"If I owned a house, it would look like this," comedian Neil Hamburger says from the stage of Señor Frog's on a balmy winter night in The Bahamas.
A Mexican-themed franchise that proclaims itself the "infamous party scene," Señor Frog's is like Cracker Barrel as a tropical tiki hut. Suspended surfboards flank a visual cacophony of cartoonish signs boasting slogans like "THIS IS TOO MUCKING FUCH." They adorn a wood-lacquered ceiling, from which fishnets, seashells, prosthetic ass cheeks and other tropical tchotchkes hang above fake coconuts dangling from fake palm trees.
Here, belligerent tourists tank themselves on triple margaritas served in 2-foot-tall souvenir glasses the shape of water bongs. Not far from one neon-lit sign — advertising the menu's "vagetarian" options — a young woman contemplates an overpriced, undersized T-shirt that reads "Can't Touch This." Whatever Señor Frog's is — the Gatlinburg of the Bahamas comes to mind — the one thing it isn't is cool.
But tonight the bottoms-up crowd is dwarfed by a hundreds-strong gang of thrift-store-clad, tattooed punks an ocean away from their natural habitat of rock-club dives and beer-stained basements. They're the last people you'd expect to see dancing in a conga line to Buster Poindexter's "Hot, Hot, Hot," that staple of mandatory office-party karaoke.
And yet here they are, throwing irony to the trade winds as they mingle among A-list hipster celebrities like Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O and TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone, or alt-media heavyweights like Spin's Christopher Weingarten and WFMU's Best Show host Tom Scharpling. It's only midway through the second annual Bruise Cruise, a three-day garage-rock festival on the high seas. And tonight Señor Frog's, otherwise one of the most cred-depleting locales in the Western Hemisphere, could quite possibly be the capital-C Coolest Place on the Planet.
Soon after the conga line ends, a slam-dance pit will break out when red-hot Canadian hardcore troupe Fucked Up hits the stage. Hours later, sloshed hipsters will cut a rug to selections from the record collection of guest DJ and Dead Kennedys founder Jello Biafra. By the time that happens, the room is cleared of anyone wearing brand names like Abercrombie, Affliction, North Face, Nautica or Tommy Bahama.
Were they driven out by Hamburger, a combover-coiffed anti-comedian in an ill-fitting tuxedo, who accused the perplexed regulars of coating their balls in Domino's Pizza sauce? Or was it the evening's opening set by The Togas — a garage-rock supergroup uncontaminated by practice, featuring genre luminaries culled from Reigning Sound, The Strange Boys, Shannon and the Clams and fronted by Ty Segall? Maybe it was just bad enchiladas. Whatever the case, cruise co-founders Michelle Cable and Jonas Stein couldn't have found a more perfect night of entertainment to distinguish the losers from the Bruisers.
"The whole idea was to have a fun, fraternity-mimicked band on board," Stein says of The Togas, who stumbled through half-learned covers such as "Beat on the Brat" and "The Wanderer." OK, so they sounded like sunburned shit. But even some folks at the bar perked up momentarily when Segall jokingly sang a certain psych-rock nugget's first verse.
"Do you know The Doors?" one Frog patron asked another. "This is their song, it's called 'The End.' ... Their singer, Jim Morrison, he was a real emotional guy."
The bizarre juxtaposition came to a head during Hamburger's set. Here, in the tourist-infested Bahamas, a news feed broke in announcing Whitney Houston's death. As the sad story blazed behind him on flat-screen TVs, with forks dropping across the room, Hamburger went on with his act, oblivious.
"Why was Jim Morrison buried in a 10-foot coffin?" asked Hamburger, blithely unaware as emotions ratcheted up in the room. "To accommodate his dunce cap."
