By Ken Sharp
Back in 1975,a passionate KISS fan from Terre Haute, Indiana named Bill Starkey took matters into his own hands in attempt to get his favorite band played on the radio. In short stead, the KISS Army was born. That blood, sweat and tears ethos mining fierce dedication and commitment to championing the cause of their musical superheroes continues unabated more than 40 years on. And as KISS Kruise VI: Creatures of The Deep sets to leave the port of Miami, Florida with stops in Cozumel, Mexico and the Grand Cayman Islands for a five-day excursion of frolic, fun, hijinks and rock ‘n’ roll debauchery on the high seas, that same KISS Army are now getting their sea legs adopting an altogether different guise, the KISS Navy. Over 2,400 passengers from 35 countries are back to share an unforgettable journey with the hottest band in the world.
Standing in the port, I’m witness to friendships being rekindled and allegiances reignited as thousands of fans from Germany to Japan, Australia to Brazil, England to France, Russia to Sweden, most decked out in KISS T-shirts, many wearing full KISS makeup, scamper onto the ship with the excitement of the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion off to see the Wizard on the yellow brick road; and in this case, that yellow brick road leads them face to face with their heroes, Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer — KISS.
This is the band’s sixth cruise and they’re selling out quicker than ever. Greg Hounshell, 46, a realtor based in Wytheville, Virginia has been waiting all year to make it back on the ship and he enthuses: “It’s time for the KISS Navy Reunion. I look forward to this all year. There is simply nothing like it. As a fifth time cruiser, it’s my chance to spend four days with the friends I’ve made from past years and make new friends for the future. The band works seamlessly to give the cruisers dozens of activities to choose from. The band lineups are always good and this year there are some new faces and groups to enjoy. I’ve been blessed to be on these KISS Kruises and wouldn’t miss it for the world. The friends I see on the boat are some of the best people I know. I’ve even started meeting up with them on activities throughout the year. There are no fans like KISS fans and there is no cruise like the KISS Kruise.”
Joining KISS on this rock ‘n’ roll party at sea is a solid assemblage of musical talent numbering Whitford/St.Holmes, a group featuring Brad Whitford of Aerosmith and Ted Nugent’s lead singer, Derek St. Holmes; ‘80s hard metal hellions Skid Row; the prog-metal funksters King’s X; glam rock/power poppers, Enuff Z’Nuff; The Dead Daisies, fronted by ex-Mötley Crüe singer, John Corabi. Plus Nick and Sophie Simmons, Gene’s son and daughter, and The Dives, a power-pop outfit, which features Paul’s son, Evan, on guitar and lead vocals, also set up to perform.
Sixthman, a leading company in music cruises, is truly the benchmark by which all cruises should be measured. As usual, the company has created a cruise teeming with activities that upend the decades old perception of the cruises of the past, which were relegated for the over 60 “blue hair” crowd, spending their golden years wallowing away the hours playing checkerboard, bingo and bridge, drinking watered down blue Mai-Tais, feasting on a limited choice of food options — mystery meat or fish anyone? — and taking long naps.
Sixthman’s music cruises, by contrast, are fully immersive experiences catered for the uber fan, breaking the glass window that once separated fan and artist and opening it up into a communal free-for-all. This year’s theme is “Creatures of the Deep,” which is a celebratory nod to the band’s classic 1982 album. It’s an album heralded in KISS circles as a welcome return to form after their career misstep with the concept album, “(Music From) The Elder.”
These cruises offer fans a once-in-a-lifetime experience connecting with their musical idols, up close and personal and intimate, whether it’s the “Are You Smarter Than A Rock God with Gene Simmons”; Paul Stanley demonstrating his cooking chops in the kitchen overseeing kruisers with their prize pizza recipes at the “Paul Stanley Pizza Contest”; “The KISS Navy’s Got Talent with Eric Singer” judging the musical gifts of those on board; or Tommy Thayer heading up “Name that Solo With Tommy Thayer.”
Lynda Royer, a registered professional court reporter from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is a KISS Kruise veteran with five cruises under her belt. “As the wife of a lifelong KISS fan, the KISS Kruise started out as an indulgence for my husband’s love for the band. With the conclusion of KISS Kruise I, this indulgence has become the hub for reconnecting with friends who come from all over the world that we otherwise wouldn’t see.
