"Nirvana never played CBGBs," the band's founding bassist, Krist Novoselic, told the audience near the end of yesterday's keynote address for the inaugural CBGB Festival at New York City's Landmark Sunshine Cinema. "I was supposed to confess that, but I forgot."
Louise Staley, who booked New York's punk-rock home for years, fired back from the audience, "We came really close to having Nirvana once, but your agent wanted 300 more dollars. When it happened, I was like, I can't believe we're doing this." Novoselic replied: "We lost out, too. Because, I could've gone, 'I remember it was the best show of our lives.'"
The exchange was all part of a fun, irreverent salute to one of the birthplaces of irreverence in music. Through July 8, the CBGB Festival is paying homage to the underground musicians who called the venue home from the late '70s through its closure in 2006. The organizers are staging concerts, a film festival and panel discussions, like this festival opener.
In an ironically, un-punk-rock move, the fest rolled out an actual red carpet in front of the Lower East Side movie theater, though it's fitting since CBs is currently getting a big-screen makeover in a movie about its heyday. But despite the glitz, the spirit of punk remained alive, especially in Novoselic's speech which connected how the hardcore punk groups of the '80s helped pioneer an ethos that could be applied to his recent love of politics.
In one of the upper-floor theaters, Novoselic captivated about 200 fans, including a line of people that led up the aisle. The rock icon, who was dressed unassumingly in a pinstripe brown button-down, began the candid discussion by talking about some of the music that originally inspired him as a teenager (Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Ramones, the Talking Heads — he wasn't new-wave or old-wave, he said, he was "all wave"). He discovered punk while working at a Taco Bell in 1983 when customer and Melvins frontman Buzz Osborne turned him onto the Sex Pistols and Stooges. From there, his interests blossomed.
He credited Black Flag with giving his bandmates and him a creed: "Swimming in the mainstream is such a lame dream," from "Beat My Head Against the Wall," off 1983's My War. "Music saved my life," he said. "To have the opportunity to connect with these [punk] bands. It was really neat. But I found myself in a subculture. There were other individuals like myself who didn't fit in with the dominant culture, with what was in the mainstream media." It's a feeling he'd experience again when he became more interested in politics after Nirvana ended.
But before he got into that, he paid tribute to the band's fallen frontman, Kurt Cobain. "When people stop and recognize me, I always use that as an opportunity to remember Kurt Cobain," Novoselic said. "That's my opportunity to say, that's for you, dude. That's my regret, that Kurt Cobain isn't alive and didn't live. He was a wonderful person and he deserved a fulfilling life."
Novoselic then turned the rest of the discussion to politics by addressing three issues he is championing with his latest political cause, FairVote.org: proportional voting (where there's always an independent party option on the ballot), a national popular vote (to replace the electoral college), and a constitutional right to vote (which he says lobbyists are threatening). And from there, he added the caveat that he doesn't think a celebrity like himself could lead a political party, though he included an aside about starting a "Rock Political Party" with former Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan (who is playing the CBGB Festival on Saturday) where people would pay to be a member and elect leaders online. Novoselic, who had been glancing at big pages of notes, finally put them down and opened up the floor to questions.
Although the bassist has always been outspoken about his political beliefs, it's a rare occurrence for an artist to allow his or her fan base to hold him or her politically and artistically accountable. With that in mind, attendees asked all kinds of questions, from ones about Nirvana to ones about bank reform to an utterly bizarre one about who Novoselic would root for if Axl Rose and Vince Neil had duked it out in the '90s. (He would have tried to stop it.) Through it all, he did his best to answer the fans' questions and was honest when he didn't have a real answer. He was also honest when he didn't have popular opinions.
"What Occupy should do is run candidates for the ballot," he said at one point, explaining that in Washington State balloted candidates can add "prefers #OWS," if they wanted. "I get grief from Occupy Wall Street. Where are the Occupiers anyway? Where did they go?" He looks around the stage. "They're here somewhere." The previously quiet audience began clapping and laughing.
The statement that garnered the most applause, though, was when Novoselic praised his former bandmate Dave Grohl's success with the Foo Fighters. He recalled recording bass and accordion (!) on the song "I Should Have Known" for the Foo Fighters' latest, Wasting Light, and hinted at some other recordings Grohl is still holding on to, before saying, "People ask me, 'Do you ever get jealous of Dave and everything he's done since Nirvana?' And I'm like, 'Listen, man. He has stayed focused. He has worked hard. He rocks, the Foo Fighters rock, how can you be jealous of something like that?' He has earned everything."
By the time he left the theater, after shaking hands with his congregation, the audience was still processing the topics he had discussed, buzzing about politics and, of course, Nirvana. He may never have played CBGB, but he certainly connected with its faithful.