The scene at Señor Frog's is par for the course charted by Stein — a 24-year-old Nashville garage-rock mogul who established himself as guitarist for internationally known teen punks Be Your Own Pet, then later as frontman for garage-psych road warriors Turbo Fruits. In addition to overseeing his label, Turbo Time Records, he founded The Bruise Cruise in 2011, featuring his band along with Black Lips, Surfer Blood, The Strange Boys, Jacuzzi Boys and others.
This year The Bruise Cruise boasts a garage/punk/comedy/DJ/bounce/hardcore lineup featuring Fucked Up, King Khan and the Shrines, Kyp Malone, The Soft Pack, Quintron and Miss Pussycat, Mikal Cronin, Vockah Redu, Anna Seregina, a DJ set from the Vivian Girls — and, as mentioned, Neil Hamburger, Jello Biafra and The Togas.
Many readers have probably never heard these names before. These are working-class bands playing for working-class 20- and 30-something-year-old fans. At best, each one is a club-level headliner commanding an under-$20 ticket price — even rising soul-revue star Khan, a Germany-based expat who makes up for lack of vocal proficiency with outlandish antics and dress (e.g., a pair of skimpy codpiece-adorned trunks with shimmering cape and feather headdress).
But together, for a far-reaching niche faction of followers, these flagship bands and performers form a bucket-list lineup of revered touring acts (like Detroit garage heroes The Dirtbombs) and hot up-and-comers (like incendiary San Francisco psych-punks Thee Oh Sees). And those followers are willing to pay a hefty chunk to spend three days at sail with them.
Aboard the Bruise Cruise, performers, planners and approximately 500 paid attendees make up a mobile ghetto of rowdy rock 'n' roll misfits sequestered at sea with garden-variety cruise-ship habitués. When they aren't rocking out in lounges that typically host PG-rated comedians and campy variety shows, the Bruisers eat, drink, party, gamble and dip in hot tubs among a couple thousand middle-class tourists, who scarcely notice the music festival in their midst. Not only aren't they aware that the dude beside them in the buffet line is punk godfather Biafra, they couldn't care less.
Across the water from Señor Frog's, towering 10 stories tall in Nassau Harbor, is the boat that brought in these fish-out-of-water punks — the Carnival Imagination. A "Fantasy" (i.e., budget) class cruise liner, the 70,000-ton, 2,040-passenger vessel is one of Carnival's fleet of "Fun Ships" that do short three-day jaunts from Miami to various destinations in the Caribbean.
The Imagination was built in 1995, and its décor shows its age. But over the past decade, fun ships like it have become venues for a new kind of music festival — a lifestyle party on open water, with artists as entertainment directors.
Among the artists who have headed up their own music cruises are Dave Matthews, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jimmy Buffett, New Kids on the Block, Kid Rock, John Mayer, and recently, Weezer. The featured acts, along with artists they handpick, treat fans to intimate, exclusive performances and events both on board and in exotic locales like Key West, Cozumel and the Bahamas.
While many of these cruises are built around a single artist, genre-specific nautical jaunts are on the rise. There's the Jam Cruise, which since 2004 has hosted artists like The Grateful Dead's Bob Weir, Warren Haynes, STS9 and Maceo Parker in a veritable nautical Bonnaroo. There's Delbert McClinton's Blues Cruise. There's the Cayamo Cruise — an Americana-geared excursion featuring artists such as Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, John Prine and Lucinda Williams.
But the Bruise Cruise seems like a riskier departure. Not only is the garage-rocker/indie-punk demographic more narrowly focused than, say, oldies aficionados or Americana fans, it would also seem to be far less affluent — not to mention far less enthused about something as corny and smelling of retiree mothballs as a pleasure cruise.
"Going on it last year I thought, 'This is gonna be one and done,' " says Ben Blackwell, drummer for The Dirtbombs and co-proprietor of Third Man Records (not to mention judge of last year's Bruise Cruise Dance Contest). "It was too specific, I thought, to really take hold. But after enjoying it so much and knowing so many people and meeting people, it really was just an enjoyable time."