A supposedly punk thing I’ll never do again

On a Carnival cruise with an unlikely cast of indie rockers

On a cruise ship, you learn to read a situation by its conga line.

It’s my third day on the 2,000-passenger, 855-foot, 70,367-ton Carnival Imagination. Standing on the veranda, I scan from aft to bow — from the ship’s piss-spiral water slides and massive, whale-shaped funnel to its scarlet-cushioned jogging track and nine-hole miniature golf course. Everything about this boat is insane. The unquenchable consumption. The pricey monotony. The fact that presumably sensible people with real jobs have actually allowed themselves and their families to be transported via a floating hotel with a water park and casino and shitty food to an island also containing a water park and casinos and shitty food. And the fact that they have paid to do it.

A famous novelist once wrote an essay about this experience. He’s dead now.

But here’s what’s especially insane: From my perch, I’m watching the flailing of this conga line on a cruise billed as a “three day tropical rock ‘n’ roll vacation,” a chance for cool people and cool bands to steer a pirate ship full of subversion out into the Atlantic. This is not Kathie Lee Gifford’s cruise. It’s the total antithesis.

Literally: Atlanta’s punk provocateurs the Black Lips are the headlining act on the Bruise Cruise, which stars eight other bands, one DJ, a puppet show, and 380 scenesters, who make up about one-fifth of the population of the Imagination’s Miami-Nassau-Miami weekend round-trip. I’m a fan of the bands, which can largely be filed under garage rock. But I’m really here for the sociological fireworks.

The same thing, as it happens, fascinates Washington, D.C., punk icon and acting “cruise director,” Ian Svenonius: the clash of culture and subculture. “Nowadays, if you go to New York or Portland, it’s like Logan’s Run or Zardoz, like we’re living in the bubble of Zardoz,” he says a few days before we embark. The cruise “is a diversion from the rigmarole” of modern-day, independent rock ‘n’ roll.

The quip pops into my head as I ponder this latest onboard conga line. Feelin’ hot hot hot pumps through a P.A. on the main pool deck. The ship’s punk contingent will surely mock this middle-American leisure activity, no? But there, linked hand-to-shoulder with the Imagination’s rotund majority, is a group with about 6 inches less meat on their waists and many liters more ink on their skin: the Bruisers. They drink, they smoke, they rock, and, it is now clear, they conga like a bar mitzvah crowd, too.

Over the weekend, I see many other compelling images: Black Lips bassist Jared Swilley launching his instrument into the sea while shooting a music video. Surfer Blood singer John Paul Pitts hunting for a hot blackjack table. Former MTV News anchor John Norris, on assignment for Noisevox.org, interviewing pool-bound members of Vivian Girls while a Fellini-esque cast of hipster paparazzi snap away on SLRs. And, finally, in Nassau, four of the cruise’s acts — the Black Lips, Vivian Girls, the Strange Boys, and Turbo Fruits — playing to a crowd of Bruisers and frat boys and bachelorette partiers at the least punk rock establishment in any port of call in the entire Atlantic Ocean: Señor Frog’s.

“I think a lot of people on this cruise hate us. I think they think we’re gay,” Swilley tells me on Sunday. “I was drunk last night walking through the hallway, I only had my underwear on, and some guy was like, ‘Get back in your room, faggot!’” He points across the pool. “Some guy who looked like that guy, with the backward visor.”

I believe Swilley. But at least during daytime hours, there’s little other friction between Bruisers and Cruisers. My informal polling of Cruisers says as much: They don’t mind the tattoos. They’re curious about the music, at least sometimes. For the most part, they’re indifferent.

In fact, the regular vacationers seem to have a magical effect on the sailing scenesters: On board, the Bruisers become more like the Cruisers with each nautical mile. Sure, they’ve watched multiple sets by their favorite bands. But they’ve also danced happily to lousy ’90s music in Illusions, the ship’s onboard nightclub. “This cruise is kind of everyone having their guilty pleasures realized,” says Michelle Cable, who runs the agency Panache Booking and helped organize the Bruise Cruise. It’s hard to keep your fingers crossed while you’re tanning on the Lido Deck.

I spot my first Bruisers at the Port of Miami. Some are already wearing pink Bruise Cruise bracelets from the previous night’s pre-party at Grand Central in Miami. (It was awful, I hear, on account of the $8 PBRs.)

