Worthy Master Krist Novoselic at the Grays River Grange with fellow Grange members, October 14, 2008
John Hughes for The Legacy Project
On a crisp October night, Krist Novoselic adjusted
a sash on his 6-foot, 7-inch frame. As Master of Grays River Grange No. 124, he
opened its monthly meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance and a time-honored ritual
that emphasizes unity, liberty and "In all things, charity." Then he strummed a
12-string guitar to accompany a stanza of an old favorite he calls "Home on the
Grange." Fifteen years earlier, he was a member of Nirvana, the most popular rock
band in the world.
Things turned solemn as Novoselic and a dozen fellow Grangers draped their charter
with black gauze to honor a member who had died the week before. Though "heavy indeed
are the worldly sorrows," they're comforted that she had passed "through the gates
of the Grange above where dwells the Great Master of us all." Grangers have recited
those words for 140 years.
Novoselic speaks with obvious affection about his Grange sister, laughing as he
recalls the Tweety Bird cover on the spare tire of her SUV.
The Grangers say The Lord's Prayer and push ahead to current events.
The "Worthy Master" - as Grangers address their leader — is disappointed over the
news that the county sheriff's budget may be cut. He believes public safety programs
should be slashed only as a last resort. "I live way out in Deep River and we're
never gonna get any cops out there when we need them," Novoselic says.
During a report on efforts to save the County Extension Office, one Granger quips
that a key player is "a WSU man with some intelligence." Novoselic raps his gavel
and reminds everyone that "We speak with decorum at the Grange!" He allows himself
a slight smile, but means what he said. He takes this job very seriously.
He's glad to see the refurbished kitchen being used more. "It's catching the groove.
Let's use it. It's cool."
Novoselic notes the importance of an upcoming candidates' night. As an aside, he
comments that it's just plain wrong to exclude third-party candidates from the 2008
presidential debates. "What's that about?" he says disgustedly.
By now, you're probably wondering why the bassist for a band destined for the Rock
‘n' Roll Hall of Fame is hanging out with senior citizens in thoroughly rural Wahkiakum
County, just east of Naselle.
It's because he feels right at home. The formality of what Novoselic calls "The
Orthodox Grange" appeals to his sense of propriety and down-home togetherness. The
old wood-frame Grange Hall radiates history. Besides, there are popovers in the
oven and all the succulent little oysters you can eat.
Kurt Cobain, left, and Krist Novoselic
pose in their dressing room backstage at the Paramount Theater in Seattle after
Nirvana's performance on October 25, 1991. Their landmark album, "Nevermind," made
its debut that week. By January it was number one on the Billboard Top 200 Album
Chart. Photo courtesy Darrell Westmoreland
Meantime, back at the Post Office up the road, Novoselic's royalties keep rolling
in from "Nevermind," the Aberdeen band's breakout No. 1 album, which has sold more
than 10 million copies since 1991, and the rest of the Nirvana catalogue. Tragically,
Novoselic's friend and bandmate, the mesmerizingly gifted Kurt Cobain, killed himself
in 1994 at the age of 27. His suicide sent shock waves around the world and decimated
"Watching the ‘deity phenomenon' at close hand" gave Novoselic insight into the
fickleness of fame and intensified his appetite for making the most of life.
"Nirvana, by definition, means freedom," he says.
While Cobain is an icon, Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl also made huge contributions
to Nirvana's success. In a 1991 review of a band poised to rocket from "underground
bonus baby" to super-stardom, Rolling Stone cited Novoselic's "decisive control"
of the trio. His pulsating bass lines tempered Cobain's sizzling chords and manic
vocals. (Someone observed that Cobain had mastered the ability to scream in tune.)
The band's first hit single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," features Novoselic pacing
the hypnotic, changing tempos while Grohl thrashes the rods out of his drum kit.
"Krist's intro to ‘Lounge Act' is fantastic and it carries the entire song," says
Jeff Burlingame, a Tacoma writer and music critic who knew Cobain when they were
teenagers in Aberdeen. He is now president of the Kurt Cobain Memorial Committee.
"Krist and whatever drummer the band had at the time, steadied the Nirvana ship
so Kurt could jump on the bow and scream ‘Land ahoy!' Without Krist, Kurt would
have fallen overboard and been eaten by sharks. Technically, Krist and Kurt often
played the same notes on their individual instruments. They were in sync - locked
into the groove, as it's called in the biz. Not all musicians are capable of doing
this, at least not well. I believe their friendship had a lot to do with that. Like
how good friends can speak without words. The musical relationship of Kurt and Krist
was similar to that."