“My perspective has changed,” she notes. “This trip is not an indulgence, it is a necessity to reconnect, relax and embrace all things KISS!”
As the vast vessel slowly moves its way from shore into the wide expanse of the beautiful Atlantic Ocean and nightfall comes, the KISS non-makeup electric Sailaway show kicks off the proceedings with a bang. Year in and year out, it’s a heavily anticipated event among the fan base allowing the KISS Navy the opportunity to witness the band dip into their vast catalog and perform some rarely, if ever, performed songs in concert. This year is no different. Hanging over the rafters are colorful flags from Norway, Argentina, Sweden, Germany, Canada, Germany making this show an international affair.
Opening with the pile-driving rhythmic attack of “I Stole Your Love,” the band performs a variety of lesser-played deep cuts including half the “Hotter than Hell” album: the title track, “Got To Choose,” “Mainline,” “All The Way,” “Going Blind” and ”Watchin’ You.” Other deep cuts dusted off include “Nothin’ To Lose,” “Plaster Caster,” “Take Me” and “Love Her All I Can.”
“Okay, this one takes a lot of balls,” Paul remarked before the band broke into “A World Without Heroes,” the single from their cult concept album, “(Music From) The Elder.” Ninety minutes of raw KISS sonic revelry culminates with the “Destroyer” standout, ���Shout It Out Loud,” as fans fisted pumped in time to the relentless beat of this sing-along anthem.
It’s a sort of homecoming for fans in attendance as the KISS Kruise affords those on the ship a crash course of countries and colliding cultures and the golden opportunity to converge and interact with KISS fans from around the globe.
“Getting the chance to hang out and get to know fans from South Africa, Brazil, Germany, Sweden, France and Japan is so cool and kind of an eye-opener, too,” relates Johann Magnusson, 37, a medic who hails from Iceland. “I travel to the KISS Kruises to meet fans from all over the world. Back home in Iceland, very few of my friends got the KISS thing so when you come aboard you can talk about a common interest. For me, it’s almost like meeting family.”
For Scott Villardi, 52, a network analyst from East Rutherford, New Jersey, the KISS Kruise holds an important part in his emotional psyche; it is a place where all the misfits can converge and be free from consternation about their love of a band wearing kabuki makeup, black leather and studs and seven-inch platform heels. Villardi, a veteran of all six KISS Kruises attests that “there’s something special about being an original KISS fan because of the impact they had on my formative years. Growing up, I, like many other KISS fans, were the subject of ridicule and abuse by my classmates so to be with an army of KISS fans, not just from America but all over the world, is a validation of who I am.”
Walking around the ship you meet a wide range of colorful characters; look in the casino and there’s someone betting on a high stakes game dressed in full Paul Stanley makeup and costume. Outside of the luxury spa I run into a fan from Germany who has half his face emblazoned in KISS makeup and the other half bare so his bushy beard can extend to ZZ Top proportions. Headed to the pool deck, I come face to face with a burly goliath looking like a gladiator from hundreds of years ago, Harley Davidson T-shirt and tattoos lining every space on his arms and legs. Fortified on a bucket of beer, he’s sufficiently lubricated and ready to rock, emitting a thunderous rebel yell that could pierce ear drums, which conveys in no uncertain terms that this rowdy rapscallion wants the party to go into full gear ... now!
Later that same day, sitting in the Atrium, I see an older man walking with a teenage girl dressed like a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader. I approach them and meet Neil Stewart, 47, a native of Chester, England, now living in Dallas, Texas where he owns a lawn care business. He’s here with his 17-year-old daughter, Beth, both first-time KISS kruisers. I ask Neil what prompted him to take the plunge for this year’s KISS Kruise and he remarked: “I’ve read and seen all the photos of prior KISS Kruises and felt it was about time to go on one. I’ve been a KISS fan since I was a 10-year-old and wanted to bring my daughter so she could also witness my passion for the band in all its rock ‘n’ roll glory. I’m most looking forward to the ‘Creatures of The Night’ electric show.” Adds daughter Beth: “Seeing Gene’s daughter, Sophie Simmons perform has been the highlight for me. I watched the Gene Simmons ‘Family Jewels’ TV show and really liked her. She’s all about being herself and not changing and I admire that.”
