Let me say it plainly. I'm a hardcore Def Leppard fan. I have been for 33 years, since my older brother first played "Photograph" on our turntable in suburban Montreal.
I've seen them live 30 times, own 14 Def Leppard t-shirts, and even have a Def Leppard mousepad. I am, in short, a fanboy.
Only this band could ever tempt me to try the kind of vacation I had never been remotely interested in: a cruise. So it was with much anticipation that I flew to Miami last week to set sail on the inaugural "Def Leppard Hysteria on the High Seas" trip, from January 21-25, with 3,600 total strangers.
The journey was supposed to feature a full Def Leppard show in a small setting, stops in two ports of call in the Bahamas, and a bunch of concerts by second-tier heavy metal acts. Instead, we got what many on the MSC Divina by the second day were calling the cruise from hell: a lead singer without a voice, a death in one of the supporting bands, and monsoon-like weather that scuttled land excursions, leading us to float around the Caribbean aimlessly wondering which Rock Gods we had offended.
The voyage got off to a promising enough start, when Def Leppard came to the pool deck to wish the faithful happy "sailing away" as we left Port Miami. I had trouble suppressing my excitement at being mere feet from my idols. Soon enough, though, our luck would change.
On Day 1, the band held a 90-minute "Storytellers" Q&A session, answering fans' questions from the old and tired (What does the "gunter glieben glauchen globen" intro to "Rock of Ages" really mean?) to the more interesting ("What vocal exercises does Joe do to warm up for a show?")
And there was some music, too. Lead singer Joe Elliott feels about David Bowie as I do about Def Leppard, and with bandmates Rick Savage (bassist) and Phil Collen (lead guitarist), he launched into a cover of "Ziggy Stardust" on acoustic guitar. (Fans couldn't help noticing that his voice had gotten far more hoarse since the previous evening.) The rest of the band came on to do snippets of three classics, including the inevitable "Pour Some Sugar On Me." It was a moment of communion between band and fans. I even got to say a quick hello to Elliott (I didn't quite fall to my knees yelping "I'm not worthy," but almost), guitarist Viv Campbell and drummer Rick Allen, during a group photo. I found them all friendly despite the onslaught of some 40- and 50-something women channeling their inner 1980's groupies, teased hair and all, clearly wanting to end up in band members' cabins.
As Elliott spoke about the recently deceased Bowie, he noted that January 2016 had claimed so many rock legends, including Motorhead's Lemmy and Glenn Frey. We would all soon find out that the Grim Reaper wasn't done yet.
I spent the next day, Saturday, killing time, just looking forward to the centerpiece of this vacation: a full Def Leppard show in a hall of 1,500 seats or so.
Alas it was not to be. Elliott showed up on stage, apologetic, to announce that what had been ailing his throat turned out to be severe laryngitis. In his stead, Leppard lined up singers from the support acts, including Andrew Freeman, Kip Winger and Eric Martin (of Mr. Big fame) for a 40-minute, 7-song set, gamely helping out on the classics that turned Leppard into one of the biggest rock groups ever, with 65 million albums sold. Leppard's own guitarists took turns on lead vocals for two songs.
As Elliott said, introducing his band: "This is the strangest thing I've ever said onstage, but ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Def Leppard!"
Leppard eased the sting of my disappointment by announcing that fans would get a free ticket to a concert of our choice. But alas, more bad news was to come.
On Sunday at noon, I went to the see The Last In Line, Campbell's side project that is part tribute band to heavy metal icon Ronnie James Dio, part original music. No sooner had I sat down that the cruise's MC, radio personality Eddie Trunk, walked on stage to announce that Last in Line bassist Jimmy Bain, a 68 year-old veteran of seminal metal acts Dio and Rainbow, had been found dead in his cabin the night before, leading to all sorts of speculation among fans as to the cause of death. (Campbell said from the stage at a tribute that it was believed Bain had been suffering from pneumonia.)
These unanticipated and tragic setbacks only added to the cruise's strange vibe, one that seemed odd to me and other devoted Leppard fans. It turned out there were only 1,000 spots set aside for Def Leppard, and MSC, the cruise operator, had opened the other spots to non-Leppard cruisers a few months ago to fill up the boat. That was in contrast to many other rock cruises, like the annual KISS voyage, which is chartered exclusively for the event. (Cruise companies will often slash prices to avoid sending out a ship half-full, lest they be deprived of what really pads their margins: alcohol sales.) The customer mix led to strange encounters as elegant ladies dressed to the nines sat in lounges next to middle-aged men in leather jackets and mullets and "Poison" t-shirts, listening to Kip Winger perform long-ago hits. (I overheard one Quebec matron mutter in French, "What the hell is this music?")
Leppard's lost-at-sea weekend is part of a growing trend in both the cruising and touring-music businesses: music-themed vacations. Faced with dwindling album sales, countless "legacy" acts have turned to music cruises for supplemental touring income. Def Leppard remains one of the top grossing touring acts in rock, but its most recent CD, released in October, managed just one week among the Billboard Top 10 albums (despite great reviews).
Assuming Def Leppard and MSC struggled to sell tickets, part of the problem may have been that the cruise was scheduled around the same time as three other established, hard-rock-themed cruises: Shiprocked, Rock Legends IV and Rock Boat XVI. At other times of the year, there are other popular cruises by KISS and Monsters of the Rock, which feature far more music acts than the Leppard cruise did. Journey and Styx are among the many acts doing cruises in the coming months. In other words, there is a boatload of competition.
Who knows whether Def Leppard will attempt to headline another cruise anytime soon. (We've asked band management for comment and will update if we hear back.) But those of us on the cruise at least got to see the one Leppard performance in its 39 years of existence without Elliott fronting the band. Rock 'n roll is supposed to be unpredictable. On that front, the cruise was an unmitigated success.