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How Can You Just Leave Me Standing? I Cried When Prince Died

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Fact. I would not be writing this piece right now if it wasn’t for Prince. When I discovered him back in 1984, Prince taught me one hugely important life lesson that I have lived by since. He taught me that I could turn my life experiences into art.

I was 22 years old the year Prince’s Purple Rain was released. I was living in the gritty and largely black town Vallejo, California, hometown of Sly and the Family Stone and a toxic Naval shipyard that coated the entire place with poison. I had just come off the streets three years earlier and was trying to carve a future for myself by going to community college, even though I only had an eighth grade education (but a doctorate of the streets).

As I sat down to write this tribute, I was trying to remember why it was that I watched Purple Rain so many times in the movie theater when it was first released. Then I remembered that I was working at the old Empress Theater in Vallejo at the time. The first time I watched Purple Rain, I was the one threading the film through the projector. Once the movie started playing, I sat on the steps in the back of the theater and watched Prince’s story unfold through song, dance, tears, rage and a lot of motorcycle riding.

I was a lost kid at the time. I didn’t know who I was or what I was doing. I had a little Honda 200cc motorcycle that my grandfather had given me. I rode that to college during the day, and at night I made popcorn and projected films at the Empress for minimum wage. I also cleaned the bathroom and sold tickets and candy. I was getting by. Kind of.

1984 was the year right before the shit hit the fan for me. I had spent my entire teen years on and off the streets, finally leaving them behind at age 19. But, I had suppressed all my childhood experiences – the violent legacy of my childhood, my life on the streets, my recently buried brother who died of a heroin overdose, my violent stepfather, drug addicted mother, absentee biological father, and the horrendous violations I experienced on the streets. All of this was locked away deep inside me the night I watched Purple Rain for the first time.

It was the middle of the Reagan era, and people were dying all around me. The San Francisco Bay Area was like a mass grave, and somewhere under all the death, there were lots of broken pieces of the nine lives I had burned through at such a young age.

I was living in a small flat downtown and had very few things to my name – my cat, my motorcycle, a record player, and my job at the movie theater.

I had moved so fast and hard through my young life that I didn’t have time to slow down to think of the consequences, the places that I hurt, the things I had seen, and mostly to feel how much I didn’t belong in the world around me.

Then I threaded Purple Rain through the projector and watched the movie on the big screen. In the 80s, I was too unaware to realize how ridiculously excessive the 80s were. They were all mixed up. Like me. Like Prince. I was a mish mash of music and broken identity. I grew up in the 60s with the legacy of psychedelic rock in the backdrop. I spent my childhood listening to Motown and soul including Bay Area legend Sly Stone. I got high for the first time to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. I was turned onto San Francisco Punk in 1977 and took a drastic detour, losing myself in the dark oblivion of noise.

In other words, musically I was as fractured as my sense of self, but watching and listening to Prince, all those pieces came together. He was everything I was through music. Prince came riding onto the screen on his motorcycle and laying his guts bare. Cocky and fragile. Full of pomp and sincerity. He pumped it out. He put his life and his heart into his music, yet he also carefully crafted a pop identity to safely package his soul. I was stunned by him. It was like getting slapped with a big dose of reality, and reality was not easy. It was funk. It was blues. It was rock. It was disco. It was punk. It was glam. It was none of the above. It was Prince. And it came from his heart and his life.

One of the reasons I loved Purple Rain is because I also grew up loving rock operas, everything from Tommy (Ken Russell, 1975) to Phantom of the Paradise (Brian De Palma, 1974). The Who’s Quadrophenia (1973) is my favorite album of all time, and Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) shattered the boundaries between musical genres for me. Both these albums were huge influences in my life when they came out and I was coming of age at eleven years old. I loved how they told stories through songs and that the stories seemed largely personal. I loved how they were confused yet whole. Splintered but sincere. One thing and many. Prince took rock opera to the next step with Purple Rain, putting the personal front and center and mashing up genres into a mixed-up montage of self through music – all the different music that made up my personal cosmology – and all stamped with his struggle to find identity and reconciliation in a world that would resist allowing him to find either. And in that resistance was freedom.

