Essay

Hot In The Shade: Four Crazy Crazy Nights (And Days) Aboard The 2014 KISS Kruise

I settled into my plane seat early on Halloween morning. Even though it was only a short flight from Atlanta to Miami, I was paranoid about delays, slow cabs, or any number of things that could hold me up that morning, and I needed to be on the boat by three o’clock, four at the latest. I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get from the airport to the Port of Miami, where countless cruise ships arrive to and leave from each year. And I didn’t know what to expect once I got to the port itself. I’d never been on a cruise. What sort of procedures would I have to go through to get on the boat? Was I going to get seasick? Most of all, what sort of people were going to be on this thing?

I sat pondering the next four days when a couple scooted down the aisle to the seats in front of me. On any other Friday morning, they would’ve been wearing business casual, looking professional and ready to take on the day at whatever jobs they held. But this morning she wore tight jeans and a loose-fitting, sleeveless top. Her nails were sparkly yellow-and-black. He was in jeans too, his T-shirt tucked in neatly. The black tee had one word on it: KISS. I reminded myself that I wasn’t going on just any cruise. In fact, it wasn’t a cruise, but a Kruise. The KISS Kruise. And these were my people.

That was just a small taste of what was to come. Once in Miami, I found more of my people scattered throughout the airport. No band on the planet has done a more thorough job of marketing itself, and evidence of their merchandising juggernaut was all around as I walked through the airport toward the shuttle that would take me to the port. There were KISS shirts and hats. Luggage tags featuring the official branding of the KISS Kruise IV (that’s right, this is the fourth time the band has joined 2000 of its rabid fans on the open seas) were easily seen as bags tumbled across conveyor belts. A few people were already wearing their KISS Navy lanyards, which identified which level of Kruise maniac you were: a sailor like myself (meaning it was my first time on board), a petty officer, a lieutenant, or for those die-hards who’ve taken this voyage each of its four years, a commander. I had to imagine there weren’t too many commanders. That’s a whole lot of money to spend on KISS Kruises.

Here’s what I did know about what I was getting myself into: I’d get to see KISS perform twice, once on the beach on Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas, acoustic and unmasked, and then again on board the ship itself, in full makeup and plugged in. There’d also be a Q&A with the band on the deck of the ship, where fans would get to ask the questions. Each member also took part in individual events, such as Paul Stanley reading excerpts from his recently published autobiography (which is excellent, by the way), current guitarist Tommy Thayer assisting with the Halloween costume competition, drummer Eric Singer hosting the Almost Famous show, which would feature musically inclined fans showing off their KISS covering skills, and Gene Simmons judging a pick-throwing contest (a dumber competition I cannot imagine, but people were lined up around the ship for this thing once the time came).

Beyond the KISS events, a handful of other musicians were joining us on the water, not the least of which were Cheap Trick frontman Robin Zander, and Pat Travers, a legendary blues/rock guitarist who’s probably more known as an influence on other people you’ve heard of than for his actual songs. The rest of the bands fell somewhere on the hard rock spectrum, including hair metal (Tigertailz), doom-tinged psychedelia (Purson), modern alternative metal (Needeep), straightforward rock (Diemonds, Snakebite), and a few tribute bands. The act I heard the most people on board talking about was the Dead Daisies, a middle-of-the road rock and roll band that has in its ranks members of Thin Lizzy, INXS, the Cult, and Guns ‘N Roses, but, hold your excitement, not one member from any of those bands’ classic lineups. All told there were around 10 or 12 other bands doing their thing, but aside from Zander and Purson, none really sparked my interest all that much. KISS was the meat and potatoes, and anything else was just gravy as far as I was concerned.

At the port, a KISS tune from their 1989 album Hot In The Shade was blasting over the loudspeakers in the registration area while I filled out the pre-boarding questionnaire (mostly about Ebola) and handed over my credentials prior to boarding the ship. It was a late-’80s deep cut, and I took that as a sign that this was an event for the die-hards, those fans who love every era of the band, not just the original lineup. What a nice gesture to set the scene and welcome us on board! Little did I know that KISS would be blasting over the loudspeakers literally every second between then and when I exited through that same building four days later. I heard songs off of every album from 1974’s self-titled debut through 2012’s Monster, even the solo albums that only featured one actual KISS member (and given that two of those original members are long gone, there were times when we were hearing songs that no one on board actually played on, but were still technically considered KISS). I love this band. Really, I do. But at some point I began to fear I was going insane from the constant exposure.

