Illustration by Tristan Elwell
As hard rock blasted through Carnival Cruise Line's huge atrium in the Port of Miami boarding terminal the afternoon of October 13, nearly 2,000 Kiss fans embarked on a weekend in their musical and geographical paradise. Women with pink hair wearing pink cardigans to match, men in spiky silver armor, and nearly everyone else in T-shirts dedicated to the band assembled for a weekend celebrating a 40-year-old New York glam-rock band. These men, women, and children are the charter members of the Kiss Navy.
The four-day weekend proved to be the latest in high-profile music cruises chartered by Atlanta-based company Sixthman. Kid Rock and 311 played previous Sixthman cruises, and Weezer hits the high seas in January. The Kiss Kruise was filled with impromptu and planned sightings of the entire band, a load of unearthed Kiss classics in concert, and some of the most genuine camaraderie a group of devotees spread around the world could hope for.
The action began in Miami the Wednesday night before the Kruisers boarded the boat. Transit Lounge hosted a preparty, and locals Stacey Love Coon and Courtney Cates had the harrowing task of painting a Demon, Spaceman, Catman, or Starchild for the discerning Kiss Army.
"Each face is different, and the challenge is figuring out the dimensions on everyone's face," according to Love Coon. The night began a process of attaching faces to familiar names on messageboards and Facebook groups, and everyone looked pumped.
It turns out that Paul Stanley knows Kiss Kruise attendees better than they know themselves. "You don't really want to hear us play," he said while donning a linen turquoise shirt, sunglasses, and absolutely no black-and-white makeup. "You want the all-you-can-eat prime rib!"
The fawning flowed both ways during the opening night's acoustic Sailaway Show amid pools and hot tubs and glad-handed camaraderie on the Lido Deck of the Carnival Destiny.
After striding out in cowboy boots and jeans, genial bassist Gene Simmons launched into his trademark exaggerated smiles and pursed lips. Earlier that day, he and bride/Family Jewels costar Shannon Tweed, on a honeymoon of sorts, entered the ship to a sea of flashbulbs in the ship's rotunda. He was seemingly in good spirits about the added weight to his ring finger. Guitarist Tommy Thayer did his part by painting a constant smile on his face for the entire performance.
The set was raw and shook the dust off lesser-known classics like "Two Timer," which would figure into each of the weekend's three shows. Things culminated with "Rock and Roll All Nite," and the day was officially in full swing. Thayer later hosted a miniature golf tournament, while drummer Eric Singer manned a casino tournament, and a late-night pajama party took over the lido deck.
With no bright lights blinding them, the fellas could see every one of the thousands of glowing faces in the crowd in hot tubs, at bars, on water slides singing along to a bevy of Kiss favorites from the heart of the catalog. It was easy to ignore that the mighty vessel was exiting the Port of Miami with this much infectious admiration spreading over the deck's treated lumber.
"You know what's crazy," Stanley said, genuinely pleased. "We're actually better than we thought!"
Kiss Kruisers got the full-on, legend-making live experience Friday as the Carnival Destiny reached the private island Half Moon Cay and dropped anchor near endless white sand and blue sea. The mild-mannered Stanley, Simmons, Thayer, and Singer morphed into seven-foot-tall aliens to the delight of the overflowing Palladium Lounge.
Revelers, with a few Carnival staffers mixed in, packed the 1,200-capacity theater in various Halloween garb. Jamie Ross and Jackie Ram from New York won the night's costume contest in elaborate Stanley secret police getups. From the moment the lights dimmed, all attention dripped onto the wall of 124 lightbulb-decorated speakers, the dry ice fogging the floor, and a giant video screen running through countless digitally enhanced versions of the band's iconic logo.
"This one's one of the newer ones," Stanley cracked midset. "It's 35 years old." As "Shout It Out Loud" broke in, streams of photos of fans of all ages poured out of the giant screen behind them. Every single person onscreen had the black-and-white paint on their faces. Stanley mentioned that the mistakes the band made were all their own and that nothing could be attributed to samplers or musicians backstage, but there was nothing egregious — maybe a lack of "Detroit Rock City," if we're gonna get picky.
"Lick It Up" proved to be the climactic number. And the crowd took orders well, devouring the fierce harmonies by clapping along as vigorously and eventually singing a cappella along at the end after the song cycled to its end. This seemed to be the song the band enjoyed playing the most — and there was an added youthful glint in their eyes. Simmons even dropped a pick on the head of a guy in the front row. The song closed out with a heroic bit of the coda from the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again."
The ultimate piece of Kiss lore, "Rock and Roll All Nite," closed things out, and a blizzard of confetti filled the room. This is when the pick-tossing got really intense, and someone in the audience returned the favor by giving Stanley a small bouquet of roses to hold in his teeth — he obliged willingly.
When you say "P.S., I Love You" on the Kiss Kruise, you're referring to the group's singer, Paul Stanley. And he was one fierce bitch on Saturday night. "Strutter," a song on the band's original demo, awakened a story about the New York of yesteryear — a time of leather and lace. But Stanley had the hip swivels to rival any woman of that era for a few seconds during the second full-makeup performance of the cruise.
"We decided we're doing this again next year," he announced early on. "This is like camp on a boat!"
The night's set was four songs longer than the previous evening's — and this time, the encore featured a bitchin' rendition of "Detroit Rock City." Stanley hit some scorching high notes, and Simmons' flapping lizard tongue moves both would probably get them arrested if performed stateside.
The final full day of the Kruise was a bit like a floating Kiss Expo. A tattoo social hour, a Q&A with manager Doc McGhee, a vows renewal ceremony, diving competitions on the lido deck, a quarters tournament hosted by Skid Row, and an exclusive Kiss Army Happy Hour were among the interactive activities.
Steve Mitchell, a personal trainer from Phoenix dressed in one of the finest Paul Stanley costumes of the weekend, was a staple at many of the events. In January, he started Psyko Circus, a Kiss tribute band, and raised $3,500 to finance his family's trip by spending seven weekends posing for pictures in Las Vegas in his outfit.
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"Right there on the strip, this guy just pulls down his pants and just stands there butt naked and wanted a picture," he recalled. "I said, 'I do have to draw the line somewhere.' " He's seeking an endorsement from the band so his band can use trademarked items in its performance. And being on this cruise has brought him one step closer: "We were standing right by the elevator, and Gene walked by and goes, 'That's the tallest Paul Stanley I've ever seen.' "
With surgeonlike precision, Mitchell helped belly-flop-competition champ Andy Moyen with his face paint for "ghetto Ace Frehley" in one of the Destiny's cabins. And if anyone should have a great-looking Kiss costume, it's the owner of one of the most respected rooms devoted to the band in his home in Massachusetts. It features custom carpeting, a pinball machine, and a certificate proving he's in line for the first Kiss coffin.
The trip was an emotional one for Moyen, who attended with his wife. He freely admitted that the experience brought him to tears on several occasions. And in comparison to the many other music cruises, there's something that happened over the course of this weekend that sets these passengers apart from nostalgic pop fans.
"It's a different thing, because now you have costumes and people want to take a couple of hours to get ready," he said. "It's different, you know. People on this cruise know more about Kiss than Kiss does."