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Carnival's Bruise Cruise Lets Loose 400 Garage Rock Fans Onto a Cruise Ship

Led by Stein, Turbo Fruits attack the Lido Deck pool.
Ian Witlen

By Reed Fischer

Spitting distance from several massive, gleaming-white ships docked in Nassau, a couple of hundred people squeeze inside Señor Frog's Bahamas. The tourist bar is covered with neon-lettered signs like "Rehab Is for Quitters" and "Divorce: Future Tense of Marriage" and barstools that resemble ample women's behinds. It's only slightly larger than an open-air, seaside version of a Burger King. But space is not the issue. The two distinct groups that pack the room aren't mixing as cleanly as the mojitos.

One-half of the crowd wears crisp outfits from Old Navy or Ed Hardy; many are aging and sunburnt and $15 lighter in the wallet from Señor Frog's cover charge. From the second that Nashville's scuzzily dressed Turbo Fruits begin spewing fast, noisy rock from the small stage, all hope for a typical spring break experience is dashed. An MC reminds them that "You don't have to go to work tomorrow!" — but it isn't enough to erase this racket.

The other half of the room is made up of young revelers wearing well-tailored striped and floral dresses, vintage suits, neon sunglasses, handlebar mustaches, and eye patches. They've come to this mainstream outpost expressly to hear the Black Lips' garage rock, low-fi twang from the Strange Boys, and adorable indie rock via the Vivian Girls.

This skinny-jeaned contingent comes courtesy of the inaugural Bruise Cruise, Carnival Cruise Lines' first themed trip aimed at a set of travelers previously deemed either too hip or too poor.

For Carnival, there's more on the line than just the happiness of 380 trendsetters. If successful, the Bruise Cruise will join the ranks of themed excursions hosted by far-more-popular yet far-less-relevant acts like Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Mayer, and 311. Only a fifth of Americans have taken a cruise, and the average cruiser is 46 years old. Indie rock would become viable seafaring entertainment, tapping into a young, desirable demographic that would otherwise never set foot in a cruise ship's buffet line.

The Bruise Cruise was an idea brought to Carnival by New York booking agent Michelle Cable and Turbo Fruits frontman Jonas Stein, who was inspired by his experiences on Vince Neil's Mötley Cruise. Cable and Stein helped recruit record store associates, promoters, pals, and fans to fill 380 of the approximately 2,000 slots on the Carnival Imagination. Dubbed "bruisers," each paid $615 to catch a lineup of nine indie-rock acts in a setting with clean bathrooms, waiters, and no Pabst Blue Ribbon in sight.

This night at Señor Frog's, a spot more apt to host a swimsuit competition than a music showcase, comes halfway through the weekend cruise and is arguably the trip's primo event. Near the shallow stage, the tattooed masses of bruisers stumble, neck, and a few even dance while sneering as the Black Eyed Peas' "Boom Boom Pow" vibrates from the speakers. Some are game to take part in the conga line and the "Electric Slide" between bands, but there's a clear disconnect between the bruisers hoping for high-seas rock bliss and those just gunning to get drunk and grind.

Following Turbo Fruits and a rollicking set by the Strange Boys, plucky Brooklyn trio the Vivian Girls plays the only song that both segments of the crowd have heard before: a distortion-heavy cover of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On." A song from Titanic — a movie about an epic cruise gone horribly wrong — hopefully isn't foreshadowing.

As midnight looms, the night's last band, the Black Lips, begins unpacking its guitars. The Atlanta quartet — known for beer-spraying, urinating, and bringing a live chicken onstage — sets up as a Señor Frog's MC runs a dance competition between two halfhearted bruisers. The nonbruiser faction in the room has diminished — either sleepy or fed up — but a few of them take in this "look at the hipsters dance ironically" sideshow. With no proper dressing room, backstage area, or even curtains to hide behind, all four members of the Black Lips are exposed to the obvious unrest churning in the room.

Without hesitation, Black Lips frontman Jared Swilley suddenly grabs an open microphone.