Alongside the photo ops with the band in makeup or sans their trademark pancake Kabuki makeup, there are a few exclusive high-end events limited to a small group of attendees organized by the band’s founding members, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, that provide a unique, one-of-a-kind level of intimate experience.
On the ship, there’s a petting zoo, but not with live animals, rather a collection of Gene Simmons monstrous AXE bass line. Each is a work of consummate craftsmanship and eye-popping design. These include his two trademark basses, the AXE and Punisher, plus numerous custom versions of both basses, dragon scale, chrome and others round out the line. Kruisers get to strap on the bass of their choice and try out these 4-string monsters, the same instruments that Gene uses onstage. And for the more fortunate, deep-pocketed fans who purchase one of Gene’s axe basses, entry is offered in intimate Master Class sessions with the “Demon of Rock” who shares insight into his creative process and works in tandem with small groups of kruisers in the creation of an original song.
In addition to the Master Class sessions, fans onboard who purchase a Gene Simmons AXE bass are afforded the opportunity for an intimate meet-and-greet experience with the KISS legend, not the quick 15-second handshake and photo op that’s de rigueur for the majority of paid celebrity meet-and-greet experiences.
Christina Vitagliano, Gene Simmons Axe Bass Coordinator, explains the allure of these intimate, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities: “I think fans purchase a Gene Simmons backstage meet-and-greet for a few reasons. One, the instrument itself. Gene Simmons has two very recognizable trademarked basses and anyone who knows rock ‘n’ roll knows that if you have a Punisher or AXE bass hanging on your wall, it belonged to Gene Simons. And if it was personally signed by him, then you own a piece of KISStory. But I think a bigger reason is that this gives a fan a chance to meet and spend a bit of time with a living legend, one on one. Gene has the unique ability to relate to whoever happens to be standing in front of him and not only can he relate but he also does it in such a way that he makes them feel as though they are equals. I have seen grown men cry, business deals go down, marriage proposals, children laugh, magic tricks, life advice and some fans have even brought a tear to Gene’s eye. Over the years, I have witnessed numerous personal fan bass signings and can honestly say, no two have even been alike and I do not think no two ever will. It’s a Gene Simmons thing; it’s a circus.”
I can attest to that sentiment as I bore witness for an hour or two seeing fans spanning the ages of 5 to 65-years-old, all waiting in line in equal awe at spending time with Simmons. Mike Brunn, 46, a native of Long Island, New York, plys his trade as an accountant by day but at night his love of rock ‘n’ roll is unleashed. Shelling out almost $5,000 for a Black Punisher Gene Simmons bass, Brunn walked away impressed by his encounter with Gene: “He made me feel as if we had known each other all my life — this is too amazing!”
Theo Goedhart, 50, who holds a job with the European Patent Office, flew all the way from the Netherlands with his wife in tow for the KISS Kruise. Part of the appeal of his stateside visit was buying a Gene Simmons AXE bass and meeting the Demon of Rock. “I bought the American flag AXE bass for $7,500 and it was worth every penny. I saved my money all year to afford to do this. Being from Europe, my wife and I are addicted to America and love it here, which is why I chose to buy the AXE American flag bass.”
Jim Cara, who does the custom design work on Gene’s basses, is particularly proud of this model. “I was inspired to come up with an American flag bass when Christina (Vitagliano) suggested I create bass guitars adorned with flags for each country. Interestingly enough, it turns out that the American Flag bass is our most popular bass in foreign countries.”
