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 tail–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 a 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 Ian Svenonius’.
Literally: Svenonius, the provocateur laureate of D.C. punk rock, is the official “cruise director” and MC for the Bruise Cruise, which stars nine 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, who can largely be filed under garage rock. But I’m really here for the sociological fireworks.
The same thing, as it happens, fascinates Svenonius: the clash of culture and sub-culture. A few days before embarking, we meet up at a D.C. Starbucks. “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. 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 from a P.A. on the main pool deck. You can imagine the ship’s punk contingent mocking this middle-American leisure activity. But there, linked hand-to-shoulder with the Imagination’s rotund majority, is a group with about six 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—Black Lips, Vivian Girls, The Strange Boys, and Turbo Fruits—playing to a crowd of Bruisers and fratboys 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: Onboard, 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.