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Inaugural Kiss Kruise sails away with fans of all ages

Kiss fans get ready for concert deck first-ever Kiss Kruise. Skid Row Bad City Envy also performed. | Joe Cyganowski~Sun-Times

Kiss fans get ready for a concert on deck of the first-ever Kiss Kruise. Skid Row, Bad City and Envy also performed. | Joe Cyganowski~Sun-Times Media photos

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if you go

There’s still room on the Weezer cruise with Gene Ween, Dinosaur, Jr. and others (, and other Sixthman cruises for 2012 include the return of The Rock Boat March 1-5 with a New Orleans departure ( and The 5th annual Elvis Cruise, Jan. 12-16 with a departure from Jacksonville, Fla. (theelviscruise). Prices start at $799 per person.

• For more stories from Kiss’s long-time manager Doc McGhee, check out

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:40AM

NASSAU, Bahamas — The party mix of cruise ships and rock ‘n’ roll is as natural as high tide.

Rock music is about escapism. Once fans sail away with their favorite act, escapism becomes immersion.

A couple of weeks ago I was on the inaugural Kiss Kruise, which featured New Jersey speed metal icons Skid Row, Chicago power pop rockers Bad City and others. At the outset of the four-day cruise from Miami to the Bahamas and back to Florida, I had forgotten about original Kiss drummer Peter Criss.

By the end of the cruise, and after hearing Kiss manager Doc McGhee lament about Criss’ departure in a Q&A with fans I was concerned about the band’s original masked “Catman.”

Four days on the Carnival Destiny with the Kiss Army — reshaped into the Kiss Navy for this gig — can do that to you:

† There were three Kiss concerts. The 90-minute unplugged sail away set was a rarity, featuring the band unplugged and without makeup. The other shows took place in the ship’s casino-like theater where Kiss reached back for rarities from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The second night’s grungy version of “ “Detroit Rock City” was memorable and loud.

† A Kiss lookalike contest inspired dozens of pseudo-Gene Simmons wandering around the ship on platform shoes sticking out their tongues.

I’m still disturbed about this.

† Kiss Trivia and Kiss Karaoke? Nothing like it.

This was one event where promoters wanted fans to Kiss and tell.

“We’ll do it again,” Kiss co-founder and guitarist Paul Stanley said after the cruise from his Beverly Hills, Calif. home. “Maybe a bigger ship. The response was so positive everybody will come with their friends. We’d certainly want to do it around Halloween, which intensifies the insanity. We didn’t invent the celebrity cruise. We just wanted to perfect it.

“Kiss is a phenomenon and it is a crown we wear proudly.”

The cruise attracted more than 2,000 fans representing 26 countries, according to a ship spokesman for Sixthman, the Atlanta-based company that has created musical themed cruises since 2001. Sixthman has done 37 cruises in 10 years. No previous cruise attracted so many international visitors.

I met people from Iceland, Scotland, Sweden, Colombia and Southern France.

What’s not to like about a French Kiss fan?

I was also surprised at the large number of Kiss kids I saw with their Kiss parents. Families walked around in black-and-white face paint and small children stopped and stuck their tongue out at me.

It was just like any of my Friday nights at Archie’s Iowa & Rockwell tavern near my house.

“You’ve got Mom and Dad dressed up as Gene and Paul and sons and daughters dressed up as Ace [original guitarist Frehley] and Pete,” Skid Row founding bassist Rachel Bolan told me before he headed off to host the drinking game Skid Row Quarters. “People blamed Kiss for tearing the family apart when they first came out. Now they’re making families bond.”

(There was little mention of Frehley on the boat, although at noon Nov. 10 he will surface at Books-A-Million, 144 S. Clark, to promote his new memoir, No Regrets.)

Simmons’ new bride and longtime girlfriend, Shannon Tweed, was on board. Kiss’ longtime manager Doc McGhee told fans in a Q&A that the cruise was “their honeymoon.”

Sixthman has partnered with Kid Rock, Lyle Lovett and John Mayer. But there’s been nothing like this with Kiss.

Sixthman CEO Andy Levine said, “One thing we talk about when we’re discussing whether to do a cruise or not is how deep the roots between the band and the fans: how many years, how many albums, how many tours. Without question Kiss has the deepest roots we have seen. We challenged the band to bring it to life. If anyone can be creative, it is Kiss. We’re not going to try to out-create Kiss. We felt four days is a good amount of time for everyone in the band.”

Even experienced cruisers get the sways after a couple days on the boat. I wondered how difficult it was for Kiss to walk around the boat and perform in their Hancock-building-high platform shoes. “To begin with the air is thinner,” Stanley answered. “On the second night the boat was rocking a bit more. I was afraid I was going to jump up in the air and land in the audience.”

Stanley said the band never left the boat, even when it stopped at Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas.

Maybe next time the band will hang around for the entire cruise. In his last-day session with fans, McGhee confirmed the band jumped ship a day early from Nassau. Simmons had to tend to his “Family Jewels” TV show and Stanley had to see a throat specialist. “Other things that come up that need to be addressed,” Stanley explained. “We did three shows. It was like camp on a boat. You see decorated doors and peope would leave Sharpies. I’d walk down the hall and when they came back to their room they’d see I signed their art project. I want us to be as accessible as possible but there’s also a certain mystique. Coming into my room and watching me shave might make me accessible but it won’t elevate my stature.”

Levine is former manager of the sunshine-y Florida band Sister Hazel. The Sixthman rock cruise concept was launched with 400 hardcore fans -Hazelnuts- who took over part of a ship in 2001. Levine called it “The Rock Boat.”

By 2002 “Rock Boat II” became Sixthman’s first full ship charter with Sister Hazel, Cowboy Mouth, Pat McGee and a dozen more bands. The concept exploded. “Cayamo 2011” included the Indigo Girls, Patty Griffin, Richard Thompson, and Steve Earle on a cruise ship. Those are words I never thought I would type.

Weezer is on board to inaugurate “The Weezer Cruise” Jan. 19-23, which will travel from Miami on the Carnival Destiny to the island of Cozumel, off the coast of Mexico.

April Gardner, Sixthman Director of New Business, said, “This immersive experience where artists build a connection with their fans is catching the attention of artists. We like to work 12 to 16 months out from an initial conversation so some talks are deeper now than others.”

The majority of Sixthman’s cruises have been on the Carnival Destiny, which can hold 2,642 guests on 12 decks. The ship entered service in November 1996 and there is a bit of a dated feel on the vessel, notably in the All-Star Sports Bar where I had a beer while looking at bartop photos of the long-gone County Stadium in Milwaukee and the “disco” where we had small group photos taken with Kiss — in full makeup.

“Carnival has 24 ships to choose from,” Levine told cruisers during his Q & A session. “There’s other folks to choose from too.”

Already a world of travel escapism awaits Kiss fans. There’s Kiss Kaskets for the ultimate road trip. Kiss has opened a succesful coffee house in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and an indoor Kiss-themed miniature golf course is to follow in Las Vegas.

“We’re just getting started,” Stanley said. “We want this to be Kiss World. It will be a better place. If somebody sees me as a role model, better me than someone dribbling a ball. I can serve as inspiration on all kinds of levels.”

Even on water.

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