Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker recently revealed to Q Magazine that they have no more gigs planned after the inaugural S.S. Coachella cruises, and ruled out any new material. Perfect excuse to attend, right? Once the lineup was revealed back in July, I immediately created a Facebook group, adding every friend that expressed the slightest interest in attending. Thankfully I found two that were willing to book the cruise with only four days notice. Pulp people are the best people, after all, and definitely hardcore.
I didn’t know that I would be seeing Pulp for possibly their last performance ever, just that I would be seeing them again, so why did I drop everything to book a stateroom for the S.S. Coachella? Maybe I’m just getting older, but the absence of hardship while never being less than a thousand feet away from my own bed and bathroom were the equally enticing aspects of the cruise. Roughing it while surrounded by teenagers enjoying their first overdose is close to becoming more trouble than its worth, and as someone that got into the world of music writing because of festivals, that is saying quite a lot. By the last day (or in the case of Glastonbury 2010, the end of the first night) of the average festival, my sinuses usually blackmail me into a week of bed rest and dubiously purchased antibiotics under the threat of pneumonia. After a while, it all becomes yet another routine.
Make no mistake, I love seeing my favorite artists live and discovering new ones while engaging in a reasonable level of debauchery with like-minded people, but on a boat, I don’t have to deal with dust, mud, long walks, or extreme temperatures. And I know I’m not alone in this. Sometimes you just want the best of times without all the bundled drama. But can someone really have it all, or does being on a luxury liner strip “the festival experience” of its edge?
Wednesday, December 19th
12:30 p.m. - Upon arrival at S.S. Coachella, aka the luxurious Celebrity Silhouette, we’re greeted with champagne glasses and a level of friendliness that I could never match. Our first order of business is heading to the S.S. Coachella customer service desk to sign up for activities. Even though the desk does not open until 4:30 p.m. and embarkation officially began five minutes ago, the DJ lessons and Black Lips bar crawl activities are already full. The Real Wine and Snowball Bar Crawl activities filled online in advance, but thankfully I’m on the waiting list for the tasting and confirmed for the latter. All other activities are on a first come, first serve basis, so I make a mental note to arrive early for everything.
I’m actually almost relieved that the DJ lessons seminar is full, namely because choosing between the end of that and Warpaint’s second performance would be one of the cruise’s only difficult scheduling conflicts. Speaking of which, the scheduling is planned in such a way that one really can see every act if they so desired. At my last Coachella, I had to make stomach-churning decisions between Charlotte Gainsbourg/Jonsi; Little Dragon/LCD Soundsystem/front row for Fever Ray; Devo/2ManyDJs; and Orbital/Pavement/a spot within a mile of Atoms for Peace to name a few, so it’s a refreshing change of pace.
1:30 p.m. - Within an hour of embarkation, we already have two new friends. After a brief stroll around the upper decks, we’re colored impressed with the cleanliness and understated beauty of the Celebrity Silhouette. From the floor tiles to the lawn furniture, all decor is surprisingly tasteful. After a round of photo ops at the unattended DJ booth and oversized chairs at the lawn, we realize how hungry we are, so we hit up the buffet at the Oceanview Cafe, and soon after, Hot Chip sits at the table next to ours. My pasta and minute steak are the definition of mediocre, but still edible and oddly comforting.
Sometime after two – During our walk-about, we find ourselves in the Aqua Spa, where we’re given brief demonstrations of the massage services available. These five minutes are the most relaxing ones I’ve ever enjoyed, and levels of tension I never knew I had dissipate as my shoulders settle into a gelatinous state. Unfortunately, $195 is out of my price range, but I vow to return if I do well in the casino.
4:00 p.m. - After a shower, some stateroom exploration, a few more meetups, and a forgettable safety drill (!), I’m waiting at Cellar Masters to switch from the wait list to confirm the Real Wine activity. Jarvis Cocker walks past me with a suitcase, but he looks busy so I don’t bother him. Pressing concern: Do I post a Facebook status about it? Of course! Facebook bragging is something I need to enjoy before we sail into the sea of international roaming charges. If social networking is an addiction, then how will I handle being away from it for four days? And, really, there’s no way I’m paying $.75 a minute for wi-fi.
4:40 p.m. - We arrive just in time to catch the end of the first of countless Alf Alpha DJ sets, and as we move to the upper deck for some breathing room, he mixes some Bel Biv Devoe. Consider me satisfied. At some point Alf Alpha surrenders the decks to none other than James Murphy because he apparently really wanted to play as we sailed away, but I don’t even realize this until after the fact. Outbreaks of bare butt cheeks and Instagram photos spread over the pool deck, and I feel like I’m back in Indio. I take one final “you should have come” Facebook photo with my phone and feel a surprising sensation of liberation as I disable data. The sun is going down, everyone is having fun, a light wind is washing over my body, and I have a free Heineken in hand. It’s a good life, I have to admit.