"Can we play now?" he yells defiantly. The dance-off slows to a dead halt. The short, broad-shouldered MC is not pleased, but he maintains a forced smile. "You had your time," a somewhat red-faced Swilley continues, unrepentant. "Let it be our time now."

There's more than just control of Senor Frog's on the line. From here, Carnival must figure out if it can balance the needs of its middle-aged cruisers while catering to younger, hyperdiscerning bruisers.

Hours of woefully unwelcoming music dot the afternoon before Carnival Imagination embarks from the Port of Miami on Friday. Like an airport but taller, the window-walled port terminal blasts jazz flute fit for Ron Burgundy in Anchorman. Entrance to the 855-foot ship is soundtracked by a pianist playing soft, garish melodies in the glass-ceilinged Atrium Bar. Performers are tucked into alcoves in the neon- and gold-decorated walkways on the Promenade level, and a DJ bumps the "Cha Cha Slide" up on the open-air Lido deck, which leads to the Horizon Bar & Grill, an indoor buffet restaurant with more stations than any Ponderosa. Remember the redheaded jazz singer that Bill Murray's character unceremoniously bangs in Lost in Translation? She might be here too.

 

Under the Horizon Bar's turquoise neon lights, members of the Black Lips sit at a table near the beverage station. Throughout the restaurant, waiters hover with stemmed cocktail glasses that read "Look at me, I'm on vacation," and it's abundantly clear that at 1 p.m., Bahama Mama cocktail hour has arrived. A couple in their 50s sit down with their trays at the table next to the Lips, and it takes about two minutes before they realize what they've done. Sure enough, the wife, plumply filling out a black and peach tracksuit, not-so-covertly shifts over one seat so that she's not sitting directly next to guitarist Ian St. Pé, who has a silver grill covering his bottom teeth.

This woman is nowhere near the first Bruise Cruise performance in the 450-capacity Xanadu Lounge four hours later, just after the ship steams out of port. The space is a throwback cocktail emporium that might not have changed décor since the Imagination's inaugural voyage in 1995, adorned with golden-winged men, couches shaped like crescent moons, and gleaming black floor tiles.

Onstage is Ty Segall, a young San Franciscan with a flop of blond hair and an abusive relationship with his guitar. He and his backing band are comfortable with charming harmonies but also inject a fair amount of sludge-filled riffs that are miraculously muted anywhere more than 20 feet away from the Xanadu. Passengers not with the cruise peek in and walk away quickly.

For some of the bruisers, the Imagination's gentle sway is already making them reach for Bonine tablets — not meant for mixing with alcohol purchased seamlessly with the Sail and Sign card everyone now possesses. (A Maker's Mark Manhattan runs $8.95, plus a $1.34 automatic tip, plus $0.72 in tax until the boat hits international waters.)

Segall eventually cedes the microphone to lanky 25-year-old Nick Mayor, who sings somewhat inaudibly to Jen Lemasters, a beaming, dark-haired girl standing inches away. Among the Chicagoan's lyrics: "I'd cut off tons of cars and run a hundred lights/If it would get me faster home to you at night/I'd throw away my movies, give up Mountain Dew/When it comes to baby Jen, there's nothing I won't do."

After this, Mayor reaches into a fanny pack, pulls out a ring, and gets on one knee. He then sweetly proposes right there on stage to his five-and-a-half-year squeeze — certainly the first Carnival cruise featuring a garage-rock song punctuated with an engagement but far from the oddest thing about a space that feels like a VFW ballroom in the middle of the Atlantic.

Notably, the Xanadu Lounge doesn't have a backstage area, so the couches directly outside, near yet another bar, become a smoky den for artists to relax following their performances.

