“a periwinkle that grounds me”
Spring nights beg oxymoron: a windchill waxing, disturbing the 80-degree heat. My skin transporting into summer as the dark sky whispers tender memories of winter. I cannot tell if the sky is cloudless or composed of one giant, incoming blue-gray thunderstorm. The wind blows tears into my eyes as Elliott Smith’s “Between the Bars” plays on repeat, and repeat, and repeat into my ears, tearing apart a space in my universe—something akin to a gut feeling—a place that lacks explanation.
These college streets have never felt as silent as they are right now with you not here.
Today is the first full day I have spent without the person who has come to define my second semester, and I have chosen the wrong day to begin listening to Elliott Smith. It was a lonely night, and I was quickly skimming through scenes of Stuck in Love, a movie I can no longer watch to completion. It sparks within me the memory of the first time I watched it: huddled in a humid basement in summertime with my best friends, as we watched a girl named Kate overdose on cocaine, manipulate everyone around her, create endless pain, all of us knowing we could be this girl if we did not play our cards right. That night, my throat caught on every inhale and every exhale, and that movie is now a feeding ground for anxiety. And yet, this somber college night, I managed to muster up the courage to watch some of it, until my body told me to listen to the movie’s soundtrack right that moment or spontaneously combust.
So I listened, got through some songs on the soundtrack, and “Between the Bars” started playing. I swear my heart stopped for a second. I knew this voice. I knew this song. I have cried to this song on countless evenings while watching Good Will Hunting, my favorite movie, which I revisit every few months as a kind of reset button for my life. That movie is laced with Elliott’s songs, and it was not until right then, that moment where my life-changing media intersected, that I was able to put voice to name.
Elliott Smith’s music is salvation, is pain, is heartbreak. I hear his voice and become a 14-year-old girl one day before her 15th birthday in her parents’ room, trying to suppress sobs while watching Will Hunting break down and confront his past. I hear his voice and remember every quiet midnight when the only thought in my jumbled brain was, “It’s a Good Will Hunting kind of night.” I hear his voice and recall every time I have been reminded that I do not have to be grand or important—I simply have to be. His voice is everything that hurts and everything that inspires.
I have never experienced such a pure moment of shock and recognition firsthand. I have witnessed this before; often my best friend stops in her tracks while walking, sniffs the air, and pronounces that she knows this scent, and even though I only smell suburbia, her demeanor is changed for the rest of the day. No one piece of art has ever left me stunned to the point of confusion, so I feel compelled to keep listening. I keep listening despite the inexplicable pain in my chest every time I hear his wispy voice. I listen and I see Will Hunting and Skylar heartbroken, I see Kate from Stuck in Love slyly saying, “I think you’re going to be very good for me,” I see the blonde boy from Lit class with gentle eyes, because he breathes this music.
The walk down Brown Street has never felt so foreign.
I do not believe in fate, or destiny, or anything of the sort. I do not believe it is possible for someone to discover something “at the right time.” But my particular introduction to Elliott Smith feels like nothing short of a stroke of magic. My mental health exists in waves; brief periods of hyper-happy are followed by introverted seclusion, the corners of my lips pulled down by anchors. Weeks of hopelessness are soothed with some teenage cliche of finding inspiration in the stars. When my heart overflows with love, it finds despair to counteract it. I have been suspended in a welcome cloud of cherry-red euphoria, having more fervor for life than I knew was possible. And upon hearing the first few notes of Elliott Smith’s album Either/Or, a familiar shade of blue sets in my heart—a periwinkle that grounds me. His music is not comfortable. It reminds me of every single one of my bad nights. But maybe that’s why I love it so much.
I find Elliott Smith at a middling place, in spring. Where summer and winter meet, Elliott Smith exists. His songs are warm and cold and tingling and chilling. There is a soft, secret tone to his distressing words — a perfect oxymoron — that I don’t think I will ever be able to listen to comfortably. And yet, I don’t think I will ever stop listening.