Around six most likely. - Wine tasting seems to be the kind of activity that our well-off might enjoy on a cruise without a hint of irony, but our hosts assure us that it wine need not be bound to elitism. According to Murphy and co-host Justin Chearno, the wine most of us drink is loaded with additives and preservatives, much like the foods we eat. The results of natural winemaking can be unpredictable, which is half the fun.
Frank Cornelissen’s “Contadino 9” tastes like “burning” with hints of gravel. The oenophiles put everything into terms we could understand, specifically that a wine distributor is like a record label and that just as punk bands do not register as such, wines are not labeled as “natural.” As enjoyable as it is educational, where else but the S.S. Coachella could such a random event occur?
7:15 p.m. - One of my Pulp pals and I want to be up front and center, so we arrive at the Silhouette Theater some three hours and 15 minutes early to secure our spots. The seats in the theatre are extraordinarily comfortable and if there were any low key performances happening here, it would be easy to fall asleep. It’s not long before a couple other joyriders find us in the front row, one of whom just saw Pulp in Sheffield. I’m as impressed as I am jealous.
8:00 p.m. – Okay, so there goes that plan. After being expelled from the Silhouette Theatre, we walk down the hall to try the Grand Cuvee, basically the main dining hall, for a second dinner. The food trounces the buffet, and I try the steak with shrimp cocktail and Caesar salad. It hits me that I’ll never eat food like this at a traditional music festival, let alone a three course meal with cloth napkins, silverware, and a multitude of servers.
10:30 p.m. - By now everyone’s heard about Pulp’s tension-building laser intro, so the element of surprise is long gone. At other shows on the reunion tour, questions such as “Are you ready?”, “Shall we do it?”, and “Do you want to see a dolphin” scrolled across a curtain, and in multiple languages when needed. But instead of a dolphin, here comes Santa, appearing on the curtain for a shuffle. Well played.
By the time the curtain drops during the first chorus of opener “Do You Remember the First Time?”, the theatre is packed but still not completely full. I know the cruise isn’t sold out, but the room felt fuller at the safety drill, and I know a lot of people skipped it. In any case, these cruise gigs have to be the band’s smallest public performances since the ’90s, and now the finale is an even more intimate event than expected.
“Our ship sails away on the morrow, bound for distant shores. When we will reach our destination, no-one knows, but rest assured: We’ll be in touch.”
It’s a quote from the liner notes of Pulp’s Hits compilation, and it’s now more appropriate than ever now that Cocker has revealed there will be no new album and there are no more gigs booked. This might be Pulp’s sailing away, but what’s missing from the occasion is an air of finality. As Sheffield’s finest run through their most popular songs, the one feeling that’s absent is one of farewell. What ought to be a bittersweet affair with the shedding of tears is a completely exhilarating event. We laugh, we dance, and impure thoughts ensue, but sadness is not on the agenda. Perhaps it’s not really over.
What separates Pulp from most reunion acts is the genuine elation that comes from the performance. Yes, they are getting paid handsomely, but it’s not just about the money, and there’s an unmistakable sense that everyone still gets along and is having fun onstage. Keyboardist Candida Doyle and guitarist Mark Webber drop subtle smiles as they nail their sections perfectly, while violinist Jean Cook appears to have become one with the moment during her solo on “Pencil Skirt”. And Jarvis Cocker’s peerless showmanship? It comes across less as practiced theatrics and more as the shedding of restraint as he consumes more of the audience’s energy and adoration. His brand of strip-teasing, stage-humping, bra-sniffing swagger is one that would get him locked in the brig of a traditional cruise.
Pulp play it relatively safe with tonight’s setlist. All the expected jump-and-singalong anthems surface, as do fan favorites such as the aforementioned sleazy delight “Pencil Skirt”, Great Expectations/Venture Bros. soundtracker “Like a Friend”, and most surprisingly, a rare airing of “His ‘N’ Hers”, which is apparently their most Caribbean-sounding number. At the song’s midpoint, before listing what he’s frightened of, Cocker asks audience members what does it for them, and one fan replies with “public speaking!” Unlike other headlining shows on the tour that featured completely unexpected oddities such as “My Lighthouse” and “I Love LA”, the band never journeys further back in their discography than “Razzmatazz”. It’s probably for the best, because the crowd already has a few too many that seize “Bar Italia” and the quiet half of “Like a Friend” as cherished opportunities to hear their own voices speaking of unrelated matters.
The irony of performing “Common People” onboard a cruise ship where the cheapest booking rate was $900 after fees is not lost on Cocker, as he takes a moment to acknowledge it before moving on. Besides, some of us are muggles; we just had to sacrifice and work extra hard to make this trip a reality. After a bruise-inducing raucous response to the ultimate outsider anthem of our time that includes one failed attempt at a crowd surf, the crowd demands more. The band returns and Cocker declares they only have time for one more song. My English friend’s plea for a cover of “Eye of the Tiger” is denied because “we don’t know that one.” How soon we forget.