Prince is a lot like those albums that meant so much to me when I was a kid. Both are all over the place in sound and style, just like Prince’s music. They move from slow ballads to frenetic pop and hybrid genre pieces. They can’t be categorized. They’re not sure what they are. Just like Prince. Just like me.

Prince took his uncategorical difference and belted it out in music that constantly shifted, that never gave up its soul, but also bumped and grinded some of the best pop in rock history.

During the two weeks that Purple Rain played at the Empress, I watched it at least six times, even when I wasn’t the one running the projector.

Prince gave me a window into myself. It was watching Prince unabashedly delivering himself that finally allowed me to come out of the closet with my own life. Prince slashed open the place inside me where I had stored all my experiences. Shortly after I watched the movie, everything I had suppressed came out.

I tore the pages out of my college books and burned them. I smashed things in my house (not unlike Prince smashing things in his basement in the movie). I screamed. I cried. I quit school, and I started painting my life onto big canvases and writing it into poems which I performed. I created an alter ego – Kim Dot Dammit – one whose legacy is still alive and kicking today over three decades later. Prince opened the door for me. I stepped through it in 1984, and I have never turned back.

Prince is not altogether likeable in Purple Rain. He shows that pain and rage are joined at the hip (literally as he grinds it out of him on stage). The son of psychotic dysfunctional parents who grew up where violence and abuse were everyday facts of life, he allowed me to look at my own childhood through a new lens – with the freedom to put it into art without shame . He showed me that I could take the pain, the confusion, and my fractured self and turn all that outward and put it in art and writing. He also showed me the complexities that come with turning your life into art: It can alienate a lot of people, keep you one step removed from the alienation and isolation you already occupied, and it can cause you to lash out pretty violently at yourself and others. But that’s part of the reality. Prince did not shy away from complexity or the complexity of sincerity. The thing about Prince is that he was 1000% sincere, but he also couched that sincerity in the safety net of a pop identity. That was my ticket to turning the sincere facts of my life into art – remembering that even if what I write and make are sincere (such as this very piece of writing), what I produce is a sheltered vulnerability. It will never really be my true actual heart and self but rather sincere constructions. Prince taught me how to straddle this line.

Prince’s audacious bombastic humble sincerity (yes, that’s a conundrum and one that I understand deeply) gave me license to be whatever it is I am even when I don’t know what it is. Back in my days at the Empress, I would watch Purple Rain, then hop on my Honda and speed down back highways as fast as the little motorcycle would go. I’d go home and slather paint on canvas, painting my life out of myself. Prince was in the background the whole time singing the phrase “How can you just leave me standing?” This became the mantra to my life. How can you just leave me standing? Big question.

Dig if you will the picture
Of you and I engaged in a kiss
The sweat of your body covers me
Can you my darling
Can you picture this?

It wasn’t just that Prince sang his lyrics. He poured his soul into them. He belted them out in desperate screams. He whispered truths. His voice moved between sound and genres merging into a montage of soul that was a patchwork of his own soul, and by extension mine. He allowed me into myself because he so deeply explored himself, even as he did it by creating an iconic pop identity.

His music came to me at a time in my life when I realized I would never belong anywhere. I was completely alone, living with the weight of my legacy and history not having a clue where to go with it. I didn’t know who or what I was, but I knew I would never belong. Prince showed me that I could take my “aloneness” and my social isolation and turn them into something vital, alive and shouting with my soul. Thank you, Prince.

