some dude who really, really likes the band.
Back in our cabin, the Dame notices that the TV is playing Barenaked Ladies videos and concert films in a continuous loop. So when you’re not watching the Barenaked Ladies, you can watch… the Barenaked Ladies.
Outside, there are posters everywhere, advertising the event you’ve already paid to see, as if reminding you of who owns this boat. It’s almost Orwellian. The only thing missing is a political slogan designed to keep the masses in check. Something like “Ignorance is Strength” or “Freedom is Slavery.”
I don’t claim to know much about Grand Cayman, having spent less than a few hours on the island, but I do know this: Their beaches are populated by an alarming number of stray dogs, at least one of whom I’ve personally witnessed raping a child.
The Dame begs to differ. When I point out the beach dog violently humping an 8 year old boy in shallow water, she insists that I’m mistaken.
“The dog isn’t raping him,” she corrects me. “He’s just riding him. Like a surfboard.”
I study the pair more closely. “I don’t think so,” I say. “I’m pretty sure surfing doesn’t involve quite so much thrusting.”
We’ve tried to make the most of our first port-of-call, wisely avoiding the chain restaurants (dining at the Hard Rock just didn’t seem particularly exotic) and paying the extra cash to be shuttled out to 7-Mile Beach, a sprawling coastline of white sand and whiter people nursing overpriced booze. But aside from a brief dip in the ocean (where I accidentally submerged my cellphone, our only means of contact with the outside world) and the novelty of witnessing a canine sex crime, we’re starting to wonder why we didn’t just stay on the ship.
We strike up a conversation with a gaggle of women lounging next to us. They’re in their mid-forties, pale and heavyset, and perfectly content to be vacationing without their husbands.
“They didn’t want to come,” a dark-haired woman named Lauren says with a smirk. “They told us, ‘We don’t want to be trapped on a boat full of crazies.'”
Her friends burst into laughter, with a familiarity that suggests they’ve shared this joke many, many times already.
A few hours later, we’re back on the ship with the other “crazies,” eating meatballs and downing cans of Miller on the Lido Deck as we watch Great Big Sea, a folk-rock band from Newfoundland, perform loud sea shanties.
My name is Captain Kidd
And God’s laws I did forbid,
And most wickedly I did as I sailed!
Anywhere else, I wouldn’t be able to stomach their nautical romanticism. But on this boat, breathing the warm, salty air of the Atlantic, their songs about pirates and maritime alcoholism are enough to make me tear up and pull out a lighter.
The rest of the afternoon and evening is a blur of live shows. I watch sets by Carbon Leaf, Griffin House, and other acts I’ve never heard of before getting on this boat. They’re all likable enough, playing the kind of inoffensive pop-rock that’s brought them modest fame in car commercials and teen drama soundtracks. But after awhile, it all starts to blend together. You forget where one band ends and another begins. It’s like I’ve been watching one seamless, 12-hour pop anthem.
Not that there isn’t variety. The cruise features a diverse lineup, including power-pop brooders (The New Odds), indie rock almost-weres (Harvey Danger), alt-country cynics (The Handsome Family), Weather Channel theme song-providers (Guster), and of course, Canadian singer-songwriters (Howie Beck, Jason Plumb, Jason Collett, Sarah Harmer, etc.), who are here in such great numbers that Canada’s coffee shops must be eerily silent.
Rock cruise passengers aren’t casual music fans. They live and breathe rock n’ roll. And they have more than a passing interest in these bands. Everyone I’ve spoken to has at least one story about music’s emotional impact on them. At a cocktail social for members of the Barenaked Ladies’ Internet fanclub, a middle-aged man in a red bandana tells me that the band “literally saved my life.”
“How do you mean?” I ask him. “Did one of them pull you out of a burning building?”
“It’s their music, man,” he says, as his friends nod in furious agreement. “Without them, I never would’ve made it through my divorce.”
A short and rotund woman has her own story of musical inspiration. “Gordon got me through some really rough times,” she says, her eyes growing misty. “I don’t think I’d be here without them.”
Gordon is the band’s first record, notable mostly for minor hits like “Be My Yoko Ono” and “If I Had $1,000,000.” In other words, novelty joke songs. I would’ve been as surprised if she’d confessed that “The Monster Mash” or “Fish Heads” had convinced her not to try suicide.