There’s more to the Bruiser costume than a pink bracelet: There are sleeveless tees that show off tats, there are kitschy captain’s hats, there are Ray-Bans or imitation Ray-Bans (the Bruise Cruise gift bag even provides a pair). On board, the Bruiser boys have jorts (I’ve brought my own) and Morrissey haircuts. The girls have V-necks, bangs, and onesies and finicky dresses and waist-high shorts. There are three Bruisers who look exactly like Katy Perry. Nautical semi-prep is permitted; I’m safe in boat shoes.

William, a documentarian and “independent entrepreneur” in line behind me at the port, has done it all one better: His shorts are leopard-print. He’s singing The Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited.” He asks me if I’m excited. I am. He mentions something about filming Calvin Johnson recently. I head up an escalator, decline to be photographed by a Carnival employee, and snake through several planks toward the Imagination. The sun is high. As I approach the portal, all I see is a pair of interlocking sine waves — the neon trimming, it turns out, that surrounds the bar at the center of a garish shipboard atrium. A pianist plays the “Cheers” theme. Actually, it might be “Captain Jack.”

I drop my luggage in my room, and go to collect my bracelet. Now I’m a Bruiser, too.

Some shipboard geography: Xanadu, where the bracelets and gift bags are doled out, serves as Bruiser Central. Most of the performances take place there, on a stage where the drum kit and a banner both read “Bruise Cruise.” “I do feel a little bit like we’re in the Bruise ghetto,” Norris tells me later. “We’re all sort of being kept aft.”

The bar outside Xanadu, which opens into the main promenade, serves as a sort of DMZ between Bruiser and Cruiser. When there’s down time, the Bruisers migrate to the Lido Deck for poolside debauchery, occupying the area closest to the bar. The cheapest beer per ounce is the Foster’s Oil Can, and so it becomes the Bruise Cruise’s PBR.

Bruisers come in several varieties. There are members of bands. There are the organizers and their friends. There are the people who make up the infrastructure of indie rock: Custodians of festivals and labels and DIY spaces with names like Glenn Danzig’s House. Of course, there is media: Spin, BlackBook, New York, Miami New Times, Brooklyn Vegan, Vice magazine’s VBS.tv. Several documentaries are being shot.

The other people on the Bruise Cruise — the 50 percent of the group who paid the full $615 — are fans. Of course, that’s what we all are.

The performances start Friday afternoon. Following the opening act by Ty Segall — in which a Bruiser proposes to his girlfriend with musical accompaniment from Segall’s band — San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees unleash the weekend’s best set, all brown-acid, echo-chamber garage rock that hinges on the axes of noisy-to-mechanical and soulful-to-scary.

But as soon as the rock ‘n’ roll portion of the evening finishes, a Carnival staffer asks the Bruisers to clear out of Xanadu. It’s time for the Cruisers to have their fun; Xanadu is transformed into the Punchliner Comedy Club. Panels painted to resemble a brick wall are wheeled out, blocking the view of the Bruise Cruise amps. Even at sea, you apparently can’t have a comedy club without a brick wall.

There are all sorts of themed cruises out there on the high seas: Right-wing cruises, left-wing cruises, alumni cruises, jazz cruises. This December there’s a Rock Legends Cruise, featuring George Thorogood and ZZ Top. Last month, Carnival hosted a Boyz II Men “love cruise.” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Simple Man Cruise took place in January. Kid Rock does cruises through Carnival, too; the next is April 7.

The Bruise Cruise, in fact, owes its inspiration to the Mötley Crüise. Jonas Stein, one of the Bruise Cruise’s principal organizers, went on that excursion back in 2007. His father, a Nashville-based manager, was working with Mötley Crüe singer Vince Neil at the time. “I assumed it would be all old people,” says Stein, 23, who is the frontman of Turbo Fruits. But he had a good time, and did the Crüise again in 2008.

About 10 months ago, Panache Booking’s Cable, now 28, came to Miami for the finale of a Surfer Blood/Turbo Fruits tour — she was booking both bands at the time. “It was like fate,” Stein says. “We drove by the port and saw the ships.” They reserved 200 rooms — putting themselves on the hook for more than $100,000.

