ROCK WITH 'ALL NITE' ON KRUISE
July 28, 2012
By Dave Hoekstra

Every cruise is a theater of moving parts.

It is a full deck of anticipation, laughter, stress and escape. By the end of a good cruise a sense of community exists.

Everything is in its place.

Of course, this is not lost on a transplant surgeon.

Dr. Alan Koffron of Birmingham, Michigan, was aboard the first Kiss Kruise, a four-day affair held last October. Also featuring hard rock mavens Skid Row and Chicago-based Bad City, the cruise tooled from Miami to the Bahamas and back.

Yes, it is that Kiss: "Rock ’n’ Roll All Nite," party every day, greasepaint makeup and the fire-spewing tongue of bassist and Family Jewels star Gene Simmons. Kiss has been around since 1973, when they were considered really scary.

"I'm a huge fan," Koffron says as the band plays an unplugged set on the Lido Deck of the 15-year-old Carnival Destiny as it pulled out of Miami. "But everywhere I go, everywhere I've been, I say, ‘I'm a Kiss fan'—they're like, ‘Really?' It invalidates you."

This isn't Dr. Love, as in the 1976 Kiss hit of the same name.

Koffron, 45, is a surgeon who is director of Multi-Organ Transplantation at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oaks. Prior to coming to Michigan in 2007 he spent 10 years at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where he was medical director of the Living Donor Program. "I love the music," says Koffron, a native of Iowa City, Iowa. "People go, ‘You are going on a Kiss cruise?' Absolutely. Why not?"

The Kiss Kruise was produced by Sixthman, the Atlanta, Georgia-based company that has been creating musical themed cruises since 2001. The Kiss Kruise was a near sellout with more than two thousand people representing twenty-six countries.

Sixthman had assembled thirty-seven musical cruises prior to the Kiss Kruise. Headline artists have ranged from Lyle Lovett to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

No cruise has attracted more international visitors. "Every one is unique," Sixthman CEO Andy Levine said in a Q & A with fans on the final day of the cruise. "But the one thing we see is that if someone is 20 years old or 90 years old, there's this attitude, belonging and family that forms from year one to year two to three. It's powerful, the relationships that come out of it."

Another Kiss Kruise will embark this fall, October 31 to November 4.

Kiss had never performed on the ocean. The band's roots are the landlocked boroughs of the Bronx and Queens, N.Y. "It was far beyond what I anticipated," Kiss cofounder, guitarist Paul Stanley says from his home in Beverly Hills, California. "Halloween would only increase the intensity. The feeling is much more of a tribe than a rock concert. Rock bands are age-specific. If you're there, you don't want your younger brother at a rock show—and God forbid, your parents. But this is the world's largest secret society. There is a sense everyone is in it together."

Just like Kiss, Koffron had never been on a cruise. He was with his fiancée Julie Stein, who is a liver surgeon in Michigan. (Enter your rock ’n’ roll joke here.) They met when Koffron was presenting a paper at a medical conference. They were married in December.

The Kiss getaway was the idea of David Colling, who owns and operates the popular Vivio's restaurant in the Eastern Market in Detroit. He had seen Kiss thirty times prior to the cruise, dating back to the Cobo Hall days in downtown Detroit. Christine, his wife of 20 years, grew up with Stein in Detroit. They remain best friends.

Colling, 44, says, "I was looking for something for a long weekend because she is a teacher. This fell in our lap. Then we asked Julie and Alan, which made it even better. My big theme has always been around something I love.

"And this is something."

In his comments to the Kiss Navy, Levine says, "One thing we talk about when we're discussing whether to do a cruise or not is how deep the roots are between the band and the fans: how many years, how many albums, how many tours. Without question Kiss is 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. And we felt four days is a good time for everyone in the band."

Between catching three live Kiss sets in four days, Kiss fans amuse themselves with a Kiss look-alike contest that included hundreds of folks mimicking Simmons' long tongue, Kiss Karaoke and Kiss Trivia.

