Villager from Iz epitomizes US link to the Balkans

By David Rolland

Novoselic, a 59-year-old retired fisherman, served for four days as The Light’s interpreter on Iz. A two-time immigrant to the US and a two-time returnee to Croatia, Novoselic has lived a life compelling in its own right; his story shows that the distance Americans sometimes feel toward events in the Balkans is illusory.

One of its curiosities, for instance: Novoselic (pronounced no-vo-SEL-itch) is the father of multimillionaire bass player Krist Novoselic Jr., whose band Nirvana popularized grunge-style rock music.

Returns home & finds war

After three decades of working in US fishing and construction, Novoselic in 1991 came back to his childhood village of Veli Iz to retire — only to have a civil war break out. “About three or four months after we came…Boom! Boom! Oh, my God!” he recalled.

The Island of Iz sits across a narrow strait from the mainland city of Zadar, and Novoselic recalled, “We used to watch from that hill over there when Zadar was pounded [by Serb artillery]. You could see it. You could hear it. The windows rattled.

“One day [a year after the Serb attacks began], the guns got too hot, and they had to cool them off, and we had a seven-day pause. I told [my wife] Suzie, ‘Let’s get the suitcase and get the hell away from here! Quick!'”

The couple left, settling in Redding, California. But they came back to Iz for good in May, 1994.

Rain, shine, bombs’

“A human being is a like a salmon,” Novoselic said with bemused resignation. “The place you are born…no matter what the obstacles are, you don’t give a damn — rain, shine, bombs…you gonna come back.

“A salmon is born in the river, he goes to Alaska — thousands of miles. And he’s coming back — fighting the currents and the falls, banging the walls. The poor fella he mate, spawn, and die. [With humans], it’s the same way.”

Novoselic first fled the tiny island of Iz in 1955. He was 17 at the time, and hoped to escape the dim prospects under Marshal Tito’s Communism.

Nine years earlier, Tito (born Josip Broz) had emerged after World War II as president of a federated Yugoslavia that included Croatia. During the war, with aid from the British and Russians, Tito had led Yugoslav partisans fighting the Nazis.

Fled Communism

Although Tito’s brand of Communism was less brutal than that in the Soviet bloc, Novoselic still found it grindingly repressive. “When I finished grade school, I could see there’s no industry,” he recalled. “What can you do here? Fishing. If you have land, you can work on the land.”

Novoselic and three other men started walking north from Rijeka, Croatia, up the Adriatic coast. After four days and 74 miles, they reached Trieste, Italy, when they were thrown in jail for three months.

After that, “when they find out I’m just an innocent young kid, they sent me to a refugee camp in Udine, which is about 40 miles north of Trieste,” Novoselic said. “Huge camp. There was six or seven thousand young kids like me.”

Emigration to US

Novoselic was held in Udine for six months before Italian officials granted him passage to the States. His release was delayed, however. Hungarian refugees, who were fleeing that country’s unsuccessful 1956 uprising against Soviet control, began filling the camp.

“They gave the Hungarian refugees priority to go to the United States, so I couldn’t go,” Novoselic said. “I was second fiddle.”

Eventually some Germans, Dutch, and Belgians came to the camp recruiting workers. Novoselic signed up to work on a tugboat on the Rhine River.

His goal, however, was reaching the United States, and he finally did so six years later.

After living briefly on the East Coast, he travelled to the West Coast and began fishing for tuna, mackerel, salmon, and squid. His choice of livelihood, he said, was determined by a saying he had learned on Iz: “The sea is a meal a day, and you have to go get it.”

Unlikely father of Grunge

Novoselic later settled in Aberdeen, Washington, and it was there that he became an unlikely father of the American grunge rock music scene.

Grunge takes its name from the performers’ preference for grungy clothing: flannel shirts, torn jeans, backward baseball caps. The bands’ songs, typically heavy on bass and rhythm guitar, for the most part express rebellion against rampant commercialism and abusive authority.

Although Nirvana was hardly the first such band, they were one of the most popular, lifting the music from the isolation of college radio to a wider rock audience. Three years ago, Nirvana’s album Nevermind sold millions of copies worldwide, making a millionaire out of its bass player, Novoselic’s son Krist Jr.

Last year, after lead singer Kurt Cobain shot himself to death, Spin magazine declared Nirvana the most important rock band of the past 10 years.

The elder Novoselic spoke with pride about his son’s accomplishments although, he acknowledged, he has never seen Nirvana play a concert and isn’t especially fond of the band’s music.

Rock band Nirvana

“When they started, they used to practice in my garage,” he recalled, “and the neighbors [would ask], ‘Mr. Novoselic, can you tell your kids to [quiet] down?’ I got lots of complaints.”

As for the troubled Cobain, a heroin addict whose brooding demeanor came to symbolize the grunge movement, Novoselic recalled Cobain moving to Aberdeen when “he was about nine [or] 10 years old … a shy, little fellow … never talked. He still owes me 50 bucks … never paid it back…

“It used to make me mad. I thought he has no tongue, in the beginning. Later, he started to get a little better. Then his mother got divorced. He had a problem, and his grandmother was raising him for a while. He never talked to his father until the day he got famous, and then his father showed up.

Cobain’s suicide

“The day he got killed, I was in Aberdeen, and Krist was on his farm. He said, ‘Dad, you have to drive me to Seattle. I can’t drive, I’m not myself.’

“We came to Seattle, and police, radio, TV were waiting for Krist to identify [Cobain’s body]. Krist came back and said, ‘Oh my God, Dad, he put a gun [to his head] and he blew his roof off.'”

Novoselic’s account of Cobain’s suicide seemed grimly ironic, told as it was in a country where people die daily in random warfare.

More than other Croatians, Novoselic can choose where to live. He returned to Iz, he said, because in the midst of a civil war, the small island has remained a safe haven.

“Nobody bugs you,” said Novoselic with passion. “This place is a clinic; you heal here.

“We [on Iz] don’t know what crime means. You don’t have to lock your door. Nobody gonna rape you or bug you, even harass you. That’s why I came back.”

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