The Last Cruise of the Plague Year

Four Days Aboard the 70,000 Tons of Metal Cruise, 2020

I stepped off the elevator and onto the pool deck, with the sense that I had crossed a sort of threshold. Here the scene was quaint, almost pastoral – a gathering of metalheads, all standing in the full glare of the sun, clad in denim and leather and band shirts with jagged typography. They played ping-pong and pickup games on the basketball court. They stood around on the mini-golf course charting a path through windmills and plastic castles. They ate ice cream cones and wandered the promenade, long hair billowing in the wind. Had it always been thus? Growing up, I considered the revelry of mosh pits and rock shows to be more Lord of the Flies than anything resembling a normal gathering of people. Yet, there we were. Whatever “metalhead” stereotypes still lingered in the popular imagination seemed wholly out of place here on the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise, soon to depart from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

At this point I had to wonder: was it weird to put a heavy metal festival on a cruise ship? When did metal – with its demonic imagery, sledgehammer guitar riffs, and ice-cream-headache screams – become paired with tropical destinations and sandy beaches? My fellow passengers appeared to be about my own age – late 20s to mid-40s, on average – and apparently unaware that we were no longer young. Maybe it was only a matter of time before someone packed us up on a cruise ship and sent us off to the Caribbean.

Off to my right, a shirtless guy covered in tattoos attempted to balance on a boogie board tethered to a wave pool, under the watchful supervision of the staff. Perhaps he was just limbering up for a long night of body surfing and mosh pits. He appeared to be having fun, at least. And maybe this was how it should be: sun shining across the visible universe, a warm breeze blowing in from the sea, imminent departure to somewhere in the tropics. Soon we would pull out of port and be on our way – all 3,000 metalheads, 62 bands, roadies, sound technicians and cruise ship staff. I leaned over the railing and considered ordering a drink with one of those tiny umbrellas in them. It seemed like the thing to do here. We were all in Margaritaville now, whether or not we ever intended to be.

*

It was, arguably, the last cruise of the plague year.

Looking back on it now, the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise seems almost unreal, like something my 16-year-old self would have dreamed up while sitting in algebra class. My memories of the event have organized themselves into a sort of shifting collage: a series of images and impressions, sights and sounds. I’m still trying to sift through it all, even now, in order to arrive at some deeper understanding.

At the time, though, it appeared a natural progression from the shows I’d been to in the past: bigger, louder, more ostentatious, more over-the-top. I had come with Jon, my longtime friend and concert-going companion, and his girlfriend Jenny, whom I had met attending the same master’s program at Portland State University. Jon and I had been going to shows together since high school. We were coming up now on two full decades of live music, bands and setlists, lineups and post-show tinnitus ringing into the night. It was not our first time on the metal cruise – we’d previously attended in 2018 and 2019 – but did seem to be the culmination of something, at least, even without a global pandemic to contend with. Live music has, for the immediate present, been cancelled. The three of us had planned on doing this every year until we died, or the cruise stopped running, or metal disappeared from our cultural milieu completely. At the time it was unclear which would come first. By now, of course, all three seem equally plausible.

*

I walked the promenade before departure, taking in the sights.

An air of almost delirious excitement pervaded the scene as throngs of metalheads milled about in their concert attire. A sea of black T-shirts crowded my visual field, sporting band logos of varying legibility, pentagrams, album artwork, and concert tour dates from ages past. Many wore “battle jackets” – denim vests customized with band logo patches sewn onto the fabric, creating a sort of dense, homemade collage. They all seemed to drift by like cryptic messages from the cultural subconscious, or maybe shades from some as-yet unknown circle of Dante’s Inferno.

Perhaps I was simply entering the early stages of a midlife crisis, but I began to look at my surroundings with fresh eyes. What, exactly, was this place?

I saw a man wearing a shirt reading, “BORN TO ROCK DRINK AND FUCK.”

I saw a shirt reading “HELL FUCKING YEAH.”

I saw shirts with messages like “GET DRUNK OR DIE” and “KILL THE KARDASHIANS.”

I saw the phrase “FUCK THIS SHIT” emblazoned on a hockey jersey.

I saw a man wearing a shirt that read, simply, “FUCK.”