I became a KISS fan in 1986, long after the classic version of the band had imploded. I was nine years old. I’d gone with a friend to a car show that featured, among other hot rods new and classic, The Dukes Of Hazzard’s General Lee and the big rig from Sylvester Stallone’s Over the Top. When I got home that evening, I went downstairs to see what my older brother was up to. He told me he’d gone to the mall and showed me the record that was currently playing on his stereo. The gatefold album cover was bright, reflective silver and featured the band’s name, KISS, imprinted onto it twice, with Double Platinum in red between the logos. Opening it up, I was blown away by the band members’ made-up faces impressed into the cardboard. Was this a rock band or a group of superheroes? Whichever it was, I bought into it completely, and I never looked back.

After boarding and getting settled into my cabin, I stopped off at one of the restaurants to grab a bite to eat. At the table next to me was a couple not unlike the one from the plane. They were roughly my age, maybe a few years older. Across the room from us was a family of four, with the youngest boy somewhere in the 10-12 range. KISS prides themselves on having a multi-generational fanbase, and given that all four members are clearly old enough to be grandparents themselves, it makes sense to finally embrace this fact (over the years, Paul has told a story of looking out his hotel room at the line of people going around the corner awaiting entry to a KISS show at Madison Square Garden in the late ’70s and being immensely disappointed at the number of little kids in the queue). But even so, it’s a little strange to witness. Yes, by today’s standards, KISS’ rebellious early days may seem a tad quaint, and their salacious hair-band material may seem dated and corny. But they are a band that has existed for 40+ years now by writing song after song about their dicks and what they want to do with them. While I watched this family of four devour a plate of hot wings, “Christine Sixteen” played over the PA, a song about wanting to fuck a 16-year-old that’s so brazen in its message that it features the spoken lines “When I saw you coming out of school that day I knew/ I’ve got to have you.” No one seemed to notice or care. This is completely ridiculous, I thought to myself.

During the safety demonstration, I struck up a conversation with Tracy, the woman sitting next to me. When I asked if this was her first Kruise, she scoffed. “Fourth,” she said, defiantly. Before I could even react to this, a couple sitting in front of us turned around, “Our fourth too!” the woman exclaimed. Tracy was from Cleveland, and showed me pictures of a pre-show meet-and-greet from a few months back where she got her picture taken with Paul. She also excitedly told me of the previous year’s Kruise, where she bought one of his acoustic guitars and got to spend a half-hour or so with him. As she showed the pictures to the couple in front of us, they told us they’d traveled all the way from Jersey — and they weren’t talking about the New one. They’d arrived at the port after 22 hours of travel, and four days later they’d get to do it over again to get back home. And all this time I’d thought I was a hardcore KISS fan.

As the boat pulled away from the dock, the Sail Away KISS Tribute concert was going on up on the pool deck. This show featured most of the bands on the Kruise, each hopping up in quick succession to belt out a couple of KISS tunes, and it was a cool way to get a sample of each of the other bands’ styles. Most played it safe and stuck to the classics, though I have to hand it to Needeep, who blasted out “Let’s Put The X In Sex,” a song most people, KISS included, would probably like to forget. But if we’re going to celebrate this band, let’s celebrate it all, even the misfires. That’s what I was there to do, anyway, and as far as I could tell from those singing along, plenty of others agreed. As with any legacy band, the hits have been played to death. Mix it up a little! I took a swig from my Cabo-rita (expertly made with Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo tequila) in the commemorative KISS Kruise day 1 cup (with a stylized “Catman” makeup graphic) and pumped my fist in the air as Needeep blasted through “Lick It Up.”

Later that night I slid into a booth in the ship’s most intimate room, an old-school lounge called Spinnaker, to check out Robin Zander. I’m a casual fan of Cheap Trick, but admittedly don’t know any of Zander’s solo material. My first sign that something was amiss came when I saw there were no drums on the stage. Sure enough, when Zander appeared, it was with an acoustic guitar. He was joined by his son, who played lead and sang a song or two himself. It was cool seeing father and son do their thing, but still, I was disappointed in the arrangement. At the beginning of the set, Zander explained that this was meant to be a bit of calm, a respite from the craziness of the Kruise. I couldn’t help but think, We’ve only been here for a couple hours. It hasn’t gotten crazy yet!