Cable and Stein almost didn’t make their deadline for filling those rooms. In the months before the Imagination set sail, they offered discounted tickets to friends. That’s one reason why Nashville, Stein’s hometown, seems to have the best turnout among all the regional music scenes represented. They eventually sold out, Stein notes, thereby outdrawing Boys II Men’s cruise. Then more people contacted them about getting on the boat. “With this demographic, people aren’t used to paying for something in advance,” Cable says. “They just think, I’ll just show up at the boat and pay for it there.”

In other words: We’re all on punk rock time.

Svenonius isn’t so sure. “Maybe this is the first step of indie rock going Vegas,” he muses before we set sail.

Svenonius, clad in an exquisitely tailored suit, takes the mic at the beginning of his lecture Friday night. He’s got a message for the Bruisers. Sort of. “Forty-four years ago today, the Beatles embarked on something that they called a mystery tour, the Magical Mystery Tour,” he says in his punk-preacher deadpan. “It was reviled by the critics, it was widely hated. Some say it was sabotaged by the industry because it was a new, subversive presentation of the rock ‘n’ roll group journey.”

He goes on: “The Beatles retreated from pretty much the boldest statement ever made in rock ‘n’ roll and since then, nobody ever has attempted a mystery tour, a magical mystery tour, a trip into magic — until now. With the Bruise Cruise.”

This is a new beginning, he says. Year zero.

He is, of course, fucking with us. Or at least I think he is.

To illuminate the path forward, Svenonius cites his own contraband film, “What Is a Group?” The celluloid didn’t make it. He’s got scripts, though, and a slide projector. He asks for volunteers.

Alien A: Well, here we are, aboard the spacecraft Ariane.
Alien Q: Yuck, what’s that smell?
A: Oh, we’re approaching the planet “Earth.”
Q: Oh, yes. I’ve read about it. Have you been there before?
A: Yes. A few times. Let’s look at it through the tele-viewer.
Q: Wow. Looks scary.
A: They are in the late stages of capitalism. Right before the inevitable collapse.
Q: So savage.
A: Yes, it’s fascinating. The malignant vestiges of a system we outgrew millions of years ago.
Q: Hey look. What’s that?
A: Oh, that’s a “group.”
Q: What’s a “group?”
A: A group is a music factory who comprise a kind of “heroic clown” role in the culture down there. Oftentimes consisting of indigent individuals, the groups’ members’ highly specific job functions and task compartmentalization directly reflect its post-industrial/imperialist origins.
Q: How do you mean?
A: Well, just as the so-called “West,” or imperialist nations on Earth, were abandoning manufacturing and taking on the role of consumers and exploiters of foreign labor, its rulers elected a class of “artists” to mimic industrial work modes in a totemistic, mystical, and partially parodic sense; hence the “groups.”
Q: Is that the reason for all the grimacing?

It’s all very charming and provocative, in that is it satire? Svenonius way. The Bruisers seem to dig it. No one brings up the awkward juxtaposition of message and venue. I can hear Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” pumping through the wall from Illusions.

Svenonius expands on his ideas in the next script, “The Backwards Message,” about four vinyl nerds spinning classic rock records backward. Toward the end of the playlet, they spin a recording by the Bolshoi Theatre Choir and the Model First Orchestra of the USSR Defense Ministry.

Svenonius, performing as the backward message, reads:
Muddy Waters once said, “The blues had a baby and they called it rock ‘n’ roll” ... but he never explained the circumstances of the blessed event. Who was the father for example? This detail, the paternity, has been left deliberately vague, with the listener left to wonder, “Why?” Are we to assume it was a virgin birth? Knowing the blues’ boasts of promiscuity, this seems highly unlikely.

The father of rock ‘n’ roll, naturally, is imperialism. Svenonius goes on — rock ‘n’ roll was invented to destroy communism and infiltrate “the revolutionary avant-garde.” It is a progressive-seeming but indeed conservative art form “sent as a golem on a mission to seduce the globe.”

By now, the Bruiser crowd is feeling antsy. A couple of people slip out of the room. Svenonius, being a gracious performer, begins eliding sections of his play. He’s overplayed his hand. He skips to the final passages:

Paula: So there is still hope?
Voice Svenonius: There is hope! But only if you follow my instructions. Rock ‘n’ roll can and must be inverted, transformed into a powerful weapon to destroy its wanton, criminal father! I’ve been waiting so long for someone to spin me backward. You only have to listen to the following instructions ....