In an article for Harper’s magazine, the poet Michael Robbins writes, “Satanism in metal…is just theater, a metaphor for nonconformity that affirms dark, creative energies that orthodox political-religious-scientific thought would repress.”1 The faux-nihilism displayed here appeared to be another reflection of this: a performative construct, a way to project an image of nonconformity to the rest of the world. So was it strange, then, that all of this was taking place on a luxury cruise liner owned by Royal Caribbean? Surely it suggested, at the very least, that metal’s rebellious stance to the status quo may be compromised somewhat by its endless drive for profit. My younger self might have used the word “sellout,” but now, pushing 40 – with a home and family and teaching career and an ever-growing collection of gray hairs sprouting along my temples – it was becoming increasingly difficult to say what that term even meant anymore. Maybe nothing at all.

*

The three of us wandered the ship from venue to venue, band to band. It was like every other concert festival I had attended for the past two decades, save one exception: the almost total lack of teenagers and twentysomethings onboard. Just about everyone here was a grown-ass adult on vacation. I found myself navigating a sort of “uncanny valley” between youth and old age, mosh pits and shuffleboard. I suppose that, should the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise one day be assigned to a circle of Dante’s Inferno, the first circle – “Limbo” – would be its true and proper place.

On day two, Jon and I found ourselves on the pool deck for Grave Digger, a hoary legacy act from time immemorial, tearing through a set of beefy, riff-heavy Germanic power metal as if the past three decades never happened. Whatever year it was on the mainland no longer mattered; up onstage it was 1986 all over again and would continue to be for the next 45 minutes. Old metal musicians, it turns out, do not seem to age like the rest of us. Rather, they acquire a certain “weathered” look not unlike ancient kings or petrified wood. Chris Boltendahl, the band’s original frontman, bestrode the stage in a battle vest of his own, featuring patches of Saxon, Judas Priest, Motorhead, AC/DC, and others. His hair, long and crimped and stark white, blew majestically in the wind. He had been doing this longer than I’d been alive. He may continue doing this forever. Did the music itself sustain him? Some sort of immutable essence found between the whammy bar solos and power chord riffs? Metal – like rock ‘n’ roll more generally – is predicated on a vague promise of eternal youth. It insists that whatever forces conspire to oppress us can be overcome by growing out our hair, tuning up a guitar, and cranking up the music to ear-splitting volumes.

“Metal doesn’t sound evil,” Michael Robbins tells us in the Harper’s piece. “Evil has no particular sound…What metal sounds like is the biggest rock and roll you’ve ever heard.” And maybe this does keep one young, in a sense. Maybe these guys were onto something all along.

*

Over the years I have come to realize that, despite the current makeup of its listeners, metal should still, first and foremost, be regarded as a youth phenomenon. Its imagery and rhetoric – to say nothing of its musical aesthetic – seems to tap into some dark corner of the adolescent psyche, that sort of limbic state between childhood and adulthood in which nothing is certain, yet everything feels possible. This mindset seems hardwired into the music. In his review of Metallica’s Master of Puppets, music critic Steve Huey writes, “Nearly every song on Master of Puppets deals with the fear of powerlessness…[yet] the band reigns triumphant through sheer force – of sound, of will, of malice.” It’s the space between these emotional registers – fear and aggression, powerlessness and triumph – that creates the tension and drama on which this music depends. No wonder, then, why so many of us gravitated toward heavy metal during our teenage years. In my own career as a high school teacher, I can see this dynamic play out every day in the lives of my students, whatever their musical preference.

And yet metal doesn’t speak to us on an intellectual level at all, really, but viscerally, through sheer sonic force. Whatever this music has been trying to tell me for the past twenty years seems to lie somewhere between the whammy bar solos and the blastbeats, the twin-guitar harmonies and furious tempos, sent out like radio signals traveling through space.

*

All through the night the metalheads roamed the corridors of the ship, the casino and the sports bar, the pubs and eateries up and down the promenade. It was strange: these days I often observed myself from a distance, even while navigating the present moment. Was this a natural shift in perspective that came with age? Or did it indicate, rather, a growing self-consciousness toward my place in all of this? It was difficult to say.

At least the night was still young.

I wandered over to Studio B at about 1:30am to see Origin, whose listed performance promised something called “The World’s Biggest Heavy Metal Pillow Fight.” Upon entering the venue, I encountered a scene that could have been lifted directly from the last triptych of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights: a dense crowd of people had assembled near the stage – maybe 50, maybe 100 – for the sole purpose of pummelling each other with pillows in a sort of gleeful, reckless frenzy. The band specialized in a type of hyper-technical, abrasive grindcore – a sound that, to the uninitiated, might resemble that of a lawnmower connected to a PA speaker played at 200 beats per minute. It certainly fit the general mood of the evening.

