So You Want to be a Cruise Ship Musician, do You?

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by Bill King

For those wondering what it likes to be a musician on a cruise ship, FYIMusic News has insights on this. This article sums up how it feels to be trapped on a big boat with a bunch of tourists.

A gig on a cruise ship

As temperatures climbed and humidity rose this past week in Toronto, my disdain for air conditioning returned with a vengeance. I’m a ‘windows open’ guy, especially at night. I truly think it’s ancestral. If I were to locate through some DNA search primitive ancestors, I’m certain they would have lived outdoors amongst the ferns and fishes. Any thought of living beneath ground, a cave or an enclosed shelter absent windows, would have been an anxiety-weighted existence.

The bedroom air conditioner is a necessity and is now installed; the room sealed tight like a stationary elevator and, when turned on, the eco-friendly container blows a cold wind much like an arctic front. That was cool the first 20 minutes or so, but then I relapsed into a frightful memory and spent six surreal hours chasing a deep satisfying breath. This is a serious head thing for me when it returns. That moment when anxiety materializes courtesy an incident nearly twenty years ago when I took a nine-week gig on a cruise ship called the M.S. Sundream sailing around the Caribbean Sea.

The Pay Didn’t Add Up

I wanted the experience. An ex-jazz DJ was booking and looking for a pianist and sold me on the adventure. I won’t go into details other than, in the end, the pay didn’t add up, and the guy wasn’t clear about the mental capacity of my lounge working partner.

I was locked away with this Romanian diva who marched about like a perfumed duck, barking orders and imposing her CD on every mark.

We played the Midnight Lounge 5 – 6 pm. Then 7:30 to 8:30 before the disco crowd arrives.

Let’s call her ‘Sea Princess’.

On our first encounter, she informs me she has no music charts, and asks if I would get that together. WTF? Fortunately, I brought along a pile of music fakebooks and manuscript paper. I then spend the next week transcribing forty charts into her key and scripting. For this, she agrees to pay a nominal fee. That never happened! The pay part, that is.

The Conditions of Performing

Over time she became abusive, demanding, arrogant and a practitioner of third-world guerilla sales tactics. The Midnight Lounge became a nightly retail zone, known today as a ‘pop up store’, for her latest CD, the only recording mentioned or made available. These were her conditions.

As the weeks pass, ‘Sea Princess’ began referring to me as “American shit,” I embraced her as recurring sciatica. To say I didn’t feel her love would be soft-balling her insanity. She was a favourite daughter of dead communist dictator Nicolai Ceausescu. More on her later.

The Abysmal Conditions Onboard

Every time we departed, something of critical importance would break down in the ship’s components. We crossed from Cartagena to Montego Bay and the engines expired. No air conditioning or electricity. The aroma of twelve hundred ‘bouquet pounds’ of ripe shit stung the nostrils and agitated back in forth in the bowels of the ship.

I was housed three decks below in a cabin the size of a filing cabinet and without portholes. The space was pitch black.

One exasperating night I was suddenly awakened to find myself covered in a dry sweat and I realized all air had been siphoned away. I panic – abandon and sprint for the stairwell. By then I’m overcome with debilitating anxiety. I know this isn’t something that happens to most, but not all cruise ships are equal.

Four of the seven engines had collapsed. The ship was becoming a pressure cooker leaving no area unaffected. The ship’s patrons abandon the lounge and sprint to the top deck and invite the prevailing winds to chill their bodies. I return to my cabin where a slight breeze is seeping from a vent above my bunk and doze off. Within minutes I awaken gasping for air and discover I couldn’t arouse a deep breath.

I slow the brain and request it focus on delivering one deep gratifying moment of relief. It didn’t come. I began to panic, run from cabin, climb three floors to an open-air area and wait. The magic moment still doesn’t come. I then walk the circumference of the vessel and talk myself down. Slowly, I regain my natural breathing rhythm and return to the room which by now is a toaster oven.

I rest for a moment then realize I can’t rouse a deep breath. That would be the prelude to months of anxiety that would catch me in a deep sleep and fearful I’d just taken my last breath. An open window was the only solution.

Don’t Have An Adventure In Mind

I had packed two Nikon D90s, lightbox, negative sleeves, boxes of Fuji Film; all things photographic, with the intent of jumping ship each day and photographing each island stopover. I had an adventure in mind, and this gig was one way to supplement my passion.

These destinations sealed the deal: Antigua, Grenada, Tortola, Havana, Dominica, St. Lucia, Barbados, Isle of Navidad, St. Vincent, St. Kitts, Montego Bay, Santa Domingo, Guadeloupe, Cozumel, Cartagena, San Blas Islands, Costa Rica, and beyond. I also decided to keep a journal and discipline myself to write a chapter each evening after the last bit of humanity stored themselves away in their respective cabins. I titled it, ’64 Days at Sea’ – the extent of my time aboard ship.

The ocean intrigues me.

I grew up a block from what they call ‘the Mighty Ohio River’. Let’s be factual. The Ohio at times, is a rampaging beast whose main objective is to meet head-on with the Mississippi River and become a tributary south of Cairo, Illinois, then saunter lazily southward, serenaded by blue birds and singing crayfish. That’s how the fable goes.

The river near where pops tethered his rickety craft was scary. Not a place for kids to flop merrily above an undercurrent bent on sucking young ones lacking physical strength deep into a dark, murky hell. Scary thought.

The ocean, on the other hand, will transport you for days and allow you to float along until someone possibly rescues you or a sizeable seafaring bird plucks and drops you safely into your backyard. Well, maybe not!

Even skimming a hand over the ocean’s surface and kicking around the shoreline is cause for celebration.

Experience The Calm of the Open Seas

My theory. The ocean is a large soothing and healing tank. It coaxes a smile and encourages one to think about the ‘big picture’, aware that what’s below the surface are billions of residents and a certain batch would playfully snap a leg off and drag your remains several metres below to meet the family.

I’ve read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim – I humbly bow to you Mr. Conrad. I’ve watched the sea-faring saga, Master and Commander, several dozen times, gone down with the Andrea Dora, imagined being in rough seas facing a hurricane and I get spine-tingling shivers thinking about those kinds of bare bones adventures.

I’ve experienced calm on open seas, the slap of waves against the vessel’s bow, the clanging of a warning bell, the occasional scavenger bird landing only a few feet away, a brisk headwind, a violent storm that rolled the ship side to side compelling me to clutch the metal post separating upper and lower bunk beds in my cabin. Damn, what am I doing sitting at my desk scraping the imagination for more sensory recollections when I could be… nah!

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Source: A Journal of Musical Things

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