"This boat is weird, no?" remarks heavily tattooed John Dwyer, frontman for Thee Oh Sees, a spry California quartet of psychedelic punk vets with a reputation for powerful live performances and the closest thing to elder statespeople among the artists. He is undeniably watchable with a shaggy bowl cut flopping into his eyes, jaw dexterity enabling him to tilt his head back and chug his bottle-shaped can of Budweiser no-handed, and a guitar strap so short that the instrument edges closer and closer to his neck. The masses — many wearing captain's hats, ironic pastels, and high-waisted shorts — shake the good shake. Following the set is a noisy announcement from the back: Time to clear out for a comedy show to follow.

The Imagination's cabins prove to be little more than a place to change into dry underwear — or a suit jacket, since the 8:15 meal in the Pride Dining Room has arrived. Four cruisers can fit in an eight-by-11-foot room with the help of bunks. This is also where to stow the freshly obtained schwag bag filled with essential items like the Bruise Cruise itinerary, a clean T-shirt, beer koozie, and condoms. Although tiny, the cabin is still a miraculous space compared to sleeping in a tent at Bonnaroo or on someone's floor at South by Southwest.

The dining room is a low-ceilinged affair with assigned round tables covered with white cloth. Although on the surface this is a formal dining room, the decorum is undercut by Carnival's photographer, who captures each diner with a pirate's dagger clutched to his neck. Bruisers, nearly all buzzed, occupy designated tables in the center of the dining room. There's loud banter, but dinner passes largely uneventfully, especially considering this is where bruisers and regular cruisers are most mixed.

 

After dessert, Flo Rida's "Low" cranks up from speakers in the ceiling, and the waiters who had previously taken hushed orders position themselves between the tables. It's hard to tell if anyone enjoys seeing this ethnically diverse group forced to shimmy in their white dress shirts.

Later in the evening, a small, undeniably snookered crew of bruisers takes in a lecture and slide-show performance in an unspectacular conference room likely the spot for countless business seminars. It's led by nattily dressed Ian Svenonius, a muss-haired, wisecracking orator for the weekend and vet of several Washington, D.C., post-punk acts — Chain and the Gang, most recently. Svenonius is one of many anti-establishment types here who until tonight probably wouldn't be caught dead on a cruise. What was billed as a "serious lecture" turns out to be an audience participation piece featuring, among other things, a comic reading of dialogue portions from Metallica's Some Kind of Monster documentary ("You know what, you guys, why don't we just go in and hammer it out, all right, instead of hammering on each other."). While most of the room listens and laughs, a couple of cutups start throwing balls of paper at each other.

At 1:30 a.m., the action returns to Xanadu Lounge for a sweaty set by the stylish New Orleans duo of Quintron & Miss Pussycat, who specializes in a swampy combination of funk and high-concept art. A long day of drinking turns on the crowd-surfing faucet, and bodies fly as the soulful punk via vintage keyboard chugs along.

After that, DJ Jonathan "New York Night Train" Toubin's mix of '60s soul dislodges the mass near the stage and into all corners of the dance floor. Toubin hosts "Soul Clap" parties around the globe, and he pushes the party steadily later and into that realm where the body stops fighting back against the punishment it endures.

Up on the Lido Deck, intoxicated bodies scoot under the outdoor bar's awning for even more refills. Groupings of musicians and bruisers gather in the cool evening air on deck chairs, and some have put on bathing suits for a dip in the nearby pool.

While all this is going on, the Jacuzzi Boys' frontman, Gabriel Alcala, blacks out for a minute. He and his Miami bandmates are taking full advantage of the deck's bar, which rapidly grows crowded in these late hours. Sly social foreplay previously reserved for a smoky bar is now on display under the stars. While Alcala drunkenly tries to recruit every girl he sees for a "lecture to teach them more about themselves by the Jacuzzi," there's talk of a different type of recruitment.

One by one, it dawns on various photographers among more than two dozen media entities covering the cruise that a photograph of the Jacuzzi Boys in a hot tub would be a prized commodity. Alcala repeats to these inquiries, "Let's just let it happen organically."

After passing out the first night at 9, professional surfers Alek Parker and Dylan Graves begin Saturday of the Bruise Cruise at 6 a.m. In zany sunglasses, bathrobes from their cabin, and a never-ending stream of drinks in hollowed-out coconuts, the guys take their venerable Cheech and Chong roles seriously.

