The Cruise Ship Gig
Now of course, the most frequent question we are asked as a band is “Does one of you own the dinged-up white Chev van illegally parked on the lawn of the church?’” But next to that it is ‘How did you end up with that sweet yearly Casino gig?” Clearly there’s no obvious connection between the glamorous world of gambling and things Irish. We don’t really mesh with the glitzy décor and the Casino clientele doesn’t seem to know what to make of us. Between sets we wander the facility in our gig clothes – the usual white shirts and vests – and gamblers give us drink orders. Declan, who wears a slightly-too-snug velour green tuxedo and novelty bowler hat, fits in fine with the regulars.
The Casino connection goes back ten years to our ill-fated stint on the Royal Netherlands Queen Vacation Cruise liner, a massive casino on the sea that specialized in stuffing, baking and fleecing enormous American tourists who prefer to travel while moving their own limbs as little as possible. The Summer of ’99 cruise ship gig had been Bruce’s brainstorm as a way of dodging jury duty, and the two month contract on a boat had been surprisingly easy to sell to the wives: to our immense surprise and utterly overwhelming relief, they came along. Thankfully, we were to be spared the torment of having our free time unscheduled! Thanks to the steady presence and loving discipline of our three vigilant life mates, we would not have to spend any subsequent years regretting the indulgences that fate might have dropped into the laps of three naïve Canadian boys set loose on the Caribbean.
Our contract called for eight 40 minute shows a day, alternating with a Billy Ray Cyrus tribute band out of Chicago. We found we had to drop the Irish shtick almost immediately – the cruise passengers didn’t recognize or appreciate Celtic music, and if they did pay attention long enough to hear Declan’s accent they would insist on ‘Toura Loura Loura’ and ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’ until the cows came home. After day three we regrouped ourselves as a ‘Grunge Kingston Trio Meets Spice Girls’ sort of ensemble. To supplement and obscure our sound we recruited the affable bass player from The Achy Breaky’s to play with us for our two early evening sets.
The wives adapted to shipboard life almost immediately, despite having only recently seen The Titanic. Sandy spent the first day and a half scanning the horizon for icebergs, but when she discovered the ‘Texas Hold-em’ table she peeled off her life jacket and never looked back. Susan and Phyllis seemed to spend most of their time with two dance teachers from El Salvador, Raul and Rico. Tall and tanned with rippling muscles and flashing smiles, Raul and Rico were both obviously gayer than French horns and of no concern.
The bass player from the Billy Ray clone band, of course, was Dale. We had no idea at the time he was Canadian, let alone from London. For some reason, he spoke with a soft drawl, and even then he had that air of weathered wisdom and good humour that still drives elderly women crazy.
The Billy Ray show had evolved in a strange direction too. Dwayne the lead singer was quite drunk all the time, and the drummer was terminally seasick. This left the work of actually putting on a performance to Dale and the young piano player, an energetic black kid from Chicago named Barry.
Their performance had long ago veered away from Billy Ray’s limited set list, and had instead become a showcase for Barry’s many talents – in fact, it seemed that Barry spent more time simply speaking to the audience than playing music. He had a riveting stage presence, despite the hokey cowboy shirt and straw hat. As Dwayne grew more incoherent throughout the day Barry would cover for him with jokes, stories, wry observations, and occasionally some post-game pointers for the many pairs of stunned newlyweds. In the weird alternate universe of the pleasure cruise, Barry was becoming a celebrity. People were constantly ‘high-fiving’ Barry, and cornering him for advice. He impressed Dale.
“The guy’s a born leader and a superb musician, and here he is in a cowboy hat playing cracker songs behind THAT guy”, said Dale, gesturing to Dwayne who was retching up his breakfast into a potted palm. It was Tuesday morning. We were hanging around the Buena Vista lounge, watching Declan fashion a bodrhan out of a life preserver. His real one, oddly, had ended up being tossed overboard. Bruce emerged from the elevator with a rum drink the size of a bidet. He concurred that it must be frustrating to be a gifted black pop musician these days.