It’s hard to say what conclusions could be drawn here. The scene invoked images of Medieval battles, melee combat, and Thomas Hobbes’s “war of all against all,” ostensibly from a time when humanity lived free and wild in a state of nature, without rules or laws or social order. A time before civilization itself. I whipped out my phone to take a video for posterity. The whole thing felt like some sort of cautionary tale whose true meaning remained opaque to us.

At some point a mattress appeared. Where had it come from? How could it have gotten all the way across the ship and down here without detection? No matter: the mattress circulated the periphery of the mosh pit for a time, then was laid horizontally long enough for some brave soul to hop aboard and ride it to the front barricades. Meanwhile the pillows continued their relentless assault; stuffing lay everywhere about our feet. Small tufts of airborne fuzz floated beneath the lights and disappeared into the darkness.

What lessons could be learned from witnessing such a scene? Where, in all of this, could wisdom be found?

Jason Keyser, the band’s frontman, paused between songs to address the crowd.

“Fuckin’ beautiful,” he told us, practically swelling with pride. “They should have sent a poet.”

*

By day four the cruise had taken a toll on all of us: the lack of sleep and adequate rest, the endless series of bands, the sheer quantity of booze. Time ceased to have any real meaning, save for scheduling one band after another in four different locations for 20 hours at a stretch. I had also been fighting off some kind of upper respiratory head-and-chest cold, complete with a deep and rattling cough. Not the coronavirus, from what I understand, but one of the lesser viruses found on cruise ships – what members of the 70K Facebook group routinely cited as “boat SARS” and “boat plague,” which seemed to make the rounds every year. Jon himself contracted some sort of nasty virus in 2018, leaving him incapacitated and snoring on the couch during most of day four with a cup of tea and a pile of crumpled Kleenexes strewn about the cabin.

Anyway.

By about 9:00am, the scene in the Windjammer was pretty much what you’d expect: a crowd of people, all experiencing the same collective hangover, carrying plates stacked with eggs, bacon, potatoes, melons, bagels, danishes, breakfast cereals and fried things in varying shades of brown. The staff filled and refilled massive tankards of coffee that seemed to be emptied just as quickly. For some time—it was unclear how long—a staff member had been stationed at the entrance of the Windjammer with what appeared to be an entire gallon of hand sanitizer attached to a hand pump, ready to be deployed the moment someone stepped through the door. He stood guard, ever watchful and alert, squirting a sizable glob into the palms of anyone entering the cafe. I wondered if I should be offended. Then I glanced around at my fellow passengers—all of whom seemed to be in various stages of alcohol poisoning—sporting band T-shirts with jagged logos, pentagrams, Viking and corpse and demon imagery, some in homemade denim “battle jackets” covered in band patches, pins, studs, spikes, and metal components that gleamed in the morning sun. Everyone was fresh from the mosh pits, dehydrated, sleep-deprived and bleary-eyed, mostly unshowered. I suppose that, given the state of things, a little extra hand sanitizer couldn’t hurt.

The three of us sat at a round table near the edge of the dining room.

“So it’s day four,” Jon said. “And you know what that means.”

“Yup,” I said. “It’s costume day.” Costumes had somehow become tradition on the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise for reasons that remained unclear. Plucked seemingly at random from the pop culture dreamscape, they tended to filter in gradually during the first two nights – a Pikachu here, a video game character there – and reached a kind of critical mass by the end of day four.

“So the question is, will the crab-man be back? Will the mosh pits again be filled with giant, inflatable Pikachus?”

“The possibilities are endless.”

Today also included a series of special events, such as the All Star Super Jam, the Belly Flop Contest on the pool deck, and metal karaoke until dawn.

“So,” I said, squinting down at the program, “It says here that Michael Schenker is playing guitar on UFO’s “Doctor Doctor” in the All Star Super Jam. But he actually wrote the song, back in 1974. So what’s that, exactly?”

“Well, it’s certainly not a cover,” said Jenny. “I don’t think that counts.”

“He even played it last night with his new band, Michael Schenker Fest.”

“I mean, it is his birthday,” Jon replied. “I think they’re just letting him do whatever he wants.” Which turned out to be true: Michael Schenker, guitar legend of UFO and Scorpions fame, was turning 65 that day. And yet he did seem to retain a certain youthful aura. Whatever the reason, he appeared to be aging much slower than the rest of us.