In the booth with me was a Bob and his fiancé Cheryl. They were from Jersey, and this time they did mean the New one. I told them this was my first time on the Kruise, and asked how many times they’d done it. They said it was their fourth time. I was beginning to feel like an outsider on this thing. Bob wondered why I was here this time, noting that I was alone. What made me finally take the plunge when the three previous Kruises did not? I explained that the first couple were simply under my radar, and that I’d only learned about the Kruise last year. I added that I was there as a journalist, working on a story about the Kruise and its passengers. Bob lit up, and with a sly grin said, “Wanna know a secret?” Hell yes I wanted to know a secret.

Bob told me that he and Cheryl were getting married the next day. “Gene’s going to be the officiant, and Eric is the best man,” Cheryl told me. I couldn’t have been happier for them. Bob did worry a little about whether or not Gene was actually ordained to do weddings, but I told him that it was nothing to get ordained, and that I was actually ordained myself, so if this whole thing fell through, they could track me down and I’d make sure they left the boat as man and wife. I wondered how they’d managed to get something like this set up, and Cheryl explained that at the end of a meet-and-greet she just came right out and asked Gene if he’d do it. He said he’d be honored, and about that time Eric Singer walked up and wanted to know what Gene would be honored to do. Once they filled him in, he said he’d have to be the best man.

This story led to my first real revelation about why so many people were on this boat, and why, apparently, so many of them were repeat Kruisers. Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons both have a habit of talking about their fans in big rehearsed-sounding lines that come off as corny and false, but then a story like this informs you that they truly are grateful for the legions of fanatics around the world. They speak of fans in reverent tones that are impossible to take seriously, yet when an opportunity like this comes up, totally out of the blue, there’s not even a moment’s hesitation before they jump in, ready to give two fans an experience they’ll never forget. It’s impressive and inspiring, frankly.

Robin Zander fired up a few moments later, mixing in a few covers with his originals. Among the originals was a Buddy Holly tribute that was left off Zander’s 1993 solo album that I had to admit sounded a lot like a lost Buddy Holly song. Early in the set he blasted through a raw version of Cheap Trick’s “I Can’t Take It” from their 1983 album Next Position Please, but mostly he stuck to playing songs he doesn’t get to play with his main gig. It was fine, but, you know, I was on this boat to rock. As I slipped out a few songs later, I congratulated Bob and Cheryl again and asked where the ceremony was going to be, as I wanted to attend.

“Oh, no, it’s a private ceremony,” Bob said. I must admit, at this point I started to doubt their story a little. It seemed a tad crazy that Gene Simmons would so easily agree to marry them, and anyway, how on Earth did they get it set up after he did agree? Did he just give them his number so they could text him? Did he hand them off to KISS management? I didn’t know, but I worried that Bob was merely a quick-thinking prankster, and was using my need for good anecdotes to sneak his way into this story. I didn’t write them off completely, obviously, but I wondered if I was being had.

Given that it was Halloween night, everyone was dressed up in costumes, and obviously KISS-themed apparel dominated the evening. Supposedly, after the opening night of their Psycho Circus tour in 1998, the band got caught in a traffic jam, and rather than waiting it out in their limo, they walked the streets of LA, still in their makeup and costumes. No one recognized them among the throngs of Halloween celebrators, assuming they were just meticulous fans who knew how to throw together a good costume. I kept wondering how easy they’d be able to pull of something like that here. There were, after all, hundreds of people wearing their famous face paint. I kept my eyes peeled for the real guys, but no luck.

KISS acoustic performance on KISS Kruise IV (Photo: Will Byington)

The following morning, I was awoken from a deep Cabo-rita induced sleep to the sound of someone announcing over the ship’s PA system that due to rough seas and high winds, we wouldn’t be able to take the tender boats from the ship to Great Stirrup Cay, an island owned by Norwegian Cruise Line. We were supposed to see the band’s acoustic set there, and I’d been looking forward to getting my feet in the sand. Now the acoustic show would be moved to the pool deck, and we’d be stuck on the ship all day. Unfortunately, those rough seas and high winds weren’t exactly doing my hangover any favors, either.