A guitarist as well as a bassist, Novoselic is a multi-talented musician. He also
plays the accordion, which added a haunting, elegiac note to Cobain's moving rendition
of "Jesus Doesn't Want Me For a Sunbeam" at Nirvana's classic MTV "Unplugged" appearance
in New York in 1993.
1993? Where did all those years go? Novoselic doesn't know either. In 2007, after
watching a new DVD version of the "Unplugged" concert, Novoselic said, "… It's kind
of like you have a dream of somebody who has passed away … and it's really good
to see them again."
For Krist Novoselic at 43, it's really good to be alive and well and exuding one
of his favorite words - "energy." Fixed for life, he could live anywhere he wants.
Collect Porsches. Laze around on a sailboat somewhere off the Dalmatian coast. But
he loves it at Deep River, a sleepy place that once featured a colony of sturdy
Finnish farmers and camps filled with itinerant loggers. Novoselic has family connections
to this peaceful place where the river meanders and a tiny pioneer Lutheran Church
is nestled in a dip along a winding road. He decamped from Seattle in 1999 and has
been living here ever since. Surrounded by stray dogs, angora goats and vintage
Volkswagens, Novoselic and his wife, Darbury Stenderu, a highly regarded textile
artist, live in a century-old farm house they are restoring. It features mellow
wooden floors and funky art. Portraits of Lenin and George Washington flank a drum
kit in his music room, which overlooks the pasture. Novoselic loves the rolling
green hills, the fertile soil, the clean air and the unpretentious people who treat
him like nothing more than a good neighbor. He wouldn't have it any other way.
Esther Gregg, a Wahkiakum County Public Utility District commissioner, is a 20-year
member of the Grays River Grange. "Krist is just one of the most common people you'll
ever meet," she says, "and I do not in any way mean that as demeaning. He has a
great deal of respect for his fellow man and the community, even those who would
oppose his views, politically or environmentally.
Krist Novoselic is interviewed in the
historic Grays River Grange Hall in Wahkiakum County in October 2008 by John Hughes,
chief historian of The Legacy Project.
Lori Larson for The Legacy Project
"He and Darbury lead a quiet life here in a sort of live-and-let-live place. We
treat them as just a brother and sister. One of things we always stress when we
take in a new member of the Grange, is that we never treat them like a newbie -
having to prove yourself before you can speak out. As soon as you've taken your
‘Obligation' you're one of us. To pledge to be a Grange member is to treat everyone
on an equal basis and respect everyone's views. This diversity is one thing that
actually holds us together."
Gregg adds, "When we join hands at the end of a Grange meeting and sing ‘Blessed
be the Tie,' it's like we leave all of our arguments or disagreements right there
on the floor, and go back out into the world with a peaceful heart. We are to hold
no animosities toward anyone, especially fellow Grangers. I'm proud to hear people
say that ‘If the Grange says it's OK, it must be OK. It's a heavy burden, but it's
Fame can be a heavy burden, too. If you surf the Internet, Krist Novoselic's life
before all this ruralness is a goofy open book, and half of it seems to be on YouTube,
the wildly popular Web site where users can upload and share their favorite video
clips. There's the night he seemed to be trying for the Guinness Book of World Records
bass toss and cold-cocked himself, staggering offstage to find an ice-pack; there's
his George Carlinesque rant about lazy people on escalators; his admonition that
"You're only going to live for 70 years, if you're lucky, so have some fun…" On
one site, you can download 15 pages of Nirvana trivia.
(Did you know that there's a secret message written on the vinyl "Love Buzz" single?)
How about a Krist Novoselic ringtone?
Maria Novoselic, mother of Nirvana
bassist Krist Novoselic, poses with a platinum record her son gave her in 1992 when
Nirvana's "Nevermind" sold more than a million copies. Brian DalBalcon for The Daily
He is bored by all that and says he has no interest in reading books and articles
about Nirvana. "Why would I?" he says. "I lived it. I'm interested in the present
and the future." He uses the Internet to write about the importance of citizen involvement.
