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There are plenty of reasons for an arts critic to leave town—say, vacation. OK, OK, all critics should see what’s animating the national conversation from time to time—it can broaden and inform their perspective. Ordinarily we reserve “Fare Assessment” posts for analyzing The Washington Post‘s many forays outside the D.C. area—New York, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Milan to name a few destinations. But recently, a pair of Washington City Paper staffers went on their own company-paid trip outside the DMV. With editorial budgets tight and plenty of in-town art, the City Paper followed some of that art when it ventured far past our borders. Consider this installment of Fare Assessment our version of an Internal Affairs Bureau. At one end of the budget spectrum: Acela. At the other: Hitchhiking.
Reviewer (and Photographer) on the Road—Er, High Seas: The way I heard it, during a January editorial meeting, Arts Editor Jonathan L. Fischer mentioned the Bruise Cruise, an indie-rock festival-at-sea curated by Ian Svenonius, and jokingly suggested that City Paper should cover this latest venture by the D.C. punk scene’s “provocateur laureate” by embedding a reporter on the three-day voyage. Turned out it was no joke. The higher-ups approved the story and plunked down the funds to send Fischer and photographer Darrow Montgomery down to Miami, where they embarked upon one of the stranger events in recent rock journalism and spent a long weekend amid garage-rockers, “regular vacationers,” “fratboys and bachelorette partiers,” and no fewer than three Katy Perry-lookalikes.
Invoice Argument: Svenonius is a mainstay of D.C. rock, so City Paper should keep tabs on him, whether it’s a new release by Chain and the Gang or cruise ship to the Bahamas and back. In the case of the Bruise Cruise, Fischer saw hope for an anthropology project masked as an epic feud between the punks and the ordinary vacationers aboard the Carnival Imagination, the “2,000 passenger, 855-foot, 70,367-ton” behemoth on which this story takes place. (Nine bands, dozens of journalists, and a few hundred scenesters accounted for about one-fifth of the ship’s manifest.) Svenonius was looking for the same “clash of culture and sub-culture.” For the entertainment, organizers lined up indie-rock heavyweights like the Black Lips, Vivian Girls, and Surfer Blood to headline a festival bill that also included acts like Thee Oh Sees, Turbo Fruits, and Quintron and Miss Pussycat.
Budget Hawk: By Fischer’s own admission, the Bruisers paid a higher fare than many of the Cruisers, as he labeled the other passengers on the Imagination who were just there for the sun, the water slides, the “shitty food,” and all the other pampering the late David Foster Wallace suffered through in his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” (That Fischer would frame his own cruise-line experience with references to Wallace’s is both inevitable and welcome.) Svenonius assembled a heady lineup that performed onboard in Xanadu, the ship’s peculiarly named ballroom, and off, at Señor Frog’s, a chain of skeevy night clubs more commonly known as a filming location for the Girls Gone Wild series. (A Google search for the two terms produces 16,300 results.) Outside Xanadu, Fischer and Montgomery found the Cruisers were at worst indifferent toward the Bruisers. The real conflict emerged in Nassau, where a pair of Dutch tugboat workers were put off by the Señor Frog’s lineup of Strange Boys, the Vivian Girls, and the Black Lips. Shore leave also featured the brief detainment of Ben Blackwell of The Dirtbombs by Nassau police; Blackwell was accused of punching a Connecticut bail bondsman “in the head 30 fucking times.”
The City Paper team had no shortage of company from other media. New York and Blackbook magazines, websites like Brooklyn Vegan and Vice‘s VBS.tv, hell, even ESPN was on the press list posted on the Bruise Cruise’s site. With Svenonius running things, someone from D.C. had to be there, and Fischer and Montgomery nabbed the regional exclusive, which also ran today in our sister paper Creative Loafing Atlanta.
The Verdict: Fare Assessment uses various modes of transportation to grade an out-of-town assignment. But because in this instance the destination was, itself, a mode of transportation, we are altering the scale and will judge this week’s City Paper cover story with a famous incident at sea.
Here, the RMS Lusitania comes to mind, but not because of the quality of the work. Fischer’s reporting and storytelling are as clever and entertaining as ever, and Montgomery’s photography—spread across the dead-tree edition and available as a slideshow here—is a dynamically-hued work of voyeurism. The Lusitania effect is best described by this gradual transition: “Onboard, the Bruisers become more like the Cruisers with each nautical mile. Sure, they’ve watched multiple sets by their favorite bands. But they’ve also danced happily to lousy ’90s music in Illusions, the ship’s onboard nightclub.” Or, as Svenonius told Fischer before the Bruise Cruise set sail, “Maybe this is the first step of indie rock going Vegas.”
Led by Svenonius, hip scenesters and indie-rockers entered the belly of the Leviathan known as a cruise ship, and despite their contrarian notions, succumbed to what Wallace called “Managed Fun.” Maybe that’s why Black Lips bassist Jared Swilley chucked his instrument into the sea. The Bruisers, it seems, are the “bastard children of punk, revivalism, and consumerism.” But Fischer and Montgomery survived, and made it back to tell the story that indie rock, torpedoed by its own growing appetite for commerce, isn’t going down with the Lusitania—it is the Lusitania.