The sun was shining bright when KISS took the stage early that afternoon. Ever since their 1995 MTV Unplugged concert and album (and the preceding KISS Konventions), the band has taken the occasional chance to do a stripped-down version of their usual blood-and-fire extravaganza, where they can mix softened-up versions of their rockin’ classics with ballads they don’t get a chance to bust out that often. Though the original band only recorded a few softer numbers, by the late ’80s, it was their power ballads that got the most play on MTV. Upon its release, “Reason To Live” from 1987’s Crazy Nights dominated MTV’s Dial MTV, a TRL precursor that allowed viewers to call in to vote on songs for a daily countdown. Every album from then until they put the makeup back on had a ballad as a single. Yet, oddly, they didn’t play any of those on deck, instead mostly sticking to the same classic-lineup hits we’ve heard a million times already, only on acoustic guitars.

They started off with “Coming Home,” a strong track from 1974’s Hotter Than Hell, just as they did in ’95, and from there went into “Plaster Caster,” again, just as in ’95. But Kruisers have come to expect some rarer cuts, so the band slipped in a couple of those as well. They led the crowd in a sing-along through “Hide Your Heart,” a soap opera of a song Paul originally wrote for Bonnie Tyler, but that later appeared on both a KISS album and one of original KISS guitarist Ace Frehley’s solo records. It’s not a very good song. But still, it’s something different. They also busted out a song from Gene’s 1978 KISS solo album called “See You Tonite.” It turns out they did this one on Unplugged as well, but even so, this is a big-time deep cut. The rest was pretty by-the-numbers, though hearing Tommy Thayer sing “Shock Me” — a track famous for being the first song Ace Frehley sang lead vocals on (six albums into their career) — was interesting at least.

They sounded good and kept everything very casual, joking with each other and interacting with the crowd a lot. Paul spotted a young girl in the crowd before they even started playing and asked her how old she was and where she was from. She was 11, and from Brazil, and this brief exchange clearly thrilled her. Later on a young girl wearing makeup that combined all four members looks into one clambered up onto the stage to get selfies with each guy, and everyone obliged with a huge smile (or extended tongue). Gene is the butt of a lot of the band’s joking, and both Paul and Eric picked on him throughout the set, noting his tendency to play too loudly and with a heavy hand, as well as questioning whether or not he could remember how to play the less-common songs. The crowd ate all this up.

Paul repeatedly insisted that they had no setlist and were just winging it and playing whatever came to mind, which is a nice thing to say, but, if true, hammers in why they stuck mostly to classics they have played on recent tours. There’s just no reason something like “Naked City” from 1980’s Unmasked (an odd title that came three albums before they actually unmasked) would be on their minds, even though it would’ve sounded great in this setting. Fans screamed out titles in between songs, and at one point Paul warned, “Don’t ask for songs you don’t really want to hear, ’cause some of them we can’t play.” I’m not sure that makes any sense, but OK. I made sure to be careful after that.

Setlist gripes aside, the acoustic show was fun and the band sounded good. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of unplugged-style shows in the first place, but standing on a boat out in the ocean while KISS played acoustically a few feet away was a pretty surreal experience. Perhaps not quite as surreal as seeing the same performance while standing on a beach on a private island in the Bahamas, but pretty close.

Paul closed the show by smashing an acoustic guitar (very rock and roll) and shouting “See you tomorrow!” So, naturally, it was about two hours later when they came back to the same stage for the Q&A. The thing about a fan Q&A with a 40-year-old band is that every possible interesting question has been asked and answered a hundred times. Additionally, all questions were screened and picked beforehand, so there wasn’t even much chance for spontaneity or, frankly, anything but rote, rehearsed answers. And that’s more or less how it went. Questions mostly dealt with superficial topics. “What’s each member’s favorite KISS album artwork?” and “What’s one song each member would like to play live that you never get the chance to play?” were pretty typical of the questions fielded by the band.