Novoselic, whose parents were Croatian immigrants, is a well-traveled, multi-lingual
renaissance man who believes that freedom "comes with responsibilities." He's busy
"thinking about ways to make sure our broken democracy gets fixed," and he likes
being in the Grange for a number of reasons. For one thing, the history of the fraternal
order of family farmers, founded in 1867 to fend off railroad cartels and other
land grabbers, is replete with radical idealists, fervent progressives and crusading
populists - "people with energy and ideas," Novoselic says.
Early in the 20th century, the Washington State Grange was a smorgasbord of conservatives
and socialists, Christians and free-thinkers. Women were enfranchised and played
key roles in Grange work, as did teenagers. Farmers formed alliances with organized
labor. The Grange was instrumental in the fight for an initiative and referendum
amendment, the open primary and the formation of public utility districts - "power
to the people."
Novoselic devoted one of his blog columns in the Seattle Weekly (www.seattleweekly.com) to the formidable
William Morley Bouck, "a God-fearing Sedro Woolley farmer" and "crusading Populist"
who ascended to the leadership of the 15,000-member State Grange during World War
I. Bouck, whom Novoselic describes as an amalgam of Methodism and Marxism, was arrested
for making an allegedly seditious speech in Aberdeen, where Nirvana was born 70
Besides the history, the ritual, the neighborliness and the great food (Novoselic
and his wife, an inventive cook, introduced the "locavore" potluck to the Grays
River Grange to celebrate home-grown foods), the famous rocker sees the Grange as
the personification of grass-roots politics.
"It's compelling because you actually do politics in the real world," he says. "All
those people on their blogs … they don't know about the real world. They read stuff
on the Internet and keyboard their comments. … That's not reality. If you want to
change things, you've got to get out and meet people. You gotta make things happen.
If you're gonna suggest something, you ought to see how to do it."
A "staunch supporter of the free enterprise system," Novoselic says he lives a good
life "as a result of capitalism." But he notes that Washington State is also proof
positive that democratic socialism works. Thanks to the Grange, Washington voters
have for nearly 80 years enjoyed the right to create nonprofit, locally regulated
public utility districts, while we, the people, also own 5.6 million acres of land
that benefits schools, universities and county government. "Socialism is alive and
well in the United States," Novoselic wrote on his blog in September of 2008 - with
more authority than he realized at the time, given the massive infusion of taxpayer
money a few weeks later to shore up Wall Street. "Like most others, conservatives
love a functional socialism; they just won't admit it," he wrote.
He's weary of polarization and sad that so many people are cynical and "just don't
care any more."
"I'm not a cynic any more. I used to be a cynic, but now it's too cool. It doesn't
mean I'm not skeptical."
He's positive that votes count. "Voting is the engine that drives our democracy,"
Novoselic says. "It needs a 21st Century update. … We need to move past partisanship
and start to see the humanity in people."
In his 2004 book, "Of Grunge and Government - Let's Fix This Broken Democracy!"
(RDV Books/Akashic Books, ISBN: 0-9719206-5-6), Novoselic writes that Nirvana was
part of a "seismic shift" in rock music. "Punk" rock, with its slashing, clashing
primal-scream catharsis, suddenly landed in the mainstream. The thrift-store flannel,
perpetual drizzle Seattle sound was dubbed "grunge."
"But the new order wasn't just about fresh music," Novolselic wrote. "In many ways
the grunge/alternative revolution of the early '90s was a call to consciousness.
A lot of musicians really cared about equality and human rights."
Novoselic, who at 15 lived for a year in Croatia with relatives, has seen how horrific
war can be - rape camps and ethnic cleansing. He was "disgusted" with the glorification
of the first Iraq war in 1991. "Watching society cheer it on like a football game"
affirmed his feeling that he was an outsider with a compulsion to change the system.
Krist Novoselic speaks at a Hoquiam
City Council hearing in the historic 7th Street Theatre in 1994 in support of a
plan to bring the Lollapalooza concert to Grays Harbor. Kathy Quigg for The Daily
In 1992, he attended a rally in Olympia to protest a law aimed at placing warning
labels on "erotic" and violent music, ostensibly to protect impressionable youth.
Believing as he does that the First Amendment is a sacred cornerstone of American
democracy, Novoselic saw the campaign as a slippery slope to censorship of artistic
expression and free speech. (In the 1960s, guardians of America's morals from sea
to shining sea set about parsing the allegedly "dirty," unintelligible lyrics in
"Louie Louie," which is now the state's unofficial official rock song.)