It’d be easier to mock these sentiments if they were more isolated. But almost everyone I talk to believes that the Barenaked Ladies, or one of the other bands on this ship, are the only thing standing between them and financial ruin, depression, and an early death.
Their cult-like devotion runs far deeper than rehab affirmations. For many of these people, the cruise isn’t just a vacation; it’s something altogether more personal. Howard and Cindy of Ohio, both in their early 60s, have decided to celebrate their honeymoon (a second marriage for both) on Ships & Dip, and they’ve brought along their adult children and grandchildren. And everyone’s buzzing about Charlene and Richard, a young couple who got married in a private ceremony just as the ship was leaving Miami. According to some rumors, the newlyweds pledged eternal devotion to each other and the Barenaked Ladies.
When I run into Stephen Page, the Ladies’ other singer and guitarist, I mention the fan wedding and he forces a smile. “I think it’s sweet that our music means so much to them,” he says. “But sometimes I feel alienated by it. (The fans) have this community, and it’s almost like it has nothing to do with us. It’s a world that wouldn’t have existed without us, but it’s not really about us anymore.”
He admits that the cruise, at least initially, wasn’t something he wanted to do. “I resisted it,” he says. “I thought it was going to be terrible. Right up until we were boarding the ship, I was just dreading it. I’ve never been a cruise person. I would never elect to do that as a vacation. In a sense, it’s like a floating airport Hilton. Who wants to spend five days doing that?”
With perfect timing, Page is interrupted by a young woman asking for an autograph. “I-I just want to thank you,” she asks, her voice trembling. “Your songs saved my life.”
Page smiles dutifully and poses for a photo with the star-struck fan. She clings to him like she fears she might tumble into the abyss if she lets go.
When you’re on a rock cruise that docks in Jamaica, the birthplace of reggae and recreational marijuana, you’re almost morally obligated to get stoned.
Our ship arrives at the Ochos Rios port at dawn, and I’m one of the first passengers outside, dressed in my finest tie-dye. But Jamaica isn’t what I imagined from a youth spent smoking skunk-weed and listening to Jimmy Cliff records. It’s fucking scary.
I don’t make it six yards before I’m surrounded by a mob of taxi drivers, shouting promises of low fares and cheap access to “the stuff that’ll make you smile.”
As I get deeper into the fray, they get increasingly threatening. I’m eventually cornered by a lanky man named Donovan, who offers to take me to “The Happy Place” for just $3. His taxi is a beaten-up van with the windows blacked out; the kind of vehicle preferred by serial killers and pedophiles. My desire for potent ganja is cancelled out by my desire not to have my corpse discovered in an abandoned warehouse.
I retreat back to the ship, repeating the same excuse used by every other easily-intimidated passenger: “It’s too rainy.” There’s a nasty downpour in Ochos Rios, and the gray skies are blatantly untropical. Those of us who know better won’t be swayed by the peppy optimism of the cruise staff.
“It’s not rain,” a voice echoes over the intercom. “It’s liquid sunshine.”
That might be true, if you’re one of the brave few who made it into town and smoked so much cannabis that you can taste colors. For the rest of us, the comforts of cruise living will have to do the trick.
There are plenty of diversions on board to keep us occupied, but if my fellow passengers are to be believed, little of it is worth the time. “Don’t bother with the Newlywed Game,” they warn me. “That’s just a standard Carnival Cruise event. They do it on every ship.” Instead, they push me towards activities more authentic to the rock boat experience, like bingo or rock trivia.
I decide to give trivia a shot, but I’m plagued by more disturbing questions than whether I can remember the middle name of the band’s bassist. I’ve long since given up on anything resembling rock n’ roll hedonism — even my lame attempts at humor, like when I asked the waiter for a “Led Zeppelin mud shark special,” are greeted with blank stares. But even using the softest, pop-friendly, lite-FM definition of rock, what exactly qualifies this as a rock cruise?
Over the last few days, I’ve seen a lot of live music, some of it not terrible. But I’ve also heard people say things like, “I could not be more excited about the pajama party tomorrow” and “Have you seen the juggler? He’s hi-larious.” Watching jugglers while wearing pajamas doesn’t sound like a fuzzy memory from the Monterey Pop Festival. It sounds like a church youth group sleep-over.
I devote my afternoon to seeking out anything about this cruise that makes it even slightly rock-worthy. So far, I’ve come up with just two pieces of evidence.
