And in the case of the KISS Kruise, there are ample opportunities for that intimate interaction afforded to the fans to get up close and personal with Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer. A lengthy Q&A with the band allows those to query the stars about topics like which opening act gave a band a run for the money (Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band), Paul Stanley took part in a discussion about his New York Times Best Selling memoir, Face the Music: A Life Exposed while Gene Simmons commandeered a pick throwing contest.
Members Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer also helmed their own events, a Halloween KISS Kostume contest and an “Almost Famous” competition respectively. It’s a treat watching fans during the meet and greets. Hard core fans of the band since 1974 intermingle with families numbering first, second and third generation supporters as they line up for a photo with the group.
The excitement is palpable and it’s contagious; the beatific joy on the faces of those taking part is priceless. 50-somethings turns into little kids awed meeting their hard rock heroes face to face; some fans are so overcome by emotion that they’re literally shaking—and it’s not the boat rocking back and forth. The band get it too. Throughout their 40-year career, KISS remain dedicated to the notion that the fans are the bosses; Gene Simmons reiterates their mission statement, “we hear and we obey.”
Watching the proceedings over the past few days, whether it’s the meet and greets, Q&A sessions, the “unmasked” acoustic show or two full-on indoor rock shows, it’s abundantly clear that the band themselves are reveling in that personal connection, feeding off the passion and love generated by 2300 of their most devoted followers.
As for the cruise activities, for those with enough energy there’s little down time and you can fill your day with non-stop activities. Passengers can gamble in the casino, test their vocal chops in KISS karaoke by belting out their best fist pumping renditions of Detroit Rock City, God of Thunder, C’mon and Love Me or Shout It Out Loud, take part in a “Dressed to Kill” look-a-like contest, get your face painted to look like Paul, Gene, Tommy or Eric or even renew your matrimonial vows with Steve Mitchell, a pastor from the “Hotter than Hell” Wedding chapel in Las Vegas.
There’s even a renowned tattoo artist on board ready to ink you with your favorite KISS themed design. “Activities run from all hours of the day and there’s always something great going on,” observes Hounshell. “It’s an event that is unmatched in music fandom. I’ve been a KISS fan since 1978 and I’ve seen dozens of shows over the years: in makeup, out of makeup, from the original four to the Revenge lineup, from sold out arenas to hotel ballrooms. I’ve met members at conventions and book signings and art shows but none of these experiences can top going on the Kruise. I mean, where else can you go and meet dozens, if not hundreds, of people from all walks of life, from all corners of the globe, and still have one thing in common that makes you friends from almost the minute you meet them? Lawyers, doctors, authors, artists, musicians, DJs, comedians, union reps, 9-5ers. Ages from 6-65. Everyone is there to enjoy the band they have in common. Everyone mingles and you just never know who you will meet, what you will experience, and what you else you might have in common with someone that was unknown just a minute before.”
Part of the frivolity is goosed by the plentiful array of alcohol on hand—over 20 varieties of beer, shots and mixed drinks are being peddled constantly—and this crowd’s a thirsty bunch. For many on board, it’s easy to over do it and have too much of a good time. Those hung over from a hard day’s night of carousing are easy to spot–they call it the “high seas” for a reason.
These late risers make their way around the ship like arthritic zombies, fortified on fresh cups of hot coffee, trying valiantly to gear up for the day and night’s festivities. As for me, thankfully I’m not one of the zombies. Up at 6AM, I spend my time taking part in the most non rock and roll activity on the ship. With the vast scenery of the deep blue ocean spread out in front of me, I’m working out in the gym, which is noticeably empty and silent, except for the non-stop reel of vintage KISS concerts and the band’s ill fated 1978 movie, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, which is being shown on my treadmill’s TV.
One of the highlights on the kruise is the “unmasked” acoustic show. In a case of life happening when you’re making other plans, the island unmasked show on Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas is scrapped due to rough seas and strong winds making transporting passengers to the location too dangerous. But the show must go on. Production kicks into gear and put plan B in action and ultimately the unplugged show is salvaged and moved to the ship’s pool deck. Imagine the band’s view, looking out at over 2000 of your new best friends, a sea of KISS t-shirts, tattoos, face paint and flags representing various countries around the globe hanging down from the upper pool deck.
