ROCK THE BOAT! Shiprocked Metal Cruise

Ain’t nothin’ but a good time when
you hop a cruise ship for aging ‘80s hair metal aficionados (and the musicians
who play it).

 

BY RODGER
CAMBRIA

 

It’s a
balmy November evening and I’m sitting in a cruise ship karaoke lounge, fixated
on the small stage where a shirtless fat man in a turquoise Mexican wrestling
mask is singing, or rather grunting, a classic Mötley Crüe tune from 1983. Just
before the Nacho Libre look-alike hits the chorus, he screams to the audience,
“Y’all know the words. Sing it, motherfuckers!” The boisterous crowd rises to
its feet, fists pumping the air, chanting in boozy unison:

 

Shout – Shout – Shout – Shout at
the devil!

 

While
there’s no denying the allure of a chubby, half-naked man in fetishistic
headgear performing karaoke for a drunken mob, it should be noted that this is
not typical cruise ship fare. Today, most cruise lines cater to middle-American
families and aging retirees, offering wholesome entertainment and a theme park
sensibility.

 

But the
tattooed miscreants gathered in this lounge are not your ordinary cruisers. They
are shadow people, existing on the fringes of society. They are the deviants
your mother warned you about. They are the bastards, the rebels, the misfits,
and the damned. Curiously, they’re also tax attorneys, dental hygienists, and
kindergarten teachers. And now these denizens of darkness, these orgiastic
Satan worshippers and part-time Lamaze instructors, have gathered on this
93,000 ton party boat for Shiprocked, a Bahamas-bound cruise celebrating all
things Rock.

 

And when
I say Rock, I don’t mean the brooding melancholy of Pearl Jam or the electronic
science fiction of Radiohead. I don’t mean the esoteric blues of The White
Stripes, and I certainly don’t mean the bullshit studio formula of Seether or
Finger Eleven. I’m talking about rock and
roll
, the kind that wears spandex
and ladies’ mascara while sucker punching you in the balls; the kind that
inspires the trashing of hotel rooms, grotesque inebriation, and a never-ending
rotation of groupies sucking cock in the back lounge of a tour bus. Of course,
I’m talking about ‘80s arena rock, with its monster guitar riffs, sing along
choruses, and pyro that’ll singe the hair right off your junk.

 

“This
music is about pussy, parties, and paychecks,” says Stephen Pearcy of Ratt.
“It’s catchy and fun and it’s got that element of danger. Some of us really
like danger, and some just like the facade. I mean, I’ll kill everybody.”

 

Held on
the gloriously tacky MSC Poesia,
Shiprocked features a three-day itinerary packed with rock-related activities,
including live concert performances by hair metal icons Cinderella, Tesla, and
Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe. Though it might be tempting to write off this event
as a sad bit of nostalgia or an exercise in hipster irony, I assure you these
diehard fans are serious about the music. “This isn’t a vacation, it’s a
lifestyle,” says Sherri, a wild-eyed woman wearing leather motorcycle chaps and
a faded Guns ‘N Roses t-shirt. “I quit my job two summers ago, and I’ve been
following Mötley Crüe ever since. All my credit cards have been shut off and
I’m about to get evicted from my place.” She sips her frozen margarita adding,
“I’ve basically given up my old life, and it’s all good. I just want to rock
out with my box out.”

 

***

 

The MSC Poesia is a full-service cruise ship
with every amenity for the discerning traveler, including spas, casinos, sushi
bars, and a dinosaur-themed play area for those who want to get in touch with
their inner Fred Flintstone. On this voyage, some 1200 metal heads registered
for the Shiprocked event, giving them exclusive access to all the concerts and
activities. This means that the other 1500 passengers on the ship, mostly
families with children and tour groups of the elderly, have unknowingly been
booked onto this floating Sodom and Gomorrah-a fact that does not go unnoticed
by the wary travelers. “They took over the whole goddamn boat,” I heard a
crotchety senior tell his wife in the gift shop. “Did you see all the long hair
and tattoos? They’re goddamn hooligans.”