As the de facto frontman, Paul responded to most of the questions, and he took advantage of a few of them to remind everyone who was the brains behind most of what they’ve done over the years (hint: it’s Paul). Almost every time the fan specifically asked for each band member to answer, only one or two did, with Tommy talking the least of the four. But there were plenty of moments of levity as the four guys joked around with each other and told stories from touring and recording. As they tend to do, though, they really laid it on thick with the fan service, and more answers than not wound their way around to telling us all how grateful the band was, and how proud they were to have created something so many people celebrated. It’s not that they were disingenuous; it’s just that in most cases these long-winded answers had little to do with the question being asked. A perfect example was the question “What is one day of your life you’d like to relive, and why?,” which Gene kicked off by saying that the day we were living was it. The rest of the band’s answers then focused on the KISS Kruise and how honored they were to be there.

During one of these answers, Gene suddenly perked up and asked, “Where’s the happy couple? We’re doing a wedding later!” prompting Eric to explain that Gene was officiating a wedding, and that he himself was to be the best man. When the couple failed to identify itself in the crowd, someone suggested that they were, ahem, “too busy” to attend the Q&A. Gene retorted, “No, that comes after,” and I thought of how little sense it made for goddamn Gene Simmons to suggest that a couple should wait until after they’re married to fornicate. Meanwhile, I grinned from ear to ear for Bob and Cheryl. Of course they hadn’t been yanking my chain. KISS fans don’t lie to each other, damn it!

Later that night I headed down to the boat’s main theater, the Stardust, to check out Purson, a British psychedelic rock throwback that flirts with doom metal but never plunges too far into it. The band sounded very good, and put on a spirited performance, but multiple members were suffering from seasickness, and as the show went on, the rocking of the boat began to take its toll. Frontwoman Rosalie Cunningham warned us that they were feeling queasy, and keyboardist Samuel Shove seemed to be suffering more with each song. Eventually he could take no more and staggered off stage, prompting Cunningham to end the show, saying, “Oh, I guess we’ve got to cut it a little short.” Even so, they were great, and I saw them setting up for another show the next night, so hopefully they were able to sleep it off.

The next day we docked at Nassau, Bahamas. Since I was traveling solo, I didn’t bother with scheduling any excursions on the island (other people took the shuttle to nicer beaches, went snorkeling, or went on historic tours). Instead, I just got loaded to the gills in a pirate-themed bar that was, naturally, blasting KISS. While I was on my second or third Guinness Foreign Extra, a group of Kruisers wearing matching orange shirts wandered in. There must’ve been twenty of them, and they were on a bar crawl. I leaned over to a guy and said, “I don’t know about you, but I sure am glad this bar is playing KISS. I was worried I wasn’t going to hear any on this trip.” He didn’t laugh, and instead looked at me like I’d insulted the Pope. Apparently not all KISS fans had the same sense of humor about this vacation that I did.

After a few hours in Nassau, I wandered back to the boat to sleep off the drunk I’d tied on. Tonight was the night: the full makeup, electric KISS concert. I wanted to be mostly clear-headed for the show, and getting drunk before lunch generally does not lead to a night of clarity. Luckily a long nap was just what the doctor ordered, and I wandered into The Stardust to find my seat feeling great. The Stardust holds about 1200 people, roughly 79,000 fewer than the last venue I saw KISS in, Phillips Arena in Atlanta. Needless to say, I was very excited.

Before the Kruise, I’d seen KISS twice. My brothers went to see them touring for Crazy Nights in 1987, but I was too young. It wasn’t until they reunited with the original lineup nine years later that I finally got to see them. Two tours after that one, they had their farewell tour (which, hilariously enough, was 14 years ago), and I caught that one too. For the reunion, they stuck closely to the classic era. With Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss back in the band, the tour was a celebration of those early records, and it was a chance for tons of fans my age to see them in full makeup. They loosened the constraints a little on the farewell tour, playing a few mid-’80s hits, such as the sleazy, grab-life-by-the-tits anthem “Lick It Up.” But these days, their entire catalog is available to play, with no egos getting in the way. Sadly, they still mostly stick to the hits of the ’70s. As such, I haven’t gone to a KISS show in the last 14 years. The truth is I just don’t have the desire to listen to the band plod through “Cold Gin” or “Rock and Roll All Nite” again. But the KISS Kruise concerts are notorious for featuring songs you hear them play nowhere else. While their regular tours are a greatest hits package, the Kruise shows are special, for the diehards.