“It’s all because of rap”, I said, gearing up for a big rant, but just then Susan and Phyllis showed up with the news that Macarena lessons were starting on the Coconut deck. Declan explained that due to the complex terms in our contract the band was forbidden to participate in any nonalcoholic recreational activities. From the poker lounge we heard Sandy shout ‘Yahoo!’ Bruce was about to go investigate, then seemed to decide to leave well enough alone, and went back upstairs to the sundeck again.
We were about to follow – Bruce has always had good instincts about where might be a good place to loiter in situations like this – when the ship’s pseudo foghorn alert sounded loudly over the PA. An agitated teenaged employee came on the system to announce that ‘due to a minor mechanical failure, the Royal Netherlands Queen Vacation Cruise liner would be shutting off her engines for a brief period’, and that passengers shouldn’t be alarmed. It was unlikely that many of the passengers even remembered they were on a boat; they certainly weren’t worried about whether it was moving forward or not. “As long as she’s not moving downwards!’ said Dale, as he went to find a bucket to clean up Dwayne.
As it turned out, the ship WAS moving downwards, and rapidly, in a manner that is usually considered bad news on a boat. It seemed that the boat had hit something, and might have sprung a leak. When we followed Bruce up to the aerobics deck we saw that we were fortunately, rather close to shore, about half a kilometer from the port town of Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico. It was conceivable that, in a pinch, the average fit human being could easily swim to safety. Sadly, virtually none of the overfed clientele onboard were likely to swim anywhere. Dozens of passengers were starting to collect along the guardrails, breakfast burritos in hand, slowly absorbing the implications of their plight. The ship tilted.
“Well, this ain’t good” said Dale. “I’m gonna go find Barry” He disappeared back into the lower decks.
Minutes later a voice through a bullhorn addressed the worried vacationers. “People of the Royal Netherlands Cruise Ship! I am calling on you to change the way you are standing on this deck!” High on the roof of the wheelman’s cabin, a silhouette with a straw hat against the Caribbean morning sun, was Barry the piano player. The crowd waddled to the center of the boat. “We need to reduce the weight of this boat to stay afloat until help arrives” Bruce threw Declan’s improvised bodrhan over the side. “People, we’re going to drain the pool!”
It was a stroke of brilliance. He marshaled the unsightly sightseers into two firemen’s bucket brigades that stretched from either side of the swimming pool to the guardrails on either side of the ship, and within moments they were earnestly passing buckets of pool water to the end of the line and dumping them overboard. It was a completely futile effort, of course, except that it served to herd the unshapely shipmates into a manageable lump in the center of the ship, preserving the vessel’s balance.
More importantly, as Dale observed when he returned, “He’s giving them hope.”
It was true. We watched this clumsy crowd, shoulder to chubby shoulder, bailing out this monstrous inefficient icon of self-indulgence and we were touched by the simple humanity of people joined in crisis, how the rallying cry of a born leader could distract and unite this unlikely mob of garishly-dressed travelers.
Barry seemed affected by the moment as well. He descended from the wheelman’s cabin like Chariton Heston climbing down Mount Sinai, and he put a hand Dale’s shoulder. “Thanks for what you said man. Now I know what I gotta do.” He placed the straw hat on Dale’s head. Declan rotated the hat sideways and snickered uncontrollably.
In one graceful move Barry jumped onto the rail, saluted the crowd and swan-dived into the sea. We watched him swim to shore, and that was the last we saw of Barry. We heard rumours later that he took up politics back in Illinois, and that he changed his name from Barry back to its original African root: Barack, or something.
None of the wives had even noticed the drama on the top deck, and they boarded the shuttle ferry as if we were at any other port stop. Raul and Rico chose to swim ashore, their bulging biceps and rippling abs all tanned and gleaming and effeminate in the warm surf. The wives, deeply worried for their well-being, watched them until they emerged safely onshore, and for some time after that. Susan was still holding a rose in her teeth. Sandy had a galvanized bailing bucket full of casino tokens worth over forty thousand dollars.
The cruise ship people heard later that somehow it was the musicians that had helped avert a panic onboard, and in gratitude offered us all a gig every year on any ship in the fleet. Not long after, fortunately, they got into the Casino business, so we were able to secure a yearly engagement at any facility on solid land as well.
Dale still wears that straw hat.