But the real buzz centers around KISS’s two indoor shows which are held in an intimate 1200 seat theater. What makes these indoor shows particularly special is KISS, in homage to their 1975 album Dressed to Kill, swapped their trademark garish costumes and 7″ inch leather heels and instead wore nifty John Varvatos suits; this marks the first time the band played a full concert for the first time in suits and ties garb. Referencing their non-rock and roll attire, Paul Stanley laughingly tells the crowd, “This is like we’re playing a wedding or bar mitzvah.”
On the ship itself, the band is restricted from using pyro and explosions, an essential element of a typically bombastic KISS stage show. Instead, these shows find the band stepping it up on the musical front and performing a selection of deep cuts. And this year’s shows are no exception with rare airings of Creatures of the Night, Plaster Caster, Makin’ Love, and Tears are Falling. During the encore, the band ripped into The Oath, an obscure track featured on the group’s under-appreciated 1981 concept album (Music from) The Elder as well as playing a snippet of Just a Boy, from the same album, both of which drew ecstatic response.
Dean Snowden has been working for KISS since 1998 serving as the band’s resident KISS ambassador. “I’m surprised at the lengths that the band will go to give the fans the songs they want to hear that aren’t normally part of their regular set list,” he marvels. “It takes a lot of effort, rehearsal time and doing their homework to pull it off.” And judging by the group’s powerhouse performance, it’s time well spent. “I’ve seen KISS 50-60 times and seeing them in such a small setting was amazing” raves Bavaria, Germany native Wolfi Byell. “They played harder than usual and their level of energy and commitment was incredible.” As the last notes of show closer, Rock and Roll All Nite ring out through the venue, fans slowly file out walking through the piles of confetti littering the floor like a recent snow fall. Some head back to their rooms while most continue their final night of revelry on the ship until the wee hours.
It’s Tuesday morning, November 4th and the KISS Kruise docks into the port of Miami. I’m bleary eyed and frazzled, sunburned and worn out from 4 days of being ship-rocked KISS style and ready to decompress. As I disembark from my home on the sea for the past four days, I’m struck by the realization that this KISS Kruise wasn’t just about celebrating the band. Instead, the attraction goes far deeper than that.
Quite simply, it’s about the camaraderie; it’s about the communion of like minded souls unified in a shared lifelong passion. It’s about cementing bonds of friendship and making a connection. Sixthman’s Alaidriale Derway agrees: “We always say: you’ll come for the bands, you’ll come back for the friendships. Over 50% of our guests return year after year, and when they aren’t sailing, they’re on the Facebook page, meeting up at shows or creating meet ups of their own. When you’re at a normal show, you’re there, facing a stage, you watch the show and go home. On a ship, you’re essentially living with these people for days at a time. You get close. And when you have a natural common interest, it’s easy to create relationships. We also try to foster community within our events. Each cruise has a “Warrior,” or community leader, that is a point person for questions, concerns, and suggestions and I think starting those conversations from the beginning creates that feeling of togetherness before even stepping foot onboard.”
Aussie fan Roz Cartwright shares the sentiment of those onboard, “My husband, Chuck and I were crying this morning because we didn’t want to leave. On the kruise it’s like the world is in one place with the all the nations represented. For us, it’s not friends, it’s family. We are a massive KISS family.” Being pulled into a surprise intimate meet and greet with Gene Simmons was one of Greg Hounshell’s many highlights of the kruise and he’s already looking forward to next year’s adventure at sea. “Now that I’m back in port, I‘m saying goodbye to friends old and new and ready to return to life in the mountains of Virginia. Now, feeling re-energized by the excitement of the trip, I’ll head back to my loving wife and two wonderful sons and begin the countdown to Kiss Kruise V.”
Speaking of KISS Kruise V, it’s less than a year away and I’m ready to sign up. Who wants to join me?