They mix with the early risers at the Lido Deck's pool and play chess using the giant chessboard on the nearby stage. Soon, they're shotgunning coffee and iced tea. Around 8:30, grapefruit mimosas. That leads to a bottle of champagne. Given their social nature and costuming, it's unsurprising that Parker is approached by an 80-year-old woman named Amy who wants to teach him how to salsa dance. As they walk through the steps right there on the deck, an 85-year-old named Mildred, who has suffered a stroke that has caused half of her face to not be functional, joins in. Afterward, Parker teaches the salsa steps to four other girls.

"Amy rocked my world, and I paid it forward," Parker says, now lounging in the early afternoon in the Horizon dining area.

So where did the lipstick on his face, chest, and torso come from?

"That's where it came from," Parker says, pointing out the window at a few slinky swimsuit-clad girls.

One floor below, the Jacuzzi Boys shake out the Xanadu's cobwebs from the night before with a mind-melting attack. The set attracts a boast-worthy Iggy Pop T-shirt, intricate bird tattoos, and bruisers with towels — one featuring an exaggerated cartoon phallus — around their waists.

Continuing the South Florida-themed afternoon are the island-flavored vibes of Surfer Blood, the fresh-faced West Palm Beach act that just got in trouble for swiping a keyboard stand from upstairs. "Did anyone see me in the casino winning all the money last night?" singer J.P. Pitts asks the crowd in the middle of the band's rabid set. He's rocking his best pair of cutoffs. Aside from attempting to play "I'm Not Ready" when they literally aren't ready, due to detuned guitars, it turns out to be a mighty mid­afternoon display that many of the bruisers miss because they're exploring the Bahamas onshore for hair-braiding or drugs.

 

No one enjoys this performance more than Eric Kolkey. He and his wife, Michelle, are both wearing Vivian Girls T-shirts but are old enough to be the parents of many of the bruisers. Kolkey, AKA Eric Nihilist, was a promoter and booking agent in Chicago between the late '70s and early '80s. He happily recalls booking the Ramones, the Damned, and the Dead Kennedys. He was interviewed for You Weren't There: A History of Chicago Punk 1977-1984, a documentary detailing the glory years of that scene. Now the 50-year-old works for Rothschild, a downtown investment firm in the Windy City.

Like most of their fellow bruisers, this is the first time the couple has ever wanted to go on a cruise. "Not to pump anything up, but we're fairly well off at our jobs," he says. "We're certainly a demographic the cruise would be more than happy to capture. We're buying lots of booze, spending lots of money. These bands brought us here, and it's worked out for everybody."

For Michelle, who works for Motorola, the importance is the quality of the bands on the cruise: "When I go to Pitchfork and Lollapalooza, I always see a lot of bands that I think suck. Why stand around all day seeing a bunch of bands on big stages that you think are lame when you can see these guys who are great?"

"And, of course," Eric butts in, "if you're completely in love with a certain band, like I am with the Vivian Girls..."

"You can stalk them," Michelle says with a glint in her eye.

"It's a crazed fan's dream," he adds. "You're on a boat, and they can't get away."

Around 4 p.m., journalists and photographers gather on the boat's outdoor Verandah Deck to photograph Surfer Blood in the water park, with all sorts of children — and a dude with earlobe plugs the size of Oreos — speeding past on the winding yellow slide behind them. The sun is beating down, so Pitts borrows sunglasses from one of the journalists. And if anyone's forgotten the name of this little boat adventure, his lower lip is bulging with a stitched-up gash.

Pitts bruised his face and ego Thursday evening at the Bruise Cruise Kickoff Party at Grand Central in Miami. All nine Bruise Cruise acts took part in the messy, seven-hour show, which was in itself festival-worthy and gave the local public a chance to experience every act for a much more reasonable sum. When it was the Vivian Girls' turn to play, Pitts suddenly was overtaken with the need to do something communal to engage the crowd. During what was arguably not one of the most intense moments of the night, he came out from backstage and took a quick dive into the front row. No one caught him. He hit his head pretty solidly.

