While checking out her first Bacchus parade, Ann Marie Coviello happened to gaze up and see a hovering apparition in the cloud-like form of a bull’s head. She didn’t know it at the time, but Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, who is also associated with madness, frenzy, theater and ritually induced ecstasy — and whose equivalent in Roman mythology is Bacchus — was often represented in the form of a bull at ancient festivals held in his honor. Out of this vision emerged Box of Wine, a marching group whose Bacchanalian revels have greatly enlivened the scene along the Bacchus parade route.
Box of Revel-ations
by Rachel Breunlin
In Roman mythology, Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry, returned kindness extended by his subjects with the gift of viniculture. Since its debut on the streets of New Orleans in 1969, the Krewe of Bacchus likewise has exerted an intoxicating influence on the populace, who turn out in droves on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday — known as “Bacchus Sunday” — to witness its procession. It’s one of the most lavish spectacles of the Carnival season, featuring enormous, glitzy floats conveying masked riders who, in the beneficent spirit of the god of grape, throw massive quantities of beads and other goodies into the outstretched arms of frenzied spectators.
But for Ann Marie Coviello, experiencing the Bacchus parade is about much more than mere loot. “It really does coalesce into something bigger than just people on floats who throw plastic shit,” she avers.
Coviello, who underwent what she calls a “classic conversion experience” at her first Bacchus parade in 1992, is founder of Box of Wine, a marching group whose Bacchanalian revels have greatly enlivened the scene along the parade route before the main event rolls. Think of it as her gift to the thousands of dedicated parade goers who come out early to secure prime viewing spots for Bacchus.
Fueled by the gift of the grape and the rapture found therein, Box of Wine exists in an alternative reality all its own — the Mardi Gras equivalent of Burning Man, the annual gathering in the Nevada desert featuring alternative artistic expression and inspired tribal mayhem. There is no pre-programmed, controlling aesthetic, but rather joyous license to indulge alter egos and nurture wacky fantasies and do-it-yourself ingenuity.
In the case of Box of Wine, what began as a small band of offbeat revelers — inspired by Coviello’s vision of a “spiritual” endeavor that would seek to recreate the communal ecstasy of ancient Dionysian rites — has evolved into a kaleidoscopic burlesque with a host of rambunctious subgroups and colorful characters. There are, for example, the formidable Pony Girls — strapping Amazons in harnesses —and DioNiceAss, a sultry vision in a long white dress. She has been known to cavort and kibitz with Schmacchus, the self-proclaimed “patently false but nonetheless lovable god of specially sweetened fine kosher wine.” He is partial to Manischewitz, and woe be to anyone who puts any other false god before him.
A rolling fringe festival unto themselves, the Royal Revelers of Discordia are mysterious practitioners of carnival arts, with visually arresting contraptions fashioned out of bicycles and resembling menacing beasts or the fossilized remains thereof. Also meshing with the bohemian, non-commercial vibe of Box of Wine is the Krewe du Craft. A group of artisans and crafters striving to bring local, handmade and recycled throws and costumes to Mardi Gras, they’ve been accompanied by musicians from Egg Yolk Jubilee. Other musical elements include the eclectic Panorama Brass Band. A mesmerizing fount of world music filtered through a propulsive New Orleans traditional jazz sensibility, they transform participants into strutting gypsies and ecstatic dervishes. Then there’s the inimitable Noisician Coalition, a group of musical mad scientists who make their own instruments.
The procession can both delight and befuddle, eliciting quizzical bemusement from uninitiated spectators (who are likely to be offered drinks of wine). “There’s always the stunned faces,” Coviello explained in an interview with David Kunian, in a segment for WWOZ-FM’s Street Talk series. “Like, ‘Jesus, what is this?’ And our favorite is always like, ‘Are you Bacchus?’ with this total, like, disbelieving look. ‘This can’t be Bacchus. I did not wait here eight hours for this.’ Because we’re, obviously, really small [compared to the Krewe of Bacchus].”
A native of Oak Park, Ill., Coviello came to New Orleans to teach English at George Washington Carver, a public high school in the Lower Ninth Ward, after graduating from the University of Iowa. Having lived in Kenya for a year, where she’d been exposed to drum-and-dance processions and funerals, the peculiar festive customs of her newly adopted home were not entirely unfamiliar.
Carver draws from a predominantly African-American working-class neighborhood, and many of Coviello’s students lived in Desire, one of the nation’s largest public housing developments (it has since been demolished). She’d watch Carver’s marching band practice outside the school. As most any New Orleanian can attest, the sound of drums always builds up the excitement of a parade, and for Coviello, “it was completely compelling.”
Also helping stoke her anticipation of Mardi Gras festivities were her hairdresser’s descriptions of costumed celebrants in the French Quarter on Fat Tuesday. She recalls hearing about “a man painted gold, perfectly proportioned in every way, carrying a silver tray with a perfectly proportioned midget on it painted silver.” Needless to say, she was “transfixed.”