 

Of
course, not all the Shiprockers are hooligans, but they are a hard-partying
bunch. For many of them, the blowout started several days before the Poesia even left port with pre-cruise
gatherings at various Ft. Lauderdale watering holes. By the time these diehard
fans actually boarded the ship, many were twisted three ways from Sunday. This
was particularly evident during the mandatory safety drill where a pretty
blonde crewmember gave evacuation instructions to the passengers. As she
demonstrated the proper way to secure her life vest, a shoeless, slurring man
in a frayed Trixter t-shirt screamed, “I’ve been drunk for fourteen hours. How
the hell am I supposed to remember this?” Another man, obviously intoxicated,
repeatedly shouted to the woman, “Do you like seamen? Do you like seamen in
your mouth?” His comments, thankfully out of earshot of the young woman, were
vulgar, infantile, and delightfully profane.

 

Clearly,
I was among my people.

 

When I
told my family and friends that I was going on a heavy metal cruise with
Cinderella, Tesla, and the lead singer of Mötley Crüe, I was greeted with a
certain amount of bemusement. Most seemed to think that these former
chart-topping rockers were either dead, working at the Home Depot, or playing
canasta with the dudes from Foghat at the retirement home of forgotten rock
stars. The truth, however, is that nearly all ‘80s rock bands are touring in
some capacity today. Many of these bands-like Skid Row, Slaughter, LA Guns, and
Warrant-subsist at the club level, playing to a few hundred fans a night at
beer-soaked dives with colorful names like the Crazy Donkey, Jerry’s Bait Shop,
and G.B. Leighton’s Pickle Park. Though the stage may not be as grand as it
once was for these middle-aged rockers, they can still make a decent living
playing their music. But not all ‘80s rock bands are relegated to the biker bar
circuit. The heavy hitters of the acid wash era-bands like Guns ‘N Roses,
Mötley Crüe, Aerosmith, the Scorpions, Def Leppard and Poison-are selling out
arenas in a tough economic climate when few artists have that kind of draw. In
fact, the highest-grossing concert tour of 2010 belonged to New Jersey rockers
Bon Jovi, not Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, U2, or Justin Bieber.

 

But it’s
no longer just about touring: ‘80s rock has gone mainstream. The Guitar Hero
and Rock Band video game franchises have boosted these artists’ catalog sales
and introduced their music to a new generation of fans. The wildly successful
Broadway musical Rock of Ages-set on
Hollywood’s Sunset Strip in 1987 and featuring music by Night Ranger, Quiet
Riot, and Whitesnake-was nominated for five Tony Awards and is now becoming a
major motion picture. Bret Michaels of Poison became a household name on VH1’s Rock of Love and Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice. Vince Neil
recently appeared on ABC’s Skating with
the Stars
. And now, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith is a judge on American Idol, one of the most-watched
shows on television.

 

“For many
of these artists, the marketing opportunities and potential revenue streams are
greater than ever before,” says Jeff Albright, president of the Albright
Entertainment Group and publicist for numerous ‘80s rock bands. “With the
combination of television, radio, video games, and internet, you can now be
seen and heard 24-7. And more places to be seen and heard means more places to
be sold.”

 

***

 

I’ve got
a few hours to kill before Cinderella takes the stage on this second night of
the cruise, so I’m doing what any responsible journalist would do: I’m drinking
Red Bull and Xanax daiquiris (my own recipe) by the pool and sunning myself
like a monitor lizard. All around me, attractive women in thong bikinis
seductively oil themselves, splayed on chaise lounges like bronzed, silicone
goddesses. Perhaps it’s the brain fog from all the benzo and rum, but I
suddenly feel as though I’ve wandered onto the set of a late-night Cinemax
movie. I half-expect to find Frank Stallone and Shannon Tweed
entwined in the jacuzzi.

 

As I make
my way across the sundeck to the bar for another round of drinks, I see Tesla
lead singer Jeff Keith in shorts and flip flops carrying an enormous plate of
hardboiled eggs back to his table. As he meanders through the crowd, people
smile and pat him on the back, saying things like, “Dude, you fucking rock!”
and “I want you to put a baby in me!” He is friendly and gracious, stopping to
chat with everyone who crosses his path. And the fans are ecstatic. “I’ve never
been backstage at a concert. I’ve never seen any rock stars, like, walking
around eating eggs,” says Myles, 39, from New Orleans. “But here, you might
bump into Vince Neil in the buffet line, or see Tom Kiefer [Cinderella] at the
bar.”