While we waited, I introduced myself to two couples standing next to me. Eddie and Jill were from Orlando. She admitted she wasn’t even much of a KISS fan, but since her husband loved them so much, she’d surprised him four years ago with tickets to the first KISS Kruise for his birthday. As I’m sure you’ve come to expect, they then told me they’d been on every one since. Directly behind us, Reynaldo and Michelle were down all the way from Canada. Surely this was their first Kruise! Wrong. It was their fourth. This was getting silly.

My family goes to the beach each summer. For most of my life, it’s been Ponce Inlet, Florida, just south of Daytona Beach. I went there every year as a kid, and continued into adulthood, bringing my wife and kids into a longstanding family tradition. What I was starting to realize was that for many people on this ship, the Kruise was their Ponce Inlet. Yes, many of them were KISS diehards. But some of them just saw it as a fun cruise, with all of the normal things you’d expect out of a cruise: fun in the sun, lots of food and booze, checking out gift shops on a foreign island, and getting a glitzy show or two in the evening. The only real difference is that on this cruise, the glitzy show is from the hottest band in the world, and the booze is Cabo-ritas served in commemorative KISS Kups.

The people on the KISS Kruise weren’t weirdos or sleazy rocker types trying to relive the glory days. They weren’t drunks or extreme partiers. They were just regular people on vacation. They were families, couples, friends, and the occasional loner. I can’t help but think of Homer Simpson, in the fantastic Homerpalooza episode of The Simpsons, lamenting “I used to rock and roll all night and party every day. Then it was every other day. Now I’m lucky if I can find half an hour a week in which to get funky.” The KISS Navy was there to get their groove back for a weekend. And KISS was taking the stage.

KISS perform on KISS Kruise IV (Photo: Will Byington)

The theme of the weekend was Dressed To Kruise, a play on their third album Dressed To Kill, the cover of which featured the band wearing three-piece suits along with their face-paint. Sure enough, when the band took the stage, rather than their usual superhero-style costumes, they were in suits. A couple of them even had on ties. It was a cool detail that had the show feeling special before the first note.

Now, there are a few points that must be made about KISS in 2014 that became clear in that tiny venue. First, these are not young men. The youngest guy in the band is in his mid 50s, and he’s the only one who does not wear a wig (though, oddly enough, Eric Singer’s wig is actually shorter than his real hair). While their playing is still on point across the board (and Gene remains an underrated bassist), their age is certainly showing in their voices, onstage movement, and general energy level. Gene’s voice has held up pretty well, but Paul’s voice is not in great shape. He sounded like he was on the verge of laryngitis all night, and though his falsetto still mostly sounds OK, he struggles with the higher end of his normal register. By the end of the show, he was struggling with his breath control. You can cover up a lot of flaws with makeup and explosions, but unfortunately the voice is still the voice.

However, I can honestly say, that in the heat of the moment, it didn’t even matter. He never let on that he didn’t still have it, and he belted out every line with power and conviction. He’s still a great showman, and his between-song banter remains as fun and ridiculous as ever. Every time he’d shout, “People!” I was dying for him to follow it up with “Let me get this off my chest,” but sadly he never delivered on that one (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, Google it). With the guitars screaming and the drums pounding, and the band standing roughly ten feet from me, the energy of the show easily made up for any flaws in the sound. Also, it’s tough to even know what KISS sounds like live if you haven’t seen them many times. Their live albums are notoriously and unapologetically doctored.

Second, Eric Singer is a better Peter Criss than Peter Criss was. Actually, that’s not entirely fair, because Singer really doesn’t do too much to imitate Peter other than the obvious makeup and wig. But he’s a fantastic rock drummer and is really entertaining to watch. When he took the lead vocals on “Black Diamond” (my favorite classic-era track), he sounded fantastic. (It’s worth noting that aside from Gene and Paul, Eric has more years in the band than anyone. Before joining the current incarnation in the early ’00s, he sat behind the kit for five years and three albums in the first half of the ’90s.) Here’s a bit of behind-the-curtain trivia I found fascinating and funny: There was a guy sitting directly behind Eric, just out of sight, who swiveled a microphone up to Eric’s mouth any time he had a chorus to sing along with or a random line to deliver. The microphone was constantly moving back and forth. I wondered how much they were paying that dude.