On the first day of the cruise, Koffron says his favorite Kiss song is the rather sedate symphonic version of "God Made Rock ’n’ Roll," recorded in 2003 with the seventy-piece Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and filmed for Kiss Symphony Alive IV. "It's a powerful thing," he says. "It builds and builds. It's a shifting crowd song. Their music absolutely resonates in Michigan." At the end of their second of two plugged-in, full makeup shows on the cruise, Kiss dug back to their chestnut "Detroit Rock City."

Koffron reflects, "One of the reasons I left Chicago is there wasn't the buy-in of loyalty like there is in Detroit. In Detroit, people live and love their place as good as bad as it can be. There's more transplants in Chicago. Since I moved to Michigan, it's been imparted on me to give a hug and let's go forth."

The healing power of music and medicine go together like Kiss cofounders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley. "Music is like your fuel," Koffron explains as the band plays their hit ballad "Beth" in the background. "You wake up, music makes your day go. If you're having a bad day, you don't want a song to make you cry. It can charge you up.

"I don't listen to music during an operation. But before, we have it on ‘Let's go, let's go.' Its always a similar genre to Kiss, a powerful, driving music."

Kiss negates the aging process when they perform with their black and white face painting. It's not like watching Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones or Paul Simon add mileage over the years. Simmons' persona has always been "The Demon," while Stanley is "The Starchild." Stanley explains, "The longer we go on, the bigger we become. There's a sense of timelessness. There are times I see photos and I have to check out some of the details to know when it's from. And we have so much respect for our music and our fans that when we play a song we play it the way it was recorded. There's nothing more disrespectful to everybody than to turn your biggest hit song into a reggae number because you're bored. There's something invincible about Kiss, and it's more apparent when you see us live." The Kiss Kruisers appreciate the fact that the band plays the hits note-by-note the way they were recorded.

The Kiss Kruise was the third appearance on the high seas by Skid Row. They've been on Motley Cruise, Vince Neil's popular late 2000s cruise which raised money for the Skylar Neil Foundation (his daughter Skylar died of cancer at age 4), and Ship Rocked (the November 2011 cruise included Queensryche and Living Colour), produced by ShipRocked LLC in Nashville. "It's a good way to get face to face with hardcore fans," Skid Row's original bassist Rachel Bolan says. "Just be able to hang out, walk around. We take over a corner of the boat and whomever wants to come up, hang out."

But Kiss never left their cabins except to play their gigs. Stanley was seen from his cabin waving to fans as they tendered back to the ship from Half Moon Cay, Bahamas. "I want to make myself as available as possible without making myself a pest," he says. "You can't miss me if I don't go away."

Long-time Kiss manager Doc McGhee also appears in a 90-minute Q & A with hundreds of fans on the last day of the cruise. He admits some kinks have to be worked out. "I've never been on a cruise, Kiss had never been on a cruise," McGhee explains. "We didn't know what to expect. [Country star] Tim McGraw did a cruise. He never got on the boat. He flew into Nassau, did his show on the beach and left. But we have to figure out a way the band can be more transparent to everybody."

A common beef at the Sixthman Q & A was the lack of autograph sessions with any of the bands, including Kiss. Artists are very accessible on most cruises. Kid Rock has been known to join fans on the water slide of a cruise ship, and I'll never forget tendering into Montego Bay, Jamaica, with the late Muddy Waters piano player Pinetop Perkins on the 2005 Rhythm and Blues Cruise. Levine says, "It would be great to get more time to do signings. You can have a band sign things all day or have them play in an environment where they're comfortable, playing songs they haven't played in a long time."

During the acoustic unmasked show, Kiss played the hit pop ballad "Hard Luck Woman" for the first time since 1995 (and again during the electric show) and the Gene Simmons rarity "See You Tonite."

Skid Row's Bolan adds, "A performance is a little more laid back than a regular show. You can do an acoustic show or pull out rarities. Kiss's second show set list blew my mind. I was writing songs down as they were going along. You're paying good money to get on these things and fans should get something special."

Like Michigan surgeons—unmasked.