Even as a young kid I didn’t belong. I was the kid who was beaten daily by her dad. My house was like the house in Purple Rain. I would come home to find phones ripped from walls, keys smashed on pianos, and my mom sobbing with two black eyes. I was the kid who cussed like a sailor and whose friends were forbidden to play with me because of my bad mouth. I was the kid sent to isolation in juvenile hall, and isolation is the world I have lived in since. Prince showed me how to find my voice and holler into the world to be heard. He showed me how to shatter the isolation by breaking down the walls with my voice, but he also showed me how to protect myself through the artifice of craft. I could be sincere and still be safe. Purple Rain can show truth and obscure vision at the same time.

I left home at fifteen and spent my entire teen years off the grid while girls my age were going to proms, having boyfriends, and planning for college. At age 22, I was a misfit, ex-criminal, outlaw and freak. I didn’t understand girls. I didn’t understand boys. I didn’t understand people. I didn’t understand so many things people take for granted. I had no idea who I was in the world of people. I was an alien.

I still am.

I lived with black pimps and drug dealers, and I was sold by the Italian mafia. My experiences forever marked me as sexually “other,” yet I wasn’t gay. I wasn’t hetero. I was just . . . me.

Dream if you can a courtyard
An ocean of violets in bloom
Animals strike curious poses
They feel the heat
The heat between me and you

It was a co-worker who told me the news last week. “Did you hear that Prince is dead?” He looked like he would cry. I shook my head, felt a lump rise to my throat. I normally don’t get emotional over celebrity death, but this hit me hard. I choked down tears. Not Prince. I cried. I felt part of me die with him. That part is in these words I’m writing.

It’s not that I am a Prince expert or a musicologist or that I have a lot of stories to share other than the fact that Purple Rain came to me at a time in my life when I could have died from the number of fractures inside myself. Purple Rain washed over me, and said “It’s okay to be conflicted. It’s okay to face down the truth. It’s okay to want love and feel rage and be broken and still be beautiful. It’s okay to turn your soul into art and speed down dark highways on your motorcycle.”

Let me tell you what. When Prince throws himself on the stage belting out the lyrics to “The Beautiful Ones,” and he is writhing and pleading “Do you want me,” my heart breaks a little every time I watch. I wanted that in 1984, and I still want it. I want to feel that hard, want that hard, and I want someone to feel and want me back that hard. Damn, Prince. Who wouldn’t want that? And when he pours his whole lifetime of hurt and need into Purple Rain, you’d have to be made out of cement not to feel his tender soul. Prince let himself feel even if the feelings were conflicted because feelings are conflicted. They can cause us to love hard and hurt hard (ourselves and others).

Touch if you will my stomach
Feel how it trembles inside
You’ve got the butterflies all tied up
Don’t make me chase you
Even doves have pride

Flashback to April 20, 2016, just a few days ago. I was running at twilight listening to music on shuffle mode on my iPod. I was trying hard not to think about how it was the anniversary of my brother, paternal grandmother and biological father’s death. I was running through the desert streets at night. I was planting my feet on the ground with each step, trying to feel the ground so I wouldn’t fly off – the handle or the planet.

No music sounded good. I kept clicking past songs. Then I landed on The Be Good Tanyas’ cover of “When Doves Cry” and thought “That’s it!” I ran six miles listening to different cover versions of the song. It’s always been my favorite Prince song. It encapsulates everything about him that touches my soul. I was listening to covers of the song the night before Prince died. The doves were crying while I ran and while one very important dove was exiting this world.

When I learned Prince died, I wanted to write something, like so many people did, because he changed my life. But the more I thought about what I would write, the more I realized it would be impossible because I would just end up writing about me. But maybe that was one of his most profound gifts. Through his utter freedom in his unique creative expression of self, he gave us an outlet for our own self-expression. He said it’s okay to use your life as the materia of art, be a spectacle, pour your heart out, be conflicted, and keep mixing it up because life is mixed up.

When I first started listening to Prince, I didn’t really think too deeply about music, identity, race, performance, and all those things. I was just trying to survive and understand who I was while barely standing on my feet. When I threaded Purple Rain through the projector back in 1984 and watched Prince’s story and music unfold, I knew I loved the man, and I loved his music.