 

And this
is exactly why celebrity theme cruises are so popular today: fans want up-close
and personal interactions with their music idols. It’s about access and
inclusiveness. Because at some point, we’ve all been on the wrong side of the
velvet rope at a trendy nightclub, denied entry because we weren’t cool enough,
or pretty enough, or willing to grease some beefy doorman’s steroid-engorged
palm. An event like Shiprocked is your passport through the velvet rope to the
VIP lounge on the other side. “Back in the day when I would go to concerts, I
was usually in the nosebleed section because those were the only seats I could
afford,” says Nancy, 42, from Virginia Beach. “But now that I’m older and I
have money, I can see these people up close. I can touch them. I can hang out
with them.” But the lure of these events goes beyond access: it’s also about
fantasy and wish fulfillment. “Before I even got my first kiss, I was making
out with the rock star posters on my wall,” says Angelina Leigh, an actress and
fetish model who has appeared in Playboy,
Hustler, and Juggs magazine. “And now
I get to party with those guys. Last year on Shiprocked, I hung out with Skid
Row. And I totally wanted to marry them when I was a kid, you know?”

 

***

 

It’s ten
o’clock and time to rock. More than a thousand rabid fans are packed into the
Carlos Felice Theater waiting to be assaulted by the sonic donkey punch of
Cinderella’s delta blues metal. When the band takes the stage and kicks into
“Somebody Save Me,” the room becomes a raucous sea of split-fingered devil
horns, a turbulent ocean of synchronized heads banging in unison like some
futuristic heavy metal hive mind. As they launch into “Gypsy Road,” the
electricity from the stage jolts through my body, shooting sparks up my spinal
chord to my brain stem, creating an aurora borealis of sound inside my frontal
lobe. And that’s what so great about ‘80s rock: it exists for the flesh, not
the intellect; it is the soundtrack of the id. Songs like “Girls, Girls,
Girls,” “Talk Dirty to Me,” “Slide it In,” and “Cherry Pie” are
testosterone-driven operettas about loose girls, fast cars, drinking whiskey,
and raising hell. It’s not supposed to make you think, it’s supposed to make
you feel. And if done properly, it’ll
make you feel like fighting or fucking.

 

“I don’t
wanna go to a concert and hear about how shitty things are. I want to have fun
tonight,” says Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe. “That’s what the eighties music
represented: Get drunk, get laid, have fun.”

 

As
Cinderella downshifts into the epic ballad “Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Till
It’s Gone),” I start chatting with Karen and her husband who are sitting next
to me. Karen is in her late 30’s, sharp-dressed and stunning, with a hint of
mischief lurking behind her green eyes. And she’s completely hammered. “I’m a
good girl, but when I drink tequila I get really bad. And then I start craving
pussy,” she tells me, causing me to snorf an entire Jäger Bomb out my nose. She
leans in close like she’s about to reveal a secret, her Jose Cuervo breath hot
on my neck. “There’s nothing like the taste of good pussy-it’s way better than
dick.” At which point, she grabs the busty woman next to her and they start
making out. Her husband looks over, disinterested. He shrugs his shoulders and
continues watching the concert.

 

On the
way back to my stateroom, I notice that my neighbors, two Jersey Shore wannabes with ripped abs and Oompa Loompa spray tans,
have hung a sign on their cabin door that says “Teezin N Pleezin” in large
block print, with the cryptic phrase “Squirters Welcome!!” scrawled beneath it.
The poster is dotted with several red lipstick imprints, presumably belonging
to Buffy, Stacy, and/or Lila, all who dutifully signed their names at the
bottom like some kind of twisted Declaration of Independence:

 

We hold these truths to be
self-evident, that all bros are created equal, that they are endowed like
wildebeests with certain unalienable rights, that among these are a lifetime
Gold’s Gym membership and an unlimited Dave & Busters power card, the
freedom to tap hot random ass, and the pursuit of mother fucking rock and roll.

 

Later,
I’m awakened by a wretched cacophony of bleats and squeals echoing from the
room next door. The passionate thumps and wails-best described as
“barnyard-like”-reverberate through the wall and into my cabin. I’m not sure
what kind of deranged sexual activity is going on over there, but I’m fairly
certain it involves slaughtering a goat.