Nirvana was then on top of the world, and reporters descended on Novoselic - who
stands out in any crowd except an NBA fundraiser. Flummoxed at first, especially
since in some ways he is a shy man, he soon began to feel more comfortable speaking
"Why was my opinion so important?" he wrote. "The answer is: People were already
listening to my music so naturally they wanted to know more about me. There was
a real connection. People look for meaning in their music and their politics."
Profoundly saddened by Cobain's suicide in the spring of 1994, Novoselic tapped
into the optimism that likely saved him from depression during what he describes
as his own "maladjusted" youth. Music was his lifeline. Alcohol was always his drug
of choice, but when Cobain started using heroin and blew his mind, the danger of
nihilism began to snap into focus.
A few months after Cobain's suicide in 1994, Novoselic stood tall, literally and
figuratively, at a well attended City Council hearing at a theater in Hoquiam. He
was there to urge the city fathers to sanction an appearance by the traveling rock
festival Lollapalooza. "The hearing," he writes in his book, "was another beautiful
manifestation of the nation functioning in the manner envisioned by our founders."
The City Council is there to weigh what's best for the community, and if any member
balks at that duty, "come Election Day, we can try to throw the bums out!"
"But democracy doesn't end on Election Day," he emphasizes.
Krist Novoselic had become a political activist. "Celebrity can be an asset or a
liability," he says. Since he cares passionately about freedom of expression, humanism
and the rule of law, he chose to make it an asset to lobby for making democracy
In 1995, he helped found the Joint Artists & Music Promotions Action Committee -
JAMPAC for short - and worked hard to defeat another attempt to restrict music deemed
"harmful to minors," mustering the votes to protect a veto by Washington Gov. Mike
Lowry and uphold freedom of expression.
"Fighting for what you believe is right is rewarding in itself, but actually achieving
victory is extra special," Novoselic writes in "Of Grunge and Government." "I felt
a rush of joy. There was also a profound realization. I had come a long way from
my disaffected punk rock days."
Another defining moment for Novoselic came in 1999 when "a dark shroud" of vandalism
and other lawlessness descended over what had been a carnival of free speech during
the protests against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. He saw someone
writing graffiti on the side of a hotel and yelled, "How would you like it if someone
did that to your house?"
"F*** you!" two onlookers shot back.
Novoselic "informed them that this was supposed to be a non-violent protest and
that vandalism is violence toward property."
"Some fantasize that the only course of action is to overthrow our government,"
he wrote. "What a dangerous proposition!"
"Democracy is everybody's business" became his mantra, as he went on to campaign
for Instant Runoff Voting, also known as Ranked Choice Voting, where voters mark
their ballots with first, second and third choices. Like the "blanket" primary that
Washingtonians loved but which ran afoul of the courts, the process allows voters
to vote for whomever they choose, picking "the person, not the party." It also saves
time and money by rolling the primary and general elections into one, Novoselic
says, and it encourages electoral coalitions. "Third parties could come in from
the wilderness. People would be less cynical because they'd feel like their vote
Pierce County used Ranked Choice Voting in the 2008 General Election. But many voters
found the process confusing, and several politicians made noises that Ranked Choice
Voting is likely to die an early death, in Pierce County at least.
Novoselic says the program isn't the problem. "Ranked Choice Voting works and the
2008 election proved it. Unfortunately, there's very little leadership from public
officials on RCV. Also, the private, for-profit election vendor could have designed
a better ballot. Pierce paid way too much money for a lousy product."
He adds: "There are places in the nation that use other vendors for Ranked Choice
Voting. Their ballots fit on the same card alongside the traditional systems. Their
interface is similar also: Just fill in the bubble. The Pierce County election vendor
doesn't have any financial incentive to promote a system that offers no need for
a separate primary. I'm sure they're very happy about the sweet deal in Pierce.
They now get paid for three elections. It's poor faith public interest.
"Pierce County voters knew how to do Ranked Choice Voting, but there was little
information about why. The county auditor's ‘Flash' demonstration is a good example
of this. It gives a comprehensive explanation of how, but when it states why, the
reason is: ‘Because voters passed it in 2006.'
"And speaking of the 2006 elections in Pierce County, there was hardly a peep that
most of those races were uncontested. That's why I chuckle when lawmakers make this
remark about traditional elections: "If it isn't broke - don't fix it."
