I was a boring kid, more concerned with topping out in my next exam than with any sports team or rock band.
I think that was an early manifestation of a tendency I retain in my adult life and will likely take to my grave: a slight disdain for what everyone else thinks is great and, by implication, thinks that I should think is great. In other words, my precociousness as a child was an assertion of my individuality. Maturity as soft rebellion, if you will. In any youth culture, behaving like an adult is good a way to train as a future libertarian.
Although, as a kid, I mostly avoided pop music and sports (and still do), for some years, the music that I could guarantee to hear every day from my friends’ desks at school was Nirvana and Guns ‘N’ Roses. Those bands provided the sonic backdrop of my geography revision and math homework.
Whatever grunge was, I wasn’t. The school I went to was an old English manor house (check out the final scene of “If” – that was our dining hall) and I was being educated among many who would in a few years be wearing academic gowns in the hallowed halls of Cambridge and Oxford Universities. I ended up being one of them. I certainly couldn’t even imagine “dropping out” as a psychological possibility, let alone as something that could inform a culture. I mean, I wouldn’t even know how to drop out or hate myself, to borrow from one of Nirvana’s titles.
Bizarrely, I found myself last weekend sharing a stage with Nirvana’s bassist, Krist Novoselic, which, absent context, anyone who knew me when Nirvana was changing the musical world would say is just about the least likely thing that could ever happen to me.
The occasion was the annual conference of the Libertarian Party of Washington State. Krist was there in his capacity as Chairman of FairVote.org, an organization devoted to making our representation fairer and ensuring that every vote has the power to cause political change. Most votes in our current system are meaningless, as districts are gerrymandered to be immune to the vagaries of the ballot box and the elites of two parties make the rules to ensure that those who don’t make the rules also don’t even get to make a case. I was there in my capacity as the first “Blue Republican” – a movement of people concerned with putting America’s founding ideas of liberty and peaceful adherence to the Constitution in a language that resonates with the cultural mainstream, with the goal of shifting the political mainstream.
I spoke of a thousand-year tradition of liberty that teaches that political change begins in the culture, among the people – and that such change happens not when people are told what to think, but when someone powerfully tells them what they already feel. ()
… Which is, of course, what Nirvana, in their unique way, did for a generation.
Novoselic had spoken before me. Between his speech and mine, we discussed his political passion of fair representation. We gave alternative voting, first-past-the-post, the two-party system and proportional representation a good going over. Not a guitar in sight.
He wouldn’t say it, I am sure, but Novoselic is important. Not because he is famous. But because he has done the thing that everyone at that conference really wants to do – to move a culture, to touch lives, to create a world where people are a little bit clearer about who they are. People say, “I want to change the world”. But that man has done it – and last weekend was the first time that I have spent a good amount of time with someone who has done that through the sheer force of art – of combining a message with a medium of delivery that tears through the rational and reaches down to the visceral.
So who the hell was I to give a speech about the criticality of moving a culture to shift its politics when the audience included one who may have shifted a culture more than anyone else I shall ever meet, and did so by reflecting back to a large segment of the population something they already felt but had never been articulated in the way Nirvana articulated it? There was I, mouthing. There was he, having done.
With all that in my head, and with a recent memory of an interesting conversation with the very unassuming Novoselic, it is unsurprising, perhaps, that this former nerd, who spent more time blocking out the smell of Teen Spirit , if you will, just to get his homework done, than he ever spent actually listening to grunge, checked out Nirvana’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and found that he really cared about it.
It touched me. I knew it would. But why?
Because, I suppose, the schoolboy has left school. He doesn’t have any homework to do and he doesn’t have studiously to avoid identifying with youth culture to assert his individuality among friends who cannot get enough of it. In other words, he can appreciate the band for the rather awesome noise they made …. and most of all, most fundamentally, and most wonderfully…. for the sheer, distilled, high-octane, damn-the-torpedoes expression of humanity…
… which is what qualifies a band for the Hall of Fame in the first place.
I am moved not by a particular song, but by the ability of people to write songs that touch others in ways that they will carry with them for their whole lives; not for a particular lyric, but for the capacity of people to express themselves in an infinity of ways that others receive and make their own; not for a particular band, but for the ability of human beings to come together in all kinds of groups and make bigger infinities (yes, that’s a real thing) of god-knows-what.
In other words, I get high on uncontainable human genius, expression, purpose, energy, passion, connectedness, angst, hope, depth, community, pain, ecstasy and the rest.
And you can’t be high on humanity without caring an awful lot about liberty. And liberty, of course, is the reason why Novoselic and Johnson were at that conference together, and why I happened to be scheduled between them.
Liberty is what allows Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl to imagine themselves out of Seattle in the ‘80s and change the world in the ‘90s through the sheer power of imagination, dedication, passion, and the freedom to share all of that with the rest of us. It’s what enables us to buy their music, to have the time to listen to it, and to celebrate whatever ways it speaks to us. It’s what protects the right of Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl to sing what the hell they want and the rest of us to respond exactly as we choose.
It is what allows Novoselic to put down his guitar and get on a stage with an entirely different purpose – to educate an audience on redistricting and voting systems and so on. Liberty is what Presidential Candidate and former Governor Gary Johnson wants to save so that there can always be another Nirvana around the corner – which of course, won’t be Nirvana at all, because, as Liberty recognizes, no two people, no two times and no two places, are the same.
That’s why watching Novoselic receive his award moved me: it didn’t matter that I wasn’t one of those teenagers his music spoke to in spades. It’s the fact that there are people who take their freedom of mind and expression and push them as far as they will damned well go – people who ensure that liberty is not an abstract political concept but the sine qua non of the sublime.
There is another artist I like … of a very different flavor altogether – Stephen Fry. He definitely can’t sing and I suspect he can’t play a guitar. He’s rather more like me: more English, more wordy, and another one of those gown-wearing Cantabrigians. But rather more like Novoselic, he is a genius of self-expression. His medium is language, and he said this.
The things that matter in life are useless. Love is useless. Wine is useless. Art is the love and wine of life. It is the extra, without which life is not worth living.
That’s it. Nirvana’s success, and the success of all like them, is in the making of a flavor of wine of life that has never been tasted before.
That is the gift of liberty.
To make life worth living, we must make way for the useless. We must have the resources that give us the time to create the useless and to indulge in it. We must celebrate individual expression when it reflects us – and when it doesn’t. We must, in short, climb Maslow’s pyramid. Spiritual growth might not be what most of us think of when we listen to Nevermind, but if it is having any effect on us at all, then that is exactly the effect it is having. (That will do for my non-expert definition of art.) And for me, that’s why Novoselic, Grohl and Cobain, and those like them, earn their awards.
That climb of liberty is why Johnson and Novoselic were in the same room. It’s how I got to be in the room with them. The Novoselics of this world need the Johnsons to keep the world safe for their art. The Johnsons need the Novoselics to remind the rest of us why we must fight for the Johnsons. And then, we all need the Novoselics so we can enjoy what the Johnsons are determined to preserve for us.
If I had to guess, I’d say that Nirvana’s most famous title is, “Come As You Are”.
If the Libertarian Party of Washington State, Nirvana’s state, was looking for a motto, it would not find a better one than that.