Coviello’s initiation into the rites of the season came courtesy of the Army of Clowns, a group of revelers, now defunct, who indulged in ritual excess on Bacchus Sunday. “They did costume pieces for everybody, like a big ruffled collar or cuffs. It was funny and brash…a big group of friends walking down the street together,” she remembers.
Among them was a woman named Gee Gee, who, recalls Coviello, was “wearing a 1930s velveteen dress and playing a drum with a glass bottle. And of course, the bottle broke and glass went everywhere.”
Starting out at the Half Moon Bar in the Lower Garden District, the Army of Clowns eventually made it to Lucky’s, a bar on St. Charles Ave., to watch the Bacchus parade. Lower St. Charles was then in a state of neglect, and the rundown buildings offered a stark contrast to festive encampments — tents, barbecue grills, picnic baskets, boom boxes and stepladders — set up by families lining the parade route.
The king of the Clowns was a flamboyant bartender at Lucky’s named Mickey, now deceased. He was garbed in a collar measuring six feet in diameter and had platform shoes seven inches high, recalls Coviello. To pass the time, he traded drinks for drugs. Calling out “Whatdaya got?” he pulled people’s heads over the bar top at Lucky’s and poured liquor down their throats.
After hours of waiting, Bacchus finally arrived around twilight. Before long, Coviello found herself groveling for beads in the dirt of the median, known as the neutral ground, that divides the avenue. “I was hallucinating beads,” she recalls. “People had beads coming out of their eyes and mouths and ears.”
At one point she beheld an apparition, in the form of a bull’s head, hovering over the parade. Coviello didn’t know it at the time, but Dionysus — the equivalent of Bacchus in Greek mythology — was often represented in the form of a bull at ancient festivals held in his honor.
Like Bacchus — whose cult was connected to nature’s fertility and whose worship generated emotional frenzy — Dionysus was no mere god but an entire religion unto himself. Dionysian rites were religious rituals in which the god was said to possess his devotees, after they danced themselves into a trance. As The Horizon Cookbook and Illustrated History of Eating and Drinking Through the Ages says of the revels he inspired, “Intoxication was thought to wrest the human spirit from the mind’s control. Wine, then, became everywhere in the classical world a medium of religious experience.”
Delving into reference books, Coviello later discovered that the “painful ecstasy” she says she felt at that first Bacchus parade was characteristic of a religious conversion experience. “I was a fan of Greek mythology from the time I was a little girl,” she says, “but I didn’t know about the religious dimensions of it at all, and I didn’t know what had happened to me [at the parade]. I just knew it was really intense and was spiritual in nature.”
Coviello — who subsequently enrolled in a master’s program at the University of California, Berkeley — came to realize that all the things she was thankful for in life could be traced back to her first experience of Bacchus Sunday. So when Mardi Gras season rolled around again, “I told all my professors that it was a religious holiday, and I had to go.”
For Bacchus, Coviello and six other costumed friends, some with drums, marched up St. Charles to pay ritual homage to his mythological majesty. She carried a sign that said “Thanks to Bacchus for favors granted” — verbiage echoing classified advertisements that, thanking favorite saints, customarily appear in New Orleans-area newspapers in the days preceding St. Joseph’s Day (March 19). (Many Catholic residents of Louisiana observe this feast day, which is considered a respite from the fasting of Lent, by erecting alters that typically include food offerings for the less fortunate.)
After obtaining her master’s degree, Coviello moved back to New Orleans and landed a job teaching English at Warren Easton High School. For Bacchus Sunday in 1995, she made a sign that said “Praise Bacchus” and once again took to the street with her cohorts. By now, imbibing from boxes of wine had become something of a tradition — hence the name Box of Wine.
Joining in the procession that year was a contingent associated with an avant-garde performance ensemble, Crash Worship. Through hypnotic, propulsive rhythms and the extensive use of visual and physical stimuli — including pyrotechnics and the whipping and piercing of bodies live on stage — the group, along with its audience provocateurs, was known for creating an atmosphere of explosive, orgiastic intensity. “They’re real primitivists,” says Coviello. She became friends with members of the group, who were originally from San Diego, not long after they arrived in New Orleans.
The following year, Box of Wine assumed a much higher profile, attracting more participants than ever before, when the creative Ninth Ward Marching Band joined the procession. Under the direction of the enigmatic artist-musician known as Quintron, the all-adult band’s tightly choreographed routines never failed to amaze the crowd.
“We always get people who are going, ‘Man, they ain’t throwing shit,’ ” relates Coviello, “but then something happens. The parade stops and the Gun Girls start going into their routine” — twirling their guns, which shoot confetti — “and it’s magic. No one can resist it.” (The Ninth Ward Marching Band no longer rolls with Box of Wine but can be seen in the Krewe d’Etat parade on the Friday before Fat Tuesday.)