Novoselic asserts that Ranked Choice Voting was in fact successful in Pierce County:
"Like we promised, there indeed was less negative campaigning. Voters got to pick
the person and not the party. For example, Democrats nominated two candidates for
partisan races. And RCV didn't lose them one race! Democrats are whining about losing
races and blaming it on RCV. They don't like nominating candidates anyway. Imagine
a book club that doesn't read? Or a bicycle club that doesn't ride? The Democrats
and Republicans are fine with their organizations being soft money conduits. As
long as they sit under the spigot of incumbency, the money will flow. No wonder
they don't like Ranked Choice Voting. The whole premise on how it's more expensive
is very distorted, and these distortions only serve to promote a negative image
of the system. RCV can save public dollars."
Novoselic fully expects the Pierce County Council to put a repeal amendment on the
ballot, but he's undeterred and optimistic, saying, "We've won two RCV ballot measures
in Pierce County and we can do it again."
Another facet of electoral reform that Novoselic advocates is "proportional representation"
where political parties earn seats in the Legislature proportional to the votes
they receive. If the "Greens," "Blues," "Owls" or what-have-yous earn 10 percent
of the votes, they'll get 10 percent of the seats, giving voice to all of democracy's
diverse voices rather than just Democrats and Republicans.
While Novoselic is chairman of the Wahkiakum County Democrats, he is fundamentally
a lower-case democrat who believes that partisanship and the politics of marginalization
are harmful to the country.
Lately, he's refining a "Super District" platform to create a more diverse Legislature,
reduce winner-take-all districts and pave the way "for a more modern, vital democracy."
He has testified before congressional committees and is chairman of FairVote, a
national nonprofit organization dedicated to enfranchising more people and helping
them understand the importance of voting.
In a post-election column in the Seattle Weekly - "Obama's Elected, But It's No
Time to Snooze" - Novoselic emphasized that "voting is only the starting point of
civic engagement. It's more important than ever to get involved in local affairs.
With state and municipal budgets facing severe shortfalls, private organizations
doing service or charitable work could be a way of taking up the slack. … There
was a time when "face" meant in person and club membership was part of the fabric
of the community. But these days, Moose Clubs, Eagles, Kiwanis, Masons, Elks and
many other groups are in decline. If you go to a meeting of any of these organizations
you'll mostly find seniors in charge. These good folks are running things only because
no one else cares to. This is a shame because civic groups exist to help others.
Most raise money and resources only to give it away. … Because of the advanced age
of members, perhaps there is the notion that these are essentially senior groups.
In fact, there are opportunities with traditional community service organizations
for people of all ages. There are plenty of benefits to individuals who want to
get involved in civic organizations."
The boys get their picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone for a second time in January 1994.
Photo courtesy Rolling Stone
Novoselic added, "I've been a member of my local Grange since 2003. … I enjoy participation
in this organization because it keeps me connected in my community. If you have
the time, imagination and most importantly, energy, there are many possibilities.
Last spring, while doing some volunteer work cleaning a park, I had an epiphany:
this site would make a great farmers market! I mentioned the location to farmers
who already were doing a market in another part of the county. They gave the park
a try and the market was a hit. …
"With the current economic uncertainty, long-stable private civic associations could
find themselves reinvigorated by new members," Novoselic concluded. "People coming
together for shared needs is natural and as old as humanity itself, and as important
as it was before the age of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter."
Besides blogging, Novoselic is a filmmaker, photographer, part-time talk-radio host,
volunteer disc jockey, private pilot and Volkswagen mechanic. His garden grows a
cornucopia of vegetables. There's a bucket of blackberry wine fermenting on the
porch. In 2004, he contemplated running for lieutenant governor but concluded his
life was already too crowded. He says he might run for the Legislature some day.
Music will always be a huge part of his life. He played major roles in two short-lived,
post-Nirvana bands, Sweet 75 and Eyes Adrift. Recently, he has played with Flipper,
the San Francisco Bay area "avant punkers" who were a big influence on Nirvana.
But he balked at hitting the road again. He has way too much else to do. He's "compelled
to write," to do things to "cut through the cynicism and create new energy and ideas."
"When you move past partisanship, you start to see the humanity in folks and see
that, hey, ‘I have something in common with that conservative Republican.' "
"I'm so tired of polarization. I try to be positive and talk about ideas.
"Democracy is everybody's business."