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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.
"We were instrumental in getting the mayor to veto this really harsh piece of legislation," he says. "There are people on the city council who think that the way to make the urban center really nice is not to let people make any noise. But the legislation they drafted gave police all this discretion, because the only standard to determine about noise, whether it was music or construction or whatever, was that it be clearly audible. It would have really hurt musicians who bring a lot of economic and cultural vitality to the city and really helped put Seattle on the map."
Although JAMPAC acts locally, Novoselic also thinks globally. To that end, he eagerly accepted an invitation last year to speak before the Senate Commerce Committee in Washington, D.C., on the topic of the possible link between music and school shootings -- an issue about which he feels passionately. "It's such an easy scapegoat, especially for politicians running for re-election, because they can show their constituency, 'Hey, look, I'm doing something about teen violence.' It looks really good on the campaign literature."
According to Novoselic, the committee, chaired that day by Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback, "used all the same old tricks. They read lyrics, horrible lyrics, out of context, and then they asked me to read them. And I was like, 'I'll take these home and read them. I'm not going to be put on display.' And then they asked me about Marilyn Manson. Now, this was at the height of the whole Lewinsky scandal, so I said, 'Mr. Senator, I've been to a Marilyn Manson concert, and I left impressed with what I considered serious political speech. And you also have to realize that Mr. Manson doesn't misrepresent himself. He says he's gross and disgusting, and I think he is, but he also has serious things to say about society and the world. And if you look at the highest level of leadership and responsibility in this country, with all the mudslinging and spin-doctoring, all you see is people saying one thing and doing another. That's why, Mr. Senator, if the youth of America is looking for the truth, they're finding it in Marilyn Manson.'
"I got a big gasp," he continues, chuckling. "And that was pretty much the end of the hearing for me. I guess that just made too much sense."
Since that testimony, of course, the blame-the-music argument hasn't exactly gone away; within hours of the bloodshed at Columbine High School in April, the cultural police were pointing fingers at Marilyn Manson -- whose CDs killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold apparently disliked. Novoselic says he was "beyond appalled" by this element of the Columbine coverage, adding, "I know everyone wants answers, but there are no answers to something like that. If I could sum it up in just a few words, it would be that some kids will do anything for attention." Nonetheless, he offers a few speculations of his own about the phenomenon in general: "With so many dual-income families and this hot economy, there's so much consumption going on. Maybe our priorities, and our families, are getting lost in the process."
The seeming conservatism of this last statement doesn't necessarily put him at odds with the aims of Spitfire, even though the organization was founded by, among others, Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha, a man a little to the left of Che Guevara. Musicians naturally tend to gather on the liberal side of the fence, and 1999 Spitfire participants Michael Franti, the Spearhead leader formerly with the radical rap act Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy; Perry Farrell, of Jane's Addiction, Porno for Pyros and Lollapalooza festival fame; and once- and future-X-woman Exene Cervenka do in fact spend most of their time there. But another Spitfire speaker, onetime MTV video jock Kennedy, declares herself to be a Republican with Libertarian leanings, and Novoselic is even tougher to pin down. For all his paeans to the U.S. system of governing, he argues that "it has a serious flaw -- the way we elect our representatives is really antiquated." Specifically, he says that allowing a candidate who's received 50.1 percent of the vote to stand for 100 percent of the electorate "makes the other 49.9 percent of the people who voted feel that their vote didn't warrant any representation at all. It's a winner-take-all system with two parties that always run on the same things and always appeal to the same voters." His proposed solution is proportional representation in which a party named on 10 percent of the ballots gets 10 percent of the seats in the legislature. "That way," he says, "almost every vote counts."
The best way to make this or any other recommendation a reality, Novoselic believes, is to work within the system, not burn it to the ground. "There are a lot of frustrations in doing things that way," he admits. "It's a slow process, but that's all we've got. If we didn't have city councils and state legislatures and the U.S. Congress, what kind of rule of law would we have? That's how our system was created -- and if we don't have an effective government, then you know what we're going to be stuck with? Big business and big religion. And then we're not going to have a vote at all. So that's how democracy serves us, and why we need to exercise our rights."
Not that Novoselic wants to do so by running for office. "I get asked about that so much, not because I'm so political, but because so many people are apolitical. I'm really not that into politics. I read the paper and I watch the news, and then I go about my life, which is connecting with people and friends and collaborating on art and work."
To that end, Novoselic has lately been working on an amateur film about, he says, "punk rock and yoga" -- a combination that seems bizarre to most folks but makes perfect sense to him. "To me, they're the same thing, because they're both about liberation and expressing yourself in a way that works for you," he points out. "And that's what I'm doing. I'm filming, doing the script, doing the editing, directing it, the whole thing. It's do-it-yourself, just like punk rock. You can just make a film for yourself, and some people will get it and some people won't. But even if they don't, it's like, 'Oh well. That's what I had to say.'"
Novoselic looks at his years in Nirvana in much the same way, despite the mythology that's sprung up around the band -- a legend that at times threatens to entomb him before his time. "To me, the trap is not so much Nirvana," he says. "The trap is what Nirvana has become to our culture. I'm really proud of Nirvana, and I'm happy that I was in it, and I think it's really wonderful that so many people have a really sincere connection to it. But the way things work in the media economy, you've got to keep those pages full so you can get the advertising, and Nirvana is such a compelling story that it's always dragged up. Now, there's been some really good reporting about the band that I've really enjoyed, and a lot of people have really hit it on the head. But there's also been a lot of irresponsible crap: scandal-mongering, conspiracy theories. All this stuff that's just been cooked up. And it's competing for eyeballs with the good stuff."
Obviously, Novoselic's goals for Nirvana didn't include spawning artifacts like 1998's Kurt and Courtney, a film that insinuated that Cobain was knocked off by his wife, Hole's Courtney Love; in his words, "Nirvana was a revolutionary band." But, he goes on, "the music industry didn't want the revolution to happen. That's why they thought up the word alternative. They saw that there was this undercurrent of bands rising up, and they were like, 'Oh, my God, this is going to kick the status quo out. So what do we call this? Let's call it alternative, so that way, it'll miss its target. Instead of obliterating the status quo, it'll just move to the right or left of it as an alternative to the status quo. And the status quo will be fine.'" Suddenly, he effects a Nixonian tone: "'Gentlemen, there's a dangerous force out there, and we are in great peril. It's called' -- whatever it was called -- 'punk rock. The masses are ready to eat it up, and I'm looking at our returns. So let's call it alternative.' And the rest of them are like, 'Brilliant!'"
That Novoselic laughs at the end of this performance is reassuring. He knows that the main reason people are listening to his political views is his celebrity, and he's more than happy to trade on that fame if it helps him accomplish his goals. "It's like when you develop film," he says. "You turn a negative into a positive." But his background in a revolutionary band notwithstanding, he's no anarchist himself.
"There's all this mistrust of politicians and of government and the whole none-of-the-above mentality, and I find that disturbing," he says. "We don't live under the influence of a military junta or a totalitarian regime. We have a great system here, and a great constitution that's very enduring. That's why I argue that the United States is one of the greatest countries in the world."
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