"I've made this mistake so many times where I misjudge the enthusiasm of the crowd," he says while reclining near the water slides. "Or their capability of lifting a large object, e.g. me... There's a ten-minute period of my life I don't remember. It wasn't the alcohol, I promise."

If this fall provided any sort of deterrent for Pitts' future behavior, it isn't apparent once the bruisers unload past the towering ships and enter through Nassau's port for the evening at Señor Frog's. He sticks the landing on several leap-frogging attempts over band manager Rich Weiss on the dance floor.

And the awkward staredown between Black Lips' Swilley and the Señor Frog's MC continues. Some unamplified words are exchanged but no lewd gestures. Soon, the man relents and exits the stage, and the relieved crowd moves closer. Now, much like the Kickoff Party, the sea of people with pink bruiser wristbands in the room releases pent-up aggression in a friendly mosh pit as the Lips unpack a set of rollicking sing-alongs like the doo-wop-inspired "Bad Kids."

Midway through, guitarist Cole Alexander advises the crowd, "Do not date-rape anyone, because that happens way too much here."

On Sunday, the Bruise Cruise begins its journey back to Miami, and it's hard to tell who is and isn't experiencing a rolling blackout. If there's wine left in the room, this is the time to drink it. By this point, any lines separating the artists and the cruisers have melted like the ice from five cocktails ago.

 

Things begin gently at 11:30 a.m. in the Shangri-La Lounge, a smaller venue with giant swirls of lights on the ceiling and a swirly patterned carpet to match. Bruisers crowd in for the Puppets & Pancakes breakfast performance by New Orleans' Miss Pussycat, a psychedelic cruise story with ornate hand puppets on a tiny stage. The protagonist is an extraterrestrial being who thinks she has supermodel looks (she does not). A run-in with the Coast Guard turns into a bloody fight, complete with puppet blood created out of fabric spewing forth, and some of these characters live weirdly ever after. The audio is at a pleasant level, and sleepy bruisers demolish the sizable trays of Danishes during what feels very much like one of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood's puppet shows on acid.

As the afternoon goes on, Turbo Fruits and Surfer Blood both set up in the small Shangri-La, but it's hard to match the intensity of the sizable Xanadu. Plus, many of the bruisers are topside working on their tans and forgetting that this whole affair was supposed to feel subversive.

About 4 p.m., the Imagination's Verandah Deck becomes the setting of a Black Lips' video for "Go Out and Get It," from their forthcoming album Arabia Mountain. Curious onlookers, photographers, and fellow musicians gather around the Lips as they clown around near the ship's back railing. Lip-synching with an ice cream cone, drummer Joe Bradley is thrust into frontman role as his bandmates thrash around next to him. The song plays quietly on a pair of iPod speakers, so no one standing more than a couple of feet away can hear it, creating a kooky pantomime scene. A few familiar temptresses in swimsuits, as well as the Vivian Girls, who were posing for photographs nearby, join in. Meanwhile, some dude goes down the water slide in a business suit, dry-cleaning bill be damned.

With the cameras still running, Swilley, who had already stirred up a fuss at Señor Frog's, holds his precious electric bass close to the edge of the railing. Then, with a sudden heave, he sends it overboard in a high arc. It's a beautiful and destructive thing all at once. The folks sitting on the "adults only" Serenity Deck below look weirded out.

At 5:30 p.m., just over 14 hours until the Imagination is due back in Miami on Monday, the best-attended event of the entire cruise begins in the Xanadu Lounge. It's the first open bar, and a legion of tray-carrying wait staff circulates with fruity cocktails, wine, and Bud Light Limes. Double- and triple-fisting is a common affair. Some enterprising bruisers swig away at white-wine bottles filled with whiskey (nothing stronger than wine is allowed in luggage).

