By Bree Davies
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Most right-wingers would expect a punk rocker like bassist Krist Novoselic to burn flags. Instead, he waves them.
Half of the rhythm section that made Nirvana run, Seattle-based Novoselic hasn't turned his back on music since guitarist/vocalist Kurt Cobain used a shotgun to kill both himself and his band's future in April 1994. He was a large part of Sweet 75, an idiosyncratic combo that was put on the shelf not long after its 1996 bow ("We had some good stuff going, but the interpersonal-dynamic thing just wasn't happening," he explains), and he's currently involved in a new project with several performers he declines to name for fear of jinxing it. But he's been far more visible over the past several years in the realm of civic affairs. In 1995, he founded Joint Artists and Music Promotions Political Action Committee (JAMPAC), an organization dedicated in part to convincing youths to get more involved in the life of their nation. And as a participant in Spitfire, a spoken-word tour now in its second year, he offers, among other things, regular salutes to the American way. As he puts it, "Our constitution and our system of representation keeps our country together. Freedom of speech and expression help incentive blossom, and incentive is one of the basic tenets of the free-enterprise system." Even Pat Buchanan might be able to get behind that sentiment, and he'd likely be cheered, too, by Novoselic's contention, expressed in a 1998 address, that "you can be...less alienating" by engaging legislators rather than by torching the ol' red, white and blue on the Capitol steps.
At times, Novoselic's new-style patriotism seems to have taken over his personality: After mentioning that he'd been out late the night before this interview to see a show by the all-female punk act L7, for example, he inexplicably asks that the information be kept off the record, as if it might somehow sully his image. Later, however, he talks at length about hanging out with the L7 crew and argues that he remains a rocker first and a pundit second. Just as important, his love of America the Beautiful doesn't prevent him from presenting thoughtful criticism about both this land of ours and the citizenry that often takes its glories for granted. "I believe there's a lot of apathy today in young people, and older people, too," he says. "In the last election here in Seattle, the voter turnout was around 18 percent, so most people are disengaged from the process. And I think that's really sad, because democracy is such a wonderful thing -- and if we choose not to participate in the process, we're going to get ramrodded."
Music and politics have been closely intertwined in Novoselic's world since long before he entered the spotlight. As noted in author Michael Azerrad's book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, Krist, 34, grew up in Gardena, California, as part of a lower-middle-class family, and during his early teens, he and his younger brother Robert amused themselves by slashing tires and throwing rocks at cars. Then, after the Novoselics' 1979 move to the dreary Washington community of Aberdeen, he plunged into a depression that he tried to ameliorate by drinking excessively and smoking a lot of dope. But he was saved by punk rock -- not just the liberating simplicity of the sound, but the aggressiveness of the politics that was at its core back then. No pop-punk for him; he was into stuff that meant something.
So, too, was Cobain, and over the course of the mid-Eighties, the pair lurched from a failed Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band called the Sellouts to the combo that would become Nirvana. The outfit issued its debut single, "Love Buzz," in 1988 on the Sub Pop imprint, and the next year cut a promising full-length, Bleach, that reportedly cost a grand total of $606 to capture on tape. The lineup finally solidified in 1990 with the addition of drummer Dave Grohl, who joined just before Nirvana signed with Geffen Records and recorded 1991's Nevermind, a brilliant album that dragged a new rock style to the top of the charts with the help of singular songs such as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Lithium." In the two and a half years that followed, the band put out another great record (1993's In Utero), a comparatively slovenly one (1992's odds-and-ends collection Incesticide), and recorded an MTV concert that served as an appropriate swan song (1994's Unplugged in New York) after Cobain, a heroin addict for whom satisfaction was largely elusive, literally ended Nirvana with a bang.
Shortly after the mess was cleaned up, Grohl revealed himself to be more than just a common skin pounder via Foo Fighters, an act he created in 1995. But Novoselic, whose energetic antics were a big part of Nirvana's onstage appeal, moved in a different direction. In response to proposed legislation in Washington state that was blatantly pro-censorship and anti-music, including one measure that would have deemed certain recordings "harmful to minors," he and a group of likeminded locals formed JAMPAC in January 1995. Since then, JAMPAC has helped defeat bills aimed at squelching the music community, such as an ordinance that would have held Seattle club owners liable for the actions of patrons in or near their establishments, and supported others, like a law signed in 1998 that protects each person's right to his own name, image, voice and so on. Novoselic notes that yet another significant victory was earned just a month or so back.