We finished marking our schedules, creating a rudimentary map of how we planned to spend the next 16 hours of our lives. Ahead of us the ocean lay shimmering and blue and receding forever into the distance. At some point I had to wonder: what will this music mean to us, or to anyone, after the ice caps have melted and rising sea levels have claimed our coastal cities? I imagined the deep-sea divers of the future sifting through the ruins of our time, dredging up whatever remains of our Iron Maiden tour shirts and Cannibal Corpse hoodies, our Darkthrone and Slayer albums, our Flying V guitars and Marshall amplifiers corroded and silent beneath the sea. Perhaps they, the people of the future, would examine these artifacts and wonder what kind of people we were, what kind of music we created in our image.

I sipped my coffee and stared out to nowhere in particular.

“You know,” Jon said, after a moment, “It makes this whole thing just a bit more surreal that when you look out over the edge of the ship, there’s literally nothing around.”

*

I recall day four as winding up to some kind of climax, some peak-cruise moment just over the horizon. It all passed by like some kind of vivid, lucid dream. Add to this the constant choppy waters and high winds rocking the boat, as well as my worsening head-and-chest cold (I was currently being held upright by a combination of DayQuil, ibuprofen, Emergen-C packets, and coffee from the Windjammer, more or less in that order), and the whole thing began to take on a certain dreamy, surreal quality that was difficult to shake. But I was not quite dead yet, I decided, and continued on.

I passed Cthulhu Girl on the promenade, whom I recalled from 2019, she having spent the duration of that cruise wearing a baby blue Cthulhu onesie (complete with tendrils) to every show. She was wearing the Cthulhu costume again this year, but now with a long white lab coat and a lobster pincer replacing her left hand. I saw a guy in a full-body banana suit making a dash to the mosh pit during Toxik’s set in the Royal Theater; in the Star lounge, meanwhile, as Incantation ripped through a pummeling set of old-school death metal, I watched an elderly woman in a King Diamond shirt and Coke-bottle glasses merge into the crowd holding a Bud Light. Who was she? The grandmother of one of the band members? A general fan of the music? A premonition, perhaps, like the Ghost of Christmas Future?

Pressing questions, all.

I returned to the cabin at some point for a quick breather between bands. I opened the sliding glass door and looked out to sea, sipping from a tumbler of smuggled bourbon as the sun set over the water. By now I had watched people bodysurf in four different venues of varying sizes, had myself lifted shoes and limbs and sweaty torsos to the front barricades. I had seen a grown man in a Pikachu costume headbanging in a crowd, one wearing a giant pink bunny suit running through a mosh pit, and another wearing the flag of Norway as a T-shirt, a plastic Viking helmet atop his head, drinking two beers at once.

It had been a long day.

I leaned over the railing and watched the waves sparkle into infinity. It seemed to go on forever: a world without end. I could think back to the time I was sixteen, fifteen. Twelve. I remembered first hearing the chugging power chord riffs, the shredding solos and harmonized guitar trellises sounding sharp as razor wire, played with almost manic speed and power. This music taught us how to “rebel” at the age of 15, but had nothing to say about what to do at, say, 36, or 40, or 50. It was never clear what was supposed to happen when we reached our parents’ age, who we were supposed to be, how we were supposed to live our lives. On this point metal was – and is – notably silent.

So what’s next? The question no longer feels hypothetical. I write this from my home in Portland, Oregon, sheltering in place amid a global pandemic. These days I take long walks down the footpaths of my neighborhood, staying six feet apart from the nearest person. I pace the kitchen and play music through a Bluetooth travel speaker and wait for the world to return to normal. It allows time for reflection, for looking back on the bands Jon and I have seen over the past two decades, the concert festivals and mosh pits, the almost visceral connection I’ve felt to this music since I discovered Metallica at the age of 12. Whatever keeps me coming back seems inextricably tied to those adolescent years, to that feeling of being stretched between worlds for the first time. Our own world, meanwhile, remains in stasis, its ordinary rhythms suspended, and I can’t help but notice a faint echo of my past in all of this. It’s almost enough to make me feel young again.

1“Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives: A Poet’s Guide to Metal.” Harper’s, May 2014.

Kevin Hadsell is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. His work appears in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the Portland State Vanguard, and Euphemism, a literary journal produced by Illinois State University.

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