1) The soundtrack in the dining room is less adult contemporary and more Dead Kennedys hardcore. Nothing makes eating a rubbery omelet less depressing than humming along with “Too Drunk to Fuck.”
2) A cruise, not unlike rock music, is based on the fundamental right to overindulge in things that are very bad for you.
That last point may be forcing a comparison. While it’s true that excess is celebrated in both cruises and rock music, a cruise traffics primarily in legal substances. You’re more likely to have a blocked artery or alcohol poisoning than suffer from a drug overdose.
The Dame and I have invented a new term: “Cruise Full.” When you’re traveling on a cruise, you don’t eat when you’re hungry. You eat when your gall bladder stops throbbing.
The waiters are seemingly instructed to ask only one question of their guests: “Is that all?” It doesn’t matter how many appetizers and entrées and desserts they’ve shoved in front of you, they always insist on bringing you more. And when you resist, they look at you with shameful expressions that say, “By refusing to eat the spaghetti carbonara, you have dishonored me and my family.”
Gorging on food, while certainly one of the more enjoyable deadly sins, doesn’t have much to do with rock excess.
But just when I think all hope is lost, I stumble onto something that renews my faith. Oakhurst, a bluegrass quintet out of Denver, has to cancel their afternoon show because of rain. But rather than retreat back to their rooms, they decide to do an impromptu acoustic hootenanny next to the pool. There’s a casualness to their playing, and an intimacy that comes with abandoning the barrier of the stage. A small crowd surrounds them, fueled by rum drunks (the only thing keeping most of us awake) and flailing their limbs along to the beat like zombie dancers in a Michael Jackson video.
The highlight comes towards the end of their set, when an 80 year-old woman breaks into a full-body grind during a mandolin solo. I’ve never seen an elderly person thrust her hips quite so provocatively. Directly behind her, a dude with a Mohawk sticks out his tongue and flashes her rock horns in appreciation.
It’s one of the weirdest and most wonderful things I’ve ever seen. Everything good and true and worthwhile about this cruise can be summed up in those five blissful seconds.
When the Dame and I return to our cabin, we’re exhausted and exhilarated; too excited to sleep but too sloshed to stand upright. We’ve almost convinced ourselves that this cruise is the real deal. It may have its glaring faults, but its heart is in the right place.
And then we see the vagina.
It isn’t the first time our maids have left us towel origami. But they’ve usually created an adorable animal portrait, like something out of Chronicles of Narnia. I don’t have anything against towel art on general principle, but not unlike clowns or things made out of balloons, it’s not a genre meant for adults.
Tonight, however, they’ve gone too far.
At first we wonder if it might be some kind of aquatic creature. A squid, maybe? But after studying it for a few seconds, we know exactly what it is we’re looking at.
At least it’s a step in the right direction. Vagina origami is more fitting for a rock cruise than an assortment of lovable animals. But still, there’s no way to prepare yourself for walking into a room and encountering a gigantic cooter, staring at you with its beady, emotionless eyes.
I poke at the thing with a coat-hanger until it collapses into a shapeless heap. And then the Dame and I climb onto the bed and sleep on the covers.
I can’t believe we’re going to do this again. Do we really need to spend another eighteen hours listening to the same music and drinking from an endless trough of rum? What’s to be gained from this self-flagellation?
My body is starting to break down. I don’t even know where I am and what I’m looking at anymore. And my urine is now a shade of Persian blue.
The big event of the day is the Songwriters’ Panel, a “best of” from the ship’s musical talent pool. The artists are sitting onstage in a single row, holding acoustic guitars and waiting for their chance to sing an original song for the capacity crowd. There are some unexpected discoveries — like Boothby Graffoe’s hilariously dark ode to parental lies, “Kittens in a Bag” — but for the most part, it’s just the same acts we’ve already seen, but in a different order and context. They might as well have subtitled this concert: “Remember what you heard last night? Here it is again… but softer.”
Watching the same performances again and again is not without its life lessons. I’ve learned, for instance, that my enjoyment of rock music is sorely lacking. Whenever a lead singer asks the crowd if we’re enjoying ourselves, our first response is never loud enough, never powered with the guttural volume that conveys sincerity. We always have to return with a second and even third attempt at vocal ferocity before our enthusiasm is accepted.