Third, KISS also have a guitarist named Tommy Thayer. I was thankful that Gene reminded us of this every so often by belting out “Tommy Thayer!” before a guitar solo. Had he not done this, I very well may have forgotten Tommy was there. In a lot of ways, Thayer is the ultimate realization of what Gene and Paul seemed to want with Bruce Kulick, who played lead guitar for nine years during the ’80s and ’90s. He does his job and doesn’t overshadow anyone else with personality. The only thing is, Tommy is dressed like Ace Frehley, a legend and one of the ballsiest guitarists around. Also he isn’t as good a guitarist as Bruce Kulick, who made up for his lack of onstage personality with technical know-how. Tommy Thayer is just a guy in makeup playing KISS songs, which is fine, I guess.

The band opened with “Creatures Of The Night” from their 1982 album of the same name (and the real fans know that this is the album. It’s heavy as shit and features some of their best songs). I was on cloud nine before the guitars even kicked in after the opening drum fill. The set was peppered with songs from my dream setlist, particularly “Tears Are Falling,” one of the best ’80s KISS tunes, and one I never expected to hear live. During the encore, they played “The Oath” from 1981’s widely panned Music From The Elder, a failure of a concept record that also happens to be one of my favorites. They played this song last year too, so it wasn’t quite the surprise it could’ve been, but still, I was flipping out when they went into it. It’s one of the heaviest songs in their catalog, and I’m convinced they could breath new life into that album if they kept this song in their regular setlist. It’s a monster.

When it was all over and the confetti had settled on the floor, the set was about half hits and half unexpected (for me, anyway). On the internet afterward, plenty of people pointed out that the band appeared to be using the Kruise shows as rehearsals for their Las Vegas residency, as most of the songs appeared in the two sets previous to the Kruise and, sure enough, in Vegas as well. But for me, that didn’t matter. So they put “Tears Are Falling” and “Creatures Of The Night” back into the rotation? The important thing was that I got to hear those songs, as well as an extended jam of “Lick It Up” that had the band playing a chunk of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in the middle, and a brief instrumental addition to “Black Diamond” that they originally did on the Creatures Of The Night tour that I’ve always loved. I won’t be in Vegas, and I wasn’t in Mexico City the week before the Kruise.

Monday was mostly uneventful, as I spent the first half of the day in and out of sleep, fighting off the motion sickness that finally caught up with me. At a Q&A with KISS manager Doc McGhee, some fans reportedly griped about the setlist the night before, and as a result the band mixed it up a little that night. Or maybe they had always planned to mix it up, given that everyone on board could watch the show they weren’t at as it broadcast to the tvs in the cabins. Either way, both sets were solid, but I was happy to be at the first show.

Prior to Monday night’s show, I had the most surreal moment of the trip (even if it was one that everyone else on board had too). I got my picture taken with the band. I got to Spinnaker at my assigned time and entered a long line that snaked through the lounge. When my time came, I stepped up to a curtained-off room where the band stood in their stage clothes and makeup. “You’re up,” the guy at the door said. Gene held out his fist for a bump, and I said “Hey guys!” Literally two seconds later I was walking back to my room, wondering if that had really happened. Yes, technically, I’d met my idols. They didn’t speak, and I was so starstruck I didn’t even see Eric Singer. But the proof is in the photo. I met KISS.

The boat settled into the Port of Miami sometime during the night, and as the passengers shuffled back to life on Tuesday morning, the mood was somber. Eyes were bleary as friends hugged each other and swore to keep in touch between now and next year’s Kruise. Parents shuffled their kids into the diner for one last on-board meal. Half-awake Kruisers lined up to settle their bills at the main desk. KISS blasted over the PA, as always.

A little while later, on the shuttle bus, the driver joked with us that when we got to the airport, our vacation would be over. “Or, you can stay on the bus with me all day if you want,” he said. One guy on the bus suddenly sprang to life and shouted, “You know what I want to do? I wanna rock and roll all night and party every day!” A few of the tired shuttle passengers mustered a weak “yeah…” It was the best we could do, at least until KISS Kruise V, setting sail Halloween of 2015.

Writer Cory Byrom with KISS

Tags: KISS