The Bruise Cruise spends Saturday night in Nassau. In the Bahamas. A foreign country. Albeit one where we’re directed to a live-music venue that seems distinctly familiar: Señor Frog’s.

It’s a good bet this is the first Black Lips show in a club adorned with signs reading “REHAB IS FOR QUITTERS” and “WE PRE-GAME HARDER THAN YOUR PARTY.” Not to mention a poster listing “15 REASONS WHY A BEER IS BETTER THAN A LOVER.” (“9. Beer is always wet.”) Inside, the non-Bruiser contingent is heavy on polo shirts and large biceps and overworked tans.

Señor Frog’s is “like the date-rape capital of the world,” the Black Lips’ Swilley says the next day. “I would never be able to go there without getting my ass kicked. Last night was the first night we could’ve won over the crowd — like in a fight.”

He’s not nearly done. “I set a guy’s hair on fire last night because I hated him so much. He was a white guy with dreadlocks. He was trying to talk to us about acid and stuff. I was like, ‘You have a giant nut sack on your head. Get away from us.’ And I kept setting his hair on fire. It burned fast then and it went out. He didn’t say anything. I hate dreadlocks.”

Naturally, the events at Señor Frog’s are preceded by a conga line. In this one, a procession of men groping women and women groping men passes under a Señor Frog’s waiter, who pours liquor down people’s throats.

Cruise Director Svenonius soon takes the stage in a red suit. “All right, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Mr. Frog’s,” he says, and rattles off the slate of performers. “This is a very historic occasion. They’re here on a mission of liberation. They’re here to liberate you from that frog and replace it with a Taco Bell.”

Between sets, a Señor Frog’s hypeman sings along to Usher and Lil Jon songs and liberally pours shots for revelers. “DJs, we’ve got three hot chicks on the stage!” he says, introducing Vivian Girls. They aren’t pleased. Over the course of the evening, the DJ plays the same Black Eyed Peas song twice.

Still, the sets are solid: Turbo Fruits’ four-person take on the ’60s power trio; the Strange Boys’ degraded art-glam; Vivian Girls’ playful garage pop (their set begins and ends with a cruise-appropriate cover of “My Heart Will Go On”); and the Black Lips’ lumbering, sing-along acid punk. The crowd here seems much more freaked out by Bruisers than the guests on the Imagination.

The Bruisers, still having a good time, seem a bit freaked out by the Señor Frog’s set, too. Mike, a burley, mustachioed Bruiser from Brooklyn wearing a captain’s hat, sees me taking notes and asks if he can help me out. He writes a little poem:

douchebags, everywhere
tried the margs
— too sweet
getting people fucked up

free shots & dancin

might get one
of those
yard-size daquiris

I strike up a conversation with two Dutch seamen who work on an industrial tugboat. They’ve been at Señor Frog’s almost every evening for close to two weeks (the goal is “loose American women”). Tonight, they say, is different.

I ask them if they like the music. “It sucks,” says Folkerd, who turns out to be the tug’s captain. (He cops to enjoying “the band with the chicks.”) Folkerd mentions their boat has lots of Russian crew. “The Russians are very melodramatic. They’re kind of like indie people.”

But the indie people aren’t melodramatic tonight. Amid one of the Black Lips’ entropic caveman stomps, a Bruiser crowd-surfs high enough to touch the words “DIVORCE: FUTURE TENSE OF MARRIAGE” on Señor Frog’s ceiling.

After the show, there’s a dance contest featuring soul sides from DJ Mr. Jonathan Toubin and a judging panel including Norris and Ben Blackwell of Detroit’s the Dirtbombs. Once the judging’s done, Blackwell’s night takes a turn for the worse. It seems a Connecticut bail bondsman house-hunting on the island has flagged down Nassau’s finest in order to level accusations against Blackwell. Highlights: “You punched me in the head 30 fucking times” and “you assaulted my wife.”

Blackwell has no idea what’s happening. The cops cuff him. Swilley and his Black Lips bandmate Joe Bradley charge over to tell the police they’ve got the wrong guy: Blackwell was judging the dance contest the whole time. It’s eventually resolved as a matter of mistaken identity — the culprit was another 6’2” blonde guy — but not before Blackwell is taken to a police station. He’s back on the boat around 3 a.m, shortly before the Imagination leaves port to return to Miami.