And for the very first time on the KISS Kruise, Paul Stanley’s 6-string guitar line, his “weapons of choice,” is proudly on display for fans to experience. A limited edition of 50 Paul Stanley KISS Kruise VI guitars emblazoned with striking “Creatures of The Night” themed artwork were made available for the cruise and sold out in record time. Craig Chamberlain, 32, a resident of Epswich, England is a proud owner of the guitar and explains, “I love the design of this beautiful guitar. ‘Creatures of the Night’ is my favorite KISS album so it’s the perfect collectible to own.” Another buyer of a one-off Paul Stanley guitar is Pompano Beach, Florida resident Joe Pappalardo. This is the fifth Paul Stanley guitar he’s purchased over the years and this time he shelled out $10,000 for his BC Rich leopard guitar used by Paul during the first electric show of this year’s KISS Kruise. “Paul’s been my idol since I was a little kid at 4 and now I’m 40. I have always looked up to Paul Stanley and loved his guitars. The $10,000 I spent is well worth it.”
Those fortunate buyers of Paul’s KISS Kruise VI guitar gained admission to an intimate Paul Stanley solo acoustic performance held in the tiny Spinnaker Lounge. Perched on guitar stands behind Paul are some of his most famous guitars — the cracked mirror Ibanez Iceman, Gibson Flying V and series of Washburn guitars — the band’s resident “Star Child,” armed with an acoustic 12-string, dusted off rarely, if ever played gems for the 150 attendees. Opening the set with a cover of Donovan’s “Catch the Wind,” which displayed his early folkie roots, Paul’s set included “Hold Me, Touch Me,” culled from his 1978 solo album; the unreleased KISS ‘70s-era track, “Mistake”; “Shandi”; excerpts of “Just a Boy” from “(Music From) The Elder”; and “Molly,” a song recorded by Paul and Gene’s pre-KISS band, Wicked Lester. Upon finishing a snippet of the song, Paul remarked that he hadn’t played it in 45 years. Another surprise was the first-ever performance of “So Long,” which Paul explained that he wrote at the same time as “Hard Luck Woman.” Paul wound up the tune stating, “that’s something nobody’s ever heard.” In-between songs, Paul also engaged freely with the crowd, sharing memories of his early days as a self-confessed folkie playing harmonica ala Bob Dylan and fielded questions from the audience. This intimate acoustic show and informal Q&A demonstrates the communal connection forged between Paul and his fans on these cruises.
Going on a KISS Kruise, you can adjust your internal settings on decaffeinated, caffeinated and hyper-caffeinated with energy expended; some like to ride the slow lane, lie on the pool deck, check out a few bands and make the endless buffet in the Garden Café their bi-hourly pit stop while others take advantage of the multitude of diverse activities that will keep you busy 24/7. These include KISS Karaoke; movie screenings of “KISS Rocks Vegas” and the animated feature, “Scooby Doo! And KISS: Rock and Roll Mystery”; a display of Paul Stanley’s artwork in the Wentworth Gallery; A Very Fair Affair Face Painting where kruisers can look like their favorite KISS member; a Creatures of the Deep Fashion show; a KISS Q&A; Open Guest Jams, where kruisers show off their musical prowess; and even bingo, but Bingo with a Twisted Bingo session hosted by Skid Row and Enuff Z’Nuff with rock ‘n’ roll knowledge being put to the test.
Kismet is achieved for over 2,400 KISS kruisers with the two electric shows in the 1,500 seat Stardust Theater. A throwback to 1982’s “Creatures of the Night” tour, Eric Singer’s drum kit is nestled atop a scaled-down tank, which pays homage to that classic tour. Kicking off with a ferocious rendition of “Creatures of the Night,” the band’s 90-minute set is devoid of bombs and pyro for obvious reasons. But as Paul proudly states on stage, “You’re watching a live rock ‘n’ roll band. There’s no canned backing tracks, no musicians playing underneath the stage, no musical karaoke.” And he’s right, KISS is much more than a theatrical music entity; this is a tough, no-nonsense rock ‘n’ roll band. Judging by the band’s two make-up electric show performances, the energy level is unassailable and contagious, the group delivering a non-stop barrage of hits, essential album tracks and deep cuts. The rarely played “Keep Me Comin’” and “Rock and Roll Hell” from “Creatures” sound like ready-made concert staples, filled with crackling kinetic electricity and passion. KISS also surprised the devoted faithful by playing songs culled from Gene Simmons’ and Paul Stanley’s respective 1978 solo platters; “Radioactive,” performed for the first time in 37 years, and the Raspberries inspired power pop juggernaut, “Wouldn’t You Like To Know Me,” which packed the power and melodiousness of The Who at their best. Coming back for an encore of the KISS signature classic “Strutter” on show one and “Deuce” on show two, the concerts ended with the rock ‘n’ roll national anthem, “Rock and Roll All Nite,” the opening and closing moments of the song ignited a spectacular rainstorm of confetti deployed, more than enough to plaster a 20,000 arena. Having witnessed four KISS Kruise shows, these shows easily rank amongst the best in terms of energy, tightness and high throttle combustibility and judging by the spirited discussions following the shows in the Garden Café, my fellow kruisers wholeheartedly agree.