My request of “My Legendary Girlfriend” goes unheard, and the band rips into another urgent us-vs-them celebration in the form of “Mis-Shapes”. Unable to resist, I begin saying my pardons as I squeeze against the stage with the intention of invasion. One fan on the other side beats me to the punch, as she rushes Cocker for a brief hug before making her exit. I don’t see security dragging her away, and in fact, I see no security at all, so I go for it. After a quick spaz out, I begin to imitate some of the moves Cocker pulled when he infamously invaded Michael Jackson’s space and two of my friends join me in the moment. At the end, the man himself shakes all our hands with approval.
I catch a look at the setlist and see that the unplayed gems “O.U.”, “Bad Cover Version”, and “Live Bed Show” are listed. Had Pulp’s set time been a full two hours, then perhaps they would have made an appearance, and the latter two were near the top of my wishlist. What happened to bands playing longer sets than usual, especially since we are only getting one Pulp set instead of two as originally claimed? The post-show high is still burning too strongly for me to give much thought to what might have been, however. After all, I just “pulled a Jarvis Cocker” during the “last” Pulp show. From here, life has nowhere to go but down. As for the next S.S. Coachella, it will be difficult to match tonight’s show, but Blur is a safe bet. Their shows are similarly energetic and contain that rarity factor that inspires the dropping of a small fortune to catch. Outside of headliners, Bat for Lashes would also be a perfect fit, but I digress.
12:20 a.m. - James Murphy is spotted waiting for an elevator and someone in ours calls out to him. It seems he recognizes me as that guy who jumped onstage during Pulp. He won’t be the last. I ask if he’s playing Coachella next year, and he says no. Now would have been a good opportunity to ask about those Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Arcade Fire albums, but he promptly makes his exit after just a few floors.
12:30 a.m. - By the time we arrive at Sky Lounge, a large crowd has already formed and it’s going wild for one of 2012’s biggest breakthroughs: Grimes. I’m beat from the frenzied Pulp farewell and three relatively sleepless nights, so I grab a seat in the back and rehydrate. I’m told there are dancers onstage going into the crowd, but all I can do is listen from my vantage point. Visions is one of my favorite albums of 2012 and the live renditions do not disappoint. From my distance, everything sounds faithful in sound and whimsy, with an enthralling live show to boot. I vow to arrive early enough tomorrow to watch from the front of the crowd.
1:20 a.m. - Outside by the pool’s Mast Bar, a girl who appears to be having the most epic of journeys asks me twice within 30 seconds where I’m from, all while rubbing my cheeks. I realize that for the rest of the week, I am going to be known as “that guy” thanks to the aforementioned stage invasion — not really a bad thing. Back inside, I see Warpaint’s Emily Kokal in line at the bar by Sky Lounge and get a photo and a brief chat. Yes, she saw me jump onstage during Pulp. Jarvis Cocker walks by again and chats with Har Mar Superstar.
1:30 a.m. - Appearing as silhouettes in front of a setup that includes a massive modular synth dripping with wires, Simian Mobile Disco proved to be one of the best and most “live” EDM acts in the festival circuit nowadays. Witnessing their never-the-same twice reconstructions makes my exhausted body want to move. Unfortunately, all the rows of seats make dancing a risky venture except in the aisles and gap between the front row and stage, so I stand awkwardly to the side. One reveler communicates with my friend only by sticking out his tongue as far as he can, and another asks a gibberish request that involves taking our picture with my camera. Well, the tops of our heads, at least. It’s been a long day and things are getting a little too weird for what’s only the first night, so I retire to my room comparatively early.
Too late - The television has one channel that features nothing but an endless loop of the Coachella film, so I watch the interviews segment while waiting for room service. Inside the room service menu is a door hanger with a checklist listing all the available breakfast items and options for delivery time. I have not seen my roommate since before Simian Mobile Disco, so instead of guessing what he might want for breakfast, I just request two of nearly everything. Leaving the veranda door open as I open my stateroom creates a whirlwind that sends every loose piece of paper flying down the hall, including my breakfast menu.
An urge to see and do everything drives me out of the comfort of my stateroom following a “meh” mini-pizza and a highly decadent slice of cheesecake with blueberry sauce. The schedule lists a special guest at 1:30 a.m. and a surprise Grimes DJ set at around three in Quasar, the ship’s space-age disco. Rumors circulate that the guest will be Flying Lotus because Warp listed S.S. Coachella under his upcoming events. I drop by shortly after three to check out Grimes, but she’s nowhere to be seen. I don’t recognize the faces of the DJs inside the sphere, either, but it sounds like a fun time. I realize I’m in my pajamas and leave to change, only to be distracted by the casino, which is packed with late night gamblers. I would join them, but I don’t have any cash with me. When I make it back to Quasar at 3:30 a.m., Claire Boucher is nowhere to be seen, and I return to my stateroom for an all-too-short round of sleep.