Panacea Theriac, aka the feline half of Quintron and Miss Pussycat, is wondering whether to show another of her warped puppet videos. “It’s kind of long.”

“We’ve got time,” comes the response from the cross-legged crowd in the Shangri La lounge. “We’re on a cruise ship.”

It’s Sunday afternoon, and things have slowed. The most important thing about cruise ships may be that they are floating temples of gaudy hedonism. But the second most important thing is they are really boring. At one point, a pair of Bruisers participates in a hairy chest contest on the Lido Deck. For the first time all weekend, I’m losing interest.

Still, the consensus is the Bruise Cruise has been a success. I agree. The bands are all very good, perfectly suited to the 30 to 45 minute sets they’ve been limited to. Cable and Stein tell me later that they may actually break even. I’d come aboard expecting to see an embarrassing case of alt-rockers reduced to lounge acts to make money. But the bands actually accepted less than their usual fees for a weekend of notably easy relationships between fans and rockers. “Ty Segall hugged me for five minutes,” says Cable.

Indeed, on the way back to Miami, the Bruise Cruise finally feels part of the Cruise Cruise. After three postcard-perfect days at sea, it’s impossible to remain only ironically engaged in the cruise activities. You have to choose between existential despair and just going with it. I’m trying to do the latter. I know, from that famous dead novelist, how the other way can end.

The folkways of the Imagination haven’t always made it easy. Back on the first night, the mostly Indonesian wait staff provided between-course entertainment by dancing to Flo Rida’s “Low,” singing along in chopped English while the largely white Bruisers cheered. It felt like a minstrel show.

There’s also a strange class dynamic on board. The vibe on the Carnival Imagination is lower-middle-class to middle-class. A lot of Cruisers have tattoos, the un-hip kind, and many of them paid far less than us to be here. So much for fucking up the mainstream: The Bruisers are the ship’s privileged crowd. There’s no upscale propriety to invade.

John Norris relays an observation from another Bruiser. “If you’ve ever been to All Tomorrow’s Parties a regular, alternatively minded festival set in resorts in the U.S. and U.K., you understand that kitsch and indie rock go together really well.” But garage rock, in particular, seems well-suited to the Carnival Imagination.

“It’s hard to imagine Animal Collective on a cruise ship,” Norris quips.

On Sunday, the Black Lips finally live up to their destructive reputation when Swilley hurls his bass guitar into the murky depths at the end of a video shoot. Saturday’s Nassau gig was a calm one for a band that’s been known to include fire, urine and vomit in its live shows. “I didn’t want to fuck around at Señor Frog’s,” says Swilley. “They would kill you.”

For the final night’s performances, the crowd finally shakes out of the morning’s doldrums — which is easy, given that Thee Oh Sees’ early evening set overlaps with the Bruise Cruise’s first open bar: Bud Light Lime and white wine.

But by the time Quintron and Miss Pussycat begins their cruise-closing set, I’m pretty spent. I’m not feeling their amphetamine organs and ghost coos.

I walk to the other end of the ship. I browse the gift shop. And then I duck into the cruise’s largest show space, the Dynasty Lounge, where a rock ‘n’ roll musical revue is about to start. This is most definitely not part of the Bruiser schedule.

A dozen or so dancers emerge in biker gear. “Are y’all ready to rock ‘n’ roll out there?” shouts an announcer. They cycle through the canon: “Born to Be Wild,” “Devil With a Blue Dress,” “Rock Around the Clock.” Massive vinyl records bracket the stage. There’s a soul medley, and a country medley, and a Hair medley, and a Beach Boys medley.

At several points over the last few days, I’ve been told the Bruise Cruise isn’t about indie rock, and may not even be about garage rock. It’s just about rock ‘n’ roll.

So maybe Svenonius is right. We’re at year zero. Maybe there’s new truth to be found in the Bruisers — these bastard children of punk, revivalism and consumerism. Maybe the Bruise Cruise is the start of something.

But the same ship is also where music goes to die. In the Dynasty, female performers emerge in beehives and poodle skirts. The men come out in pompadours. The assembled Cruisers are dancing, some in the aisles. A reedy-voiced announcer screams: “Put your hands together as we continue to celebrate the golden era of rock ‘n’ roll!”