From its humble beginnings as a loosely organized, rag-tag bacchanal, Box of Wine had evolved into something more structured and elaborate, with accoutrements: a banner and invitations, through there never was any formal membership, and, later, a royalty float with a fabricated metal wine bottle containing DioNiceAss.
While the parade is open to anyone who catches the spirit, costuming is expected. As is typical of the city’s Mardi Gras subcultures, people tend to spend more time on their costumes in proportion to how often they’ve participated.
Jim is one reveler who, says Coviello, always makes a memorable contribution to the pageantry. He once made a giant cat head that housed a loudspeaker, and “was playing an electric guitar inside his costume.” For the 2000 parade, he supplied Box’s of Wine’s only “float”: a golf cart equipped with booming loudspeakers.
As Box of Wine’s visibility increased over the years, so too did the likelihood of running afoul of a city ordinance requiring parades large and small to obtain permits. Many “unofficial” marching groups that roam the French Quarter on Fat Tuesday routinely slip under the police department’s radar. But as Box of Wine discovered on Bacchus Sunday 1999, taking to city’s main parade thoroughfare without a permit is a much dicier proposition.
When the parade, after winding its way through the back streets of Uptown, hit St. Charles, the cops were waiting with paddy wagons. Coviello — who, in honor of the fact that it was Valentine’s Day, had a sign that said “Bacchus be mine” — says she tried explaining to them that the participants would “never do anything to stop the Bacchus parade from coming.” After all, she relates, “whatever the stupid, bullshit theme, whatever no-brain, no-spirituality people ride on that parade, just the name alone is total power and magic to me.”
The cop in charge wasn’t buying it. “He’s like, ‘Girl, you’re going right in that paddy wagon,’ ” recalls Coviello. ” ‘Where’s your permit?’ ” Fortunately, though, cooler heads prevailed and no one got hauled off in handcuffs. The group wound up performing their routine on a side street and then hung around to watch the Bacchus parade.
Box of Wine had had run-ins with the cops before, yet somehow always managed to finagle or maneuver its way onto St. Charles. Indeed, says Coviello, “half the fun is the embattlement.”
(Such wrangles, alas, pale in comparison to the suppression faced by worshipers of Bacchus during the time of the Roman Empire, as noblemen became increasingly unnerved by the cult’s exuberance. A purge in the second century B.C. plunged Rome into hysterical terror, notes Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, “with thousands attempting to escape before the authorities could get to them. In the ensuing crackdown, about 7,000 men and women were detained, and the majority of them executed — males by the state, women handed over to their families to be killed in private….”)
For its 2000 parade, Box of Wine opted to go through official channels and obtain a permit. The alternative — banishment from the Bacchus parade route — was just too depressing.
For the big day, Coviello was got up in a wedding dress and carried a sign that said “Bacchus I do.” “I’m married to everything that stands for,” she says. “It’s like saying yes to life and no to death. If you don’t say yes to Bacchus, he pays you back hard.”
Sadly, Larry, one of Coviello’s best friends and the king of Box of Wine for 2000, died before he was able to reign. For his memorial service, she decorated a coffin that was displayed at the Audubon Hotel, at 1225 St. Charles.
Coviello attributes Larry’s death to his lack of a healthy relationship with Bacchus, who may encourage you to indulge in pleasure, but also demands that you keep it in perspective. “The number one source of misery is people’s inability to cope with their addictions,” she observes. “Maybe it just looks that way in New Orleans, but man, I grew up with an alcoholic father and it has really colored my view of the world.”
Though other friends of Coviello’s have stumbled on the slippery slope of overindulgence — a way of life laissez-faire New Orleans tends to promote — her romance with the city basically remains in tact. It’s “a great place to make things happen,” she says, because the indigenous culture encourages people to explore their creativity — frequently, in the streets. And in contrast to other cities, where people tend rely on more formal, structured venues to express themselves, New Orleans represents one of the “last bastions where people pay to entertain other people.”
Speaking of mainstream Mardi Gras parades, Coviello admits that “as much as the guys on the floats are such assholes to me, I worship them at the same time.” Why? Because they foot the bill for the festivities, as well as devote lots of time and effort to ensure their success — “literally out of the goodness of their hearts.”
And she gives props to the cops, who, as she related in email before the 2008 parade, go from “ ‘busting my balls’ ” to “being wonderful again all of a sudden.”
“The bastards tried to tell me that ‘this is the last year,’ ” she reported, during a rocky patch in the permit negotiations. “That’s a good one! I’m the only one who gets to say that every year, but I guess nobody informed the cops. They said Box of Wine violates some ordinance. If Box of Wine is doing what it’s supposed to do, it’s violating several ordinances, many laws and various bans, taboos and prohibitions.
“Hurray for Box of Wine!”