Alex Tresniowski
November 30, 1998 12:00 PM

The telephone dropped from Mari Earl’s hands, and all she could think was, “No, no, no!” She had just heard the shocking news that her nephew Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the seminal gen-X rock band Nirvana—and the cute little boy she used to babysit—was dead from a self-inflicted shotgun blast at age 27. “I just screamed and yelled and cried and cried,” says Earl, 45, of that terrible day in April 1994. But in the moments that followed, she had an epiphany. “I was so scared that his fans would follow in his footsteps,” she says. “I just had this gut feeling that I had to do something to help the kids.”

Earl’s solution: Turn the tragedy into a life-affirming message of hope. An accomplished folksinger who put a guitar in young Kurt’s hands when he was 2, she now tours schools in her home state of Washington and delivers a lecture called “Life—It’s Worth It!” in which she reminisces about her nephew and speaks out forcefully against drugs and suicide. “It’s not one of those boring speeches that make you want to nod off,” says Mary Matthew, 17, who heard Earl at Federal Way High School last month. “She uses so many good examples from Kurt’s life and really reaches teenagers.”

Earl, who averages two lectures a month and receives only lodging expenses, shows students pictures of Cobain that reveal the toll his drug use took. “He could sing as soon as he could talk,” she tells them. “I saw all that creativity get sucked out of him because of heroin.” Sharing her blunt message of personal responsibility benefits not only troubled teens (“Thanks to you,” wrote one, “I’m helping myself instead of ruining myself”) but also Earl herself. “Comforting others is very healing,” she says. “I just wish I had been more honest with Kurt, like I am in that classroom.”

Yet going public about Cobain’s suicide has left Earl estranged from her sister Wendy O’Connor, 51, who is Kurt’s mother. And Earl has never been close to his widow, singer-actress Courtney Love, the mother of Cobain’s child, 6-year-old Frances Bean. “Kurt’s suicide was like a bomb that exploded in the middle of the family,” says Earl. “It opened a huge wound, and it’s going to take time to heal.”

That leaves Earl with her memories of the nephew she nurtured and adored. The sixth of seven children born in Aberdeen, Wash., to heavy-equipment operator Charles Fradenburg and wife Peggy, 74, Earl was 13 when Kurt was born. “I still remember his little grin,” she says, recalling how Kurt would sit on her bed and “sing ‘Hey Jude’ and all the Beatles songs.” Earl became a folksinger, performing at clubs and festivals, and when Kurt was 15, she helped him record his first song. “It was really loud, with tons of distortion,” she recalls. “I couldn’t understand anything.”

But 10 years later, his mumbled, nihilistic songs would kick off the grunge-rock revolution. Sudden fame and wealth, coupled with Cobain’s drug use and depression, “really messed him up,” she says. “He was like an astronaut sent into space without a suit or rocket ship, and he just blew up.”

Two weeks after his death, Earl gave her first public talk about Kurt. A born-again Christian who has given up performing—as well as her own drinking habit (“I wasn’t an alcoholic,” she says, “but I was definitely heading down that road”)—Earl now spends much of her time writing songs and answering letters from students in the three-bedroom, country-style house outside Seattle that she shares with her husband, Krefting Earl, 65, a retired Boeing mechanic. “What I hope is that I can do something to save another child from suicide,” she says. “I can’t think of a better way to honor Kurt’s memory.”

Alex Tresniowski

Ulrica Wihlborg in Seattle

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