But more than anything, I’ve learned that rock music is something best enjoyed in small doses. A few of the bands on this cruise have the chops to keep a crowd captivated. But after so much continuous stimulation, even the most dedicated music fanatic starts to go numb. Rock, at its best, is an explosive event. It builds to a crescendo and then crashes. It’s like sex. The best fucking, like the best rock concerts, only lasts for about an hour. After that, it’s overkill. And five days of rock exhilaration? If you don’t get bored eventually, it’ll kill you.
Later that night, the Dame and I are at the final Barenaked Ladies show of the cruise. It’s a beautiful performance, if only because the band seems to be as bleary and emotionally bankrupt as the audience. There’s a sloppiness to their performance that’s charming, and a willingness to let their audience share the spotlight. A female fan joins the band onstage to hold a book of lyrics for Robertson, who has forgotten the lyrics to his own songs. And later, an 11 year-old boy named Devon fills in on drums for “Old Apartment” and the crowd cheers like it’s a tent revival.
The concert eventually slips into perfect chaos. During an improvised banter, Tyler, the drummer, begins singing, “Anything can happen on the cruuuu-zah!” His smarmy declaration is only mildly funny the first time, but when it’s repeated and repeated and repeated, the entire auditorium is delirious with laughter. We’re responding like it’s the most hilarious goddamn thing we’ve ever heard, and from the stage to the very back row, everyone is singing along: “Anything can happen on the cruuuu-zah!”
After the show, the Dame is worn out and wants to go to bed, but I’m too wired to sleep. Luckily for me, the ship is still teeming with live music. Great Big Sea is doing a set on the Lido Main Stage, and while my body has long since stopped cooperating — it’s well after midnight and I haven’t had anything that qualifies as solid food in almost nine hours — I’m still nodding my head along to the rhythm, caught up in the excitement of their performance.
“Are we going to do this right?” Alan Doyle, GBS’s lead vocalist, howls at the audience. “We have a unique opportunity! We’re in the middle of the Caribbean! Let’s make this the greatest show in the history of the Promenade Deck!”
Under different circumstances, his goofy exuberance and shameless proclamations of self-importance would’ve inspired me to toss an empty beer can at his head. But after five days on this boat, I no longer have the energy to resist even the most obvious musical pap.
“We’ll hate ourselves for years to come if we don’t make a spectacular evening out of this,” Doyle yells, the arteries throbbing in his neck. “Is this an all-night kind of crowd?” We respond by screaming louder, jumping higher. We look like rag dolls being violently shaken by an angry child.
I’m approached by a small man with a mop of red hair and a Cheshire Cat grin. His name is Lyall Phillips. I know this because he watched me write it down and made sure I had the correct spelling. He asks if I’m having fun, and when I say yes, he offers me a high-five.
“That’s all I’ve been doing today,” he tells me. “That’s all I’ve been doing all week. I’m the High-Five Guy. You can print that. You talked to Lyall Phillips, the High-Five Guy.”
I return his high-five, which somehow leads into a hug. He slinks away to find other passengers who need palm-on-palm contact, and my attention drifts back to the stage, where Doyle is still preaching to the crowd.
“This point in history is spectacular,” he says, making a dramatic strum on his guitar for emphasis. “This is our walk on the moon!”
I’ve heard marathon runners talk about this. It’s that moment when you’re exhausted and you want to give up, but then your body releases endorphins and it’s like being hit with a lighting bolt of energy and positive mojo.
Or maybe it’s something more significant, like when gurus take a spiritual quest into the desert to mediate and find enlightenment. A rock cruise, if you really break it down into its essential components, is a vision quest. You’re enduring total mental and physical fatigue, sleep deprivation, severe dehydration (from too much rum), isolation from the outside world and… well, not so much with the fasting, but maybe oppressive overeating has the same effect.
When I first boarded the Ships & Dip cruise, I didn’t care for any of the bands. I went to all the concerts but I was barely listening. But after being stuck on this ship and listening to the same songs again and again and again and again, I entered a trance-like state. The music seeps into your bloodstream and you don’t even realize what effect it’s having on you. It’s a more positive version of the Ludovico Technique used on Alex in Clockwork Orange. One minute you’re indifferent to all the saccharine pop, and then before you know what hit you, you can’t listen to “Pinch Me” without crying.
The music still echoing in the background, I wander up to the ship’s bow for some fresh air. I’m feeling… what’s the opposite of cynical? Noncynical? Blissfully naive? It’s like I’ve regressed to a less sardonic period of my life, before I realized that the mainstream can’t be trusted and a catchy melody betrays a lack of credibility and any music enjoyed by more than the population of a city block is probably crap.