Onstage, Thee Oh Sees' John Dwyer and Brigid Dawson sing the unflappable garage-rock anthem "Enemy Destruct" that is a crowd-pleasing fixture of every performance they've done as part of this cruise. "This one's called 'Eight-Dollar Drink,' " Dwyer jokingly says midset, referring to the steep cocktail prices.

Dinner in the Pride Dining Room follows with surprisingly little fanfare compared to the open bar that preceded it. A survey of diners reveals an assortment of bruises on thumbs, forearms, and thighs. Two couples say they're retiring to their room to watch the Oscars, but most are content to maintain their buzz with the aid of the now-open duty-free liquor store. Two bottles of Crown Royal ring in at a tidy $35.

About 9 p.m., an employee of the music-streaming service Grooveshark carries a bucket of Bud Lights into a cabin that actually has a window. Unlike many of the bruisers, who professed they wouldn't be spending much time in the room, this dwelling looks thoroughly occupied, with blankets strewn every which way, empty bottles lining countertops, and plastic glasses from the poolside bar turned into ashtrays. Purple-bagged bottles of Crown Royal get passed around the smoky room.

The Strange Boys' baby-faced singer, Ryan Sambol, sits on a stool shirtless with his arm resting on the room's small desk and is getting a tattoo with a pin and ballpoint pen. He remarks, "I love me some tattoos, but I hate me some hepatitis." His new ink spells out "GINA" on his right shoulder. He jokes that while he's receiving this devotional to her, "she's probably sleeping with some stranger right now."

All the while, Andy Cross, a young man with shaggy brown hair and several tattoos on his arms — obtained the way Sambol gets his — sits on the bed next to Sambol and explains how he got to the Bruise Cruise from New Orleans. By posting a flier in a coffee shop, he and his buddy Chris, who's currently inking up Sambol, found a generous woman fresh out of a bad relationship who liked Lil Wayne mixtapes. She was willing to drive 14 hours, and "we gave her $7."

 

"Everyone will remember this festival as our Woodstock," Cross adds excitedly.

Sambol winces a few times, but generally he's fine with the pinpricks. He tells some dirty jokes to the room, including one about Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard tattoos on a woman's thighs and another about a vampire using a tampon as a tea bag. Eventually, the permanent markings are finished, and "GINA" bulges from his shoulder.

After he replaces his shirt, he shrugs and adds, "Wait, who's Gina?"

Well past midnight, it's approaching time for the final scheduled event of the Bruise Cruise — a semiprivate gathering "Featuring Piano Playing by Joseph Bradley of the Black Lips."

The Mirage Bar is a tiny, dark triangle of a room with leather seats and a round bar surrounding a grand piano. Bradley has traded the red swimsuit he wore while lip-synching for the video that afternoon for a black tux. His black hair is suavely slicked back, and he's easily the classiest-looking person in the room of haggard, sauced survivors, and he delivers his selections, ranging from Vince Guaraldi jazz to the Zelda theme, with precision.

Bruisers begin to find quiet corners of the boat's top level, the Sun Deck, to make out near the green plastic carpet of the minigolf course and jogging track. Some retire for the night.

Surfer Blood manager Rich Weiss' tall frame is slumped at a table near the Lido deck bar. "It's 3:42 a.m. on the last night of fucking Bruise Cruise," he says. "And look at what we've got going on here. A lot of happy smiles. I wish this wouldn't end. It's indie-rock summer camp. No one wants to say goodbye. We're toasting marshmallows. Except instead of toasting marshmallows, we're drinking Crown Royal out of a bottle. Nothing will quite compare to this first time."

Miami rises in the distance, and the sun comes soon after from the other direction. The organizers, Cable and Stein, sprawl on deck chairs for one last impromptu photo shoot of them nodding off with happy exhaustion. Dreams of Bruise Cruise 2012 are brewing after early positive reports from Carnival folks. The smells of breakfast food come wafting in from the dining area nearby. Just like a two-minute garage rock song, it was a fleeting experience but worth repeating.


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