 

***

 

It’s the
last full day of the cruise. We’re docked in the Bahaman port city of Nassau
and I’m at Señor Frogs, drinking a 64-ounce frozen daiquiri served in a
three-foot tall cup shaped like a saxophone. Some two hundred fellow
Shiprockers are here, grooving their way through another round of heavy metal
karaoke. The mysterious fat man in the turquoise Mexican wrestling mask has
returned to the stage, this time grunting his way through Bon Jovi’s “You Give
Love a Bad Name.” Better yet, he’s wearing a half-shirt that says, “Where’s the
Queef?” Stay classy, Bahamas.

 

While I’m
waiting in line to get another giant saxophone daiquiri, I meet two guys from
Indiana, one of whom is wearing an actual cowbell around his neck. “We went to
Rocklahoma to see Vince Neil and during “Live Wire,” his drummer didn’t have a
cowbell. And that’s a song that depends on the cowbell,” he tells me. “So we
went to see Vince again in Nashville, and we brought our own cowbell.”

 

“So at
the concert, you played along with the band using your own cowbell?” I reply.

 

“Fuck
yeah, buddy. Now we bring it everywhere. Because if you want to rock the fuck
out of a party, wear a cowbell. People love the cowbell.”

 

Moments
later, the lead singer of a Mötley Crüe tribute band takes the stage and
launches into a blistering karaoke version of “Live Wire.” The cowbell guy
promptly removes a drumstick from his back pocket and begins playing along in
perfect time, even doing Tommy Lee’s signature stick twirl. And the crowd goes
completely bananas. Maybe it’s the liquor, maybe it’s the sheer goofiness of a
guy beating the hell out of a cowbell around his neck, but for the first time
in ages I feel pure unadulterated joy. I feel connected to the people in this
room, connected to something familiar from my past.

 

“This is
the music we listened to when we were kids. And now we’ve got money to spend,
and we can still throw down with the best of ‘em. We are ferocious rockers,”
says James, an investment banker from New York. “This music helps us get away
from our humdrum corporate lives and makes us feel like we’re nineteen again.
It helps us get back to our roots.” The waitress brings over a bucket of a beer.
He hands me a frosty Corona, adding, “We have no responsibilities here. No
schedules. No alarm clocks. No kids. Total freedom. And if I walk away from
Shiprocked with anything less than a two-thousand dollar bar tab, I’m gonna be
pissed.”

 

There
will always be people who think ‘80s rock is a joke. And the genre doesn’t do
itself any favors. After all, it can be hard to take a guy seriously who’s
wearing a steel codpiece and platform moon boots. And critics are quick to
dismiss the ‘80s rock revival as an exercise in nostalgia. And you know what?
They’re right. Nostalgia-from the Greek nostos meaning “return home,” and algos,
meaning “longing”-is a longing for a home that no longer exists. “At first
glance, nostalgia is a longing for place, but actually it is a yearning for a
different time-the time of our youth, the slower rhythm of our dreams,” writes
Harvard Professor Svetlana Boym, in her book The Future of Nostalgia. “It is an affective yearning for a
community with a collective memory, a longing for continuity in a fragmented
world.”

 

You bet
your sweet ass it is.

 

As I
disembark the MSC Poesia, I’m already
thinking about next year’s Shiprocked. Maybe they’ll book a kick-ass band like
Kix, whose 1989 hit Cold Blood is the
best rock song of the last twenty years (yeah, I said it), or Steelheart, whose
eponymous 1990 debut is my favorite overall rock record of the hair band era.

 

“It’s
just good music and that’s the bottom line. The Beatles wrote songs that will
live forever, so did Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. And now people are realizing
that Mötley Crüe and Guns ‘N Roses and Slaughter did too,” says Tiffany, 41, of
Tarpon Springs, Florida. “Maybe subconsciously we’re regressing, but I honestly
think it’s the best music in the world. I’ll be seventy-five years old and
still listening to my Slaughter records. My grandchildren will be saying, “What
are you listening to, grandma? Turn down that noise.”

 

[Photo of the “naughty sailors” by Rodger
Cambria – and please go here to see more of his images from the Shiprocked
cruise. This story originally appeared in BLURT #10, on all fine newsstands
now.
]

 

 

***

 

 

The 2011 Shiprocked cruise boards
November 14 in Ft. Lauderdale, with plans to feature Buckcherry, Hinder, Hellyeah, Sevendust, In This Moment, Lynam, Broken
Teeth, Rival Sons and more… possibly even Charlie Sheen. But don’t hold
your breath. Go here for more details.

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