The Baby Boom generation taught us not to trust anyone over 30. I come from a generation that believes you shouldn’t trust anyone who isn’t smirking. And now I’m not so sure if I believe that any more. I don’t want to be the condescending prick that only enjoys Arcade Fire b-sides and Mountain Goats’ cassettes. I want my music to be like pizza; simple and uncomplicated and something everybody can agree on.
I came on this ship expecting an irony buffet. I wanted to be sitting next to the pool and sipping on a cocktail with a miniature umbrella, with an expression that announced to all onlookers, “I’m only here for the camp value. Just wait until my friends in Williamsburg hear about this.” But instead, I became the guy standing near the stage, dancing like a frat boy during the fast songs and holding up a lighter during the slow ones.
I stumble onto a gaggle of passengers, probably in their early 20s, clinging to the railing and staring out at the vast ocean.
“Dude, are you gonna vomit?” one of them asks.
“I totally am,” another responds, before making hacking sounds to confirm his boasts.
His friends follow suit, retching between bursts of punchy laugher. “This is so cool,” they tell each other. “We’re just like Jimi Hendrix!”
The old me would’ve told them how wrong they are. I would’ve reminded them that Jimi Hendrix did many, many substantial things that had nothing to do with vomit. Their dry-heaving couldn’t have less in common with Hendrix’s demise, because his last day involved overdosing on red wine and sleeping pills in a London hotel, and they’re just throwing up over the side of a cruise ship because they can’t handle their fruity cocktails. One thing has very little to do with the other. Also, if you want to get technical, Hendrix choked on his vomit, so if they really want to draw comparisons between themselves and their rock idol, they should be suppressing their gag reflex.
But I don’t say any of that, because I am a new man. Instead, I just walk over and give each and every one of them a high-five. Because that’s what you do on a rock cruise.
* * *
The next thing I remember, I’m back in the Port of Miami, helping the Dame pull our industrial-size suitcases through customs and trying not to succumb to gravity, at least until we make it to the car.
I have no memory of last night. I vaguely recall watching an all-band hootenanny on the Lido Main Stage, in which no less than seventeen musicians were on stage at any given moment. The jam session lasted till dawn, and likely would’ve continued if the ship’s crew hadn’t ordered the crowd to disperse.
My brain is muddied with vague flashbacks, which may or may not be reliable. I remember Stephen Page rapping “My neck, my back, my pussy, my crack.” I remember somebody on stage singing the opening lyrics to “War Pigs,” which segued into a fiddle solo of the synthesizer part from “Baba O’Riley”. And I remember that almost everybody in the crowd — at least those I made eye contact with — had no visible pupils.
It’s difficult to describe. Imagine getting very, very drunk, cranking up the volume on your iPod and then sitting on a washing machine during the spin cycle. Actually, no, it’s like somebody covered your face with a rag soaked in chloroform and then decided not to rape you, opting instead to make you listen to an indie pop-rock compilation on constant repeat until it permeates your subconscious, and then peed Mojitos into your mouth.
The Dame and I don’t look like we’ve just returned from a Caribbean vacation. We have the nervous twitches and filthy faces of miners rescued from a collapsed shaft. We don’t even have a tan, for god’s sake! How does somebody go on a cruise and come back more pale than when they left?
I smile at this observation. I’m already planning how I’m going to satirically eviscerate the cruise in my article. Music is something that happens indoors, in smoky bars and dark clubs, and it hardly ever leads to a healthy glow. You never hear a person say, “I saw the most amazing band last night. And if you don’t believe me, check out my golden brown complexion.”
We drive in silence, just happy for the dead air. It’s nice not to hear the constant drone of guitars or the squawking of an earnest singer with a broken heart and a rhyming dictionary. I’d forgotten what it’s like to sit and enjoy the quiet. But as the ocean fades into the distance, I’m already missing the white noise. I’m like a lifetime smoker who just realized after quitting his three-pack-a-day habit that he doesn’t know what to do with his hands.
The Dame is apparently feeling the same nervous energy. Without asking, she slips a Barenaked Ladies CD into the car stereo. We both sigh deeply, grateful for the familiar songs that have become like a second skin.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the September 2008 issue of Radar Magazine.)