As kruisers head into their cabins for the night, on each of their beds is a special gift from KISS, a limited edition KISS Kruise VI Exclusive LP on red vinyl culling two songs from the “KISS Rocks Vegas” show, “Creatures of The Night” and “I Love It Loud.” An instant collectible limited to the 2,400 kruisers onboard, replete with a KISS Kruise VI “Creatures From The Deep” insert personally autographed by Paul, Gene, Tommy and Eric. The cover is visually stunning, mimicking the design of the “Creatures of The Night” album and updating it to include current members, Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer.
Tuesday November 8 ... sunrise. It’s the final day of the KISS Kruise and given the frantic activity on the ship for the past few days, the mood is, dare I say, mellow. At 7a.m., I’m headed into the fitness center to work out. The treadmills, rowing machines and other fitness equipment remain a virtual ghost town devoid of humans save for a shirtless tattooed man stumbling and limping on a treadmill, his Gene Simmons makeup literally sweating off his face, a gallant attempt to purge the toxicity after a brutal all-nighter.
Bob Montena, 54, a resident of Maywood, New Jersey is a KISS Kruise veteran who has taken his fandom to extremes; he was married to his wife Cheryl back in 2014 on KISS Kruise IV with Gene Simmons officiating their nuptials with Eric Singer as best man. On this final day of the cruise, as America prepares for the election of a new President of the United States after a long fraught campaign, I ask Montena, who’s wearing a Simmons/Stanley 2016 election styled shirt, if today is a big day for him. “Oh yeah,” he responds enthusiastically, “today’s a really big day. It’s the day of my Gene Simmons Master Class — I’m gonna play bass and sing with my hero, ‘The Demon!’ I mean, how much more bad-ass can that be?”
Politics be damned, using the U.S. election as a particular example, while on board the KISS Kruise you’re living in your own cocoon, detached from the 9 to 5 daily grind of life. Here onboard the ship kruisers can shut out the outside world for a few days where they can escape from their problems and society at large, at least temporarily, and focus on KISS.
As the ship moves steadily toward Miami, there’s still life in this KISS Navy; performances by Whitford/St.Holmes, King’s X and a comedy set by Craig Gass keep the troops in fine stead. Out on the pool deck with an orange sunset looming over the ocean, a KISS Q&A is conducted, which allows attendees from around the globe to interact with the fantastic foursome on topics ranging from KISS’s next studio album, desert island discs, hidden KISS gems, shows they wished they saw and more. And perhaps the most exciting news of the day for all onboard comes in the KISS Q&A; the official announcement of KISS Kruise VII on November 5-10, 2017 and for the first time the cruise will depart from New Orleans and hit several ports in Mexico. Paul Stanley promises the crowd, “We’ve got some amazing things planned for you.”
Close to the midnight hour, now with the KISS Kruise winding up, many are fast asleep in their rooms. But in the wee hours of the morning, there’s a hardcore bunch not ready to surrender to slumber.
Wednesday November 9, 2016 ... 9a.m. By the looks on the faces of over 2,400 KISS Navy kruisers departing the ship at the port of Miami, a majority showing clear cut signs of sheer exhaustion after five non-stop days of rockin and rollin’ all nite and partying every day, this was the trip of a lifetime and one they wished would never end.
As the KISS Navy disperses, there are hugs, teary goodbyes and if you listen close you can hear many exchanging contact information, sharing war stories, and making promises to meet up next year for what they promise to be “the best KISS Kruise ever!”