His death has made me question why Prince meant so much to me. I think mostly it is his utter sincerity coupled with his resistance to definition. His music is a hybrid that covers the musical range of my lifetime. It’s rock, funk, punk, glam, disco, and pop. It is a lot of things, but mostly it is uniquely its own thing. There is no other Prince. The man could write a song, sing his guts out in an incredible range that could rip your heart to pieces, play the living hell out of the guitar and piano, and put on a mind blowing spectacle of a performance. He had the ability to straddle two worlds: He could lay his soul bare while also keeping himself firmly protected in his pop identity. He gave us his heart, but he held back his “self.” Those conflicting elements allowed me to find a place for myself.

Prince taught me it was okay to be honest and to put your guts and your life into your art, but he also showed me the safety net of public persona. On the surface, Prince felt like pop. But he also had deep soul to rival the best. His vocal range shatters my heart. But he could also rock the hell out of an electric guitar, coming out of Minneapolis at the same time as post-punk bands like Husker Du. In fact Husker Du frontman Bob Mould played the same stage at the First Avenue Club and recorded in the same studios as Prince.

But none of that is why Prince is important to me. Those are facts, and Prince was more than facts. He was . . . an angel, a demon, a visionary.

I feel for Prince because I feel for his scattered identity and the fact that he created his alter-ego out of his real struggles and put his soul into it. He’s Prince, but who is he really? I am the woman writing this personal tribute to Prince, but who am I really?

There are times in my life when I have held onto my Italian genes because they gave me some kind of sense of heritage or belonging. Race. Class. I may have a lot of Italian genes, but even that identity is largely constructed. My family is dead. I never knew my biological father. After I got off the streets where I was completely invisible, I spent years scraping together an identity out of scraps of myself and the shit I made and wrote. I am a montage of sorts. But who am I really? It doesn’t matter. I just keep creating, making, shifting, finding new ways to express myself. Thank you, Prince.

Purple Rain is a beautiful album because it covers the spectrum of young confused life. Fighting with identity, genes, family. The need for and impossibility of love. Desire. Hope. Heartbreak. Alienation. And the one thing holding the human soul together – soul as expressed through music.

With Prince, there was always hope in all the freneticism, pomp and gut-wrenching pleas in his music. There was hope even while recognizing hopelessness. In his music, there was self-awareness through the creation of a public self. There is an understanding of self within the material world, but there is also recognition that self is something we, ourselves, can feel intensely but that can never really be defined publicly. Self in the public realm is always a construction, and Prince’s constructed self was so sincerely self-aware that he gave voice to everyone who is invisible in the mass public, everyone who defies definition and doesn’t fit, and everyone whose selves remain hidden and silent. It is the hope in Purple Rain mixed with regret, pain, longing, rage, desperation and the sense that Prince will never belong to anyone or anywhere but himself that struck my heart deep and still does.

How do we who live beyond categories navigate the tumultuous terrain of our souls in a world that insists on categories that will never accommodate us? Through art, writing, music, creative expression. Prince taught me this.

How can you just leave me standing?
Alone in a world that’s so cold? (So cold)
Maybe I’m just too demanding
Maybe I’m just like my father too bold
Maybe you’re just like my mother
She’s never satisfied (She’s never satisfied)
Why do we scream at each other
This is what it sounds like
When doves cry

Yes, I cried when Prince died. But I wouldn’t be writing this if he hadn’t come into my life that night in 1984 when I threaded Purple Rain through the projector.

I love Prince, and he is profoundly important to me because the man was working out his struggles with identity through music. I identified with him because of his conflicts with identity. He showed me the truth of fractured identity, because he could not be categorized, because he was so many things yet he was no one thing, and because mostly he was his own thing. Prince sang to me because he defied labels, and because his personal cosmology made him an outsider from the outset. He wasn’t black or white, rock or soul. He was . . . Prince.

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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