A few days ago, I returned from an event that was the the first of it’s kind: a metal festival on board a cruise ship. Yes a cruise ship. I went into it kicking and screaming.
The event, dubbed ‘70,000 Tons Of Metal!’ sounded like a really bad idea at first. Why? Think about it: 40 metal bands, 2,000 fans, 24 hour bars and four days at sea. I was fraught with vsions of drunken brawls, mass vomiting, people thrown overboard and other unimaginable catastrophes. “This cannot be good.” I told friends.
Yet, shortly after the offer was made, my availability for the gig was somehow misinterpreted by my band as enthusiasm for it:
“We heard you really wanted to do it”
“But I didn’t!”
“Neither did we, but we heard you did, so we confirmed it.”
My first thoughts: should this turn into “The Titanic” with everyone clamoring for not enough lifeboats, my extra-heavy solid body guitar would make a perfect weapon. Then I tried to look on the bright side: if I got out of this alive, I’d have a story comparable to Hunter S Thomson’s “Hells Angels,” where he documented the standoffs between the Angels, law enforcement authorities and rifle wielding townspeople. But as it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The bad news is I have no Hunter Thomson-worthy story to report. The good news is I lived. In fact, I more than lived: I had fun. So much, in fact, that I’m ready to sign on for the next one.
The ‘Majesty Of The Seas’ sailed from Miami to Cozumel, Mexico and back without a hitch. The promoters were very smart to partner with a reputable cruise line, Royal Caribbean Cruises. For some reason, I’d imagined all kinds of problems stemming from them hiring some second rate, ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ boat piloted by some rogue captain like Quint in ‘Jaws’ or Han Solo in ‘Star Wars.’ But RC, like Carnival and other major cruise lines, has a built in system for handling large numbers of people, in terms of lodging, food, and, very important, security. The ship’s crew seemed to know exactly what they were in for, black metal moshpits and all.
As on all their cruises, RC made sure each passenger was provided with a daily program listing the days events. While a typical cruise ‘day sheet’ lists the details for bingo, trivia, poolside games and other activities, ours was a little different: right there with the info on spa and fitness, salons, dining, casinos, etc.. were the set times for that day’s extreme metal bands. You could hit the spa and grab a quick facial before checking out the likes of Amon Amorth, Dark Tranquility and Sodom.
Surprising fact #1: It was a virtual UN, with 48 countries represented. US Citizens made up a small majority while the rest came from all over Eastern and Western Europe, The Middle East, Central and South America, Asia. Australia and all points in between. It was great to see so many Americans, some with precious little international experience, bonding with people of different languages and customs. International passengers, meanwhile, found out that not all Americans fit the negative stereotypes portrayed abroad. Metal as peacemaker- a cultural melting pot of friendly diplomacy and close international relations. Who knew?
Surprising fact #2: the gender of passengers was more than 40% female. The fact that there were many couples accounts for this, but there were many groups of females and single travelers.
Surprising fact #3: The majority of staff on the boat said this was the nicest crowd they’d ever experienced. Sure, some passengers were loud, uninhibited, and a bit wild but there were no major problems. Instead of the last drink being ordered at midnight, like on a typical cruise, the bars would get quiet around 5 or 6am. The crew by and large seemed to to find this preferable to the usual early to bed retirees, suburbanites and soccer moms. Furthermore, they said our crowd was brighter than they were used to. I saw what they meant when we docked at Cozumel and I went into town, getting stuck waiting behind a guy from a different cruise ship, a few years older than me, who looked like a typical American tourist. He seemed to be having problems with the ATM machine. He turned to me and said “Do you understand Mexican?” As I stepped forward to help him, I answered “Yes. And just so you know? It’s called ‘Spanish.'”
Surprising fact #4: Many friendships were created as a result of the cruise. Some, not wishing to fork out for a whole cabin to themselves, found roommates via the on-line forum. A pretty grad student from North Carolina roomed with two guys she’d never met-she’d made sure to lay down the law beforehand- there were to be no ‘boy-girl’ issues, she’s there to hang out, period. The three hit it off famously, became ‘cruise buddies’ and are planning to room together next year. There was also a girl from Boston who was inseparable from her friend, a Seattle resident. At first I thought they might be sisters, but it turns out they’d never met until the cruise. Like the others, they’d been matched as roommates and are planning to room together every year.
Surprising fact #5: The fans mingling with the bands posed no problems at all. I experienced no overzealous, intrusive behavior, other than one European guy in the gym who tried to photograph me as I got off the treadmill. At least he was respectful when I said something I rarely say when asked for a photo: NO. I made sure to make it up to him later when I wasn’t out of breath and pouring sweat. (What am I, Princess Diana?).
Less Surprising Fact: The bars and lounges took in more profits in alcohol sales than any other Royal Caribbean cruise on record- before the ship even left the dock! Needless to say, RC is eager to get more metalheads on their cruise ships.
When all was said and done, “70,000 Tons” turned out to be one of those very bold ideas that looked scary on paper but turned out to be a great idea, winning over most naysayers (like banning smoking in nightclubs). It brought together two worlds that seem to be completely disparate: luxury cruise ships and extreme metal. These worlds need each other- the cruise ship industry is hungry for new passengers, even ones wearing Cannibal Corpse T-shirts with the words Submerged In Boiling Flesh on the back, while, hardcore metal fans are ready for new experiences, such as the type of vacations that were once the exclusive territory of people like Kathie Lee Gifford.
Though it takes a minute to get used to the sight of so many black t-shirted, tattooed, pierced people in taking over the salons, health clubs, souvenir shops and other amenities of a cruise ship and tourist mecca like Cozumel, Mexico, it all makes sense, somehow. It causes one to recall the words of a great artist, Bob Dylan, who, though not a metal musician, had a lot in common with what metal would come to represent (and if you disagree with that, then I strongly suggest you check out Dylan’s ‘Masters Of War’ ). It was he who once said: The times they are a changin’. Indeed, they are.