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Krist Novoselic: Of Grunge and Government

I'm so tired of polarization. I try to be positive and talk about ideas.
…Democracy is everybody's business.
- Krist Novoselic, Worthy Master of the Grays River Grange
Worthy Master Krist Novoselic at the Grays River Grange with fellow Grange members, October 14, 2008 John Hughes for The Legacy Project
Worthy Master Krist Novoselic at the Grays River Grange with fellow Grange members, October 14, 2008 John Hughes for The Legacy Project
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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 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 the group.

"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 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 neat, too."

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
                    World, Aberdeen 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 World, Aberdeen

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 years later.

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 World, Aberdeen 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 World, Aberdeen

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 out.

"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 more democratic.

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 counted."

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 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."