In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Brian Broome’s memoir Punch Me Up to the Gods is transportive, moving, and unforgettable. One of the strongest memoirs I have ever read.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
“An engrossing memoir about growing up Black and gay and finding a place in the world. Structured around Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool,” Broome’s thought-provoking, emotional journey unfolds through a clever use of parallel stories and juxtaposition . . . Beautifully written, this examination of what it means to be Black and gay in America is a must-read. A stellar debut memoir.”
“Bloodbuzz Ohio” by The National
If I had to pick a main musical theme for Punch Me Up to the Gods, this track would be it. I am not shy about saying that I hate Ohio. Many of us hate the place we grew up. But I harbor a preternatural hatred for my home state. Racist and ugly, it created the desperation to be loved that has plagued me my whole life. Each lyric Matt Berninger sings speaks directly to my resentment.
“I still owe money to the money to the money I owe. I never thought about love when I thought about home.”
But there’s also hope embedded in the lyrics. It’s a hope that makes me dance.
If you’re from Ohio and you feel like brooding, this is the song for you.
“Dim All the Lights” by Donna Summer
In my memoir, I write about being, for lack of a better word, a “feminine” Black boy. I never could and still can’t master the “masculine” arts. I discovered Donna Summer when I was nine years old through this song. My mother bought the LP and, whenever no one was around, I would play this track. I would take my mother’s scarves from her closet and use them as props. I would lip-sync as Donna sang and sway my hips along to the bassline. I remember how beautiful she was. I loved the way the song started off slow and then rushed me headlong into a driving beat. No one ever caught me alone in my house with Donna Summer and that’s probably for the best. But part of me wishes they had because I was fabulous.
“I Know You, I Love You” by Chaka Khan
One of the few moments of pride that I felt as a child was standing on the stage in front of my whole school participating in a spelling bee. You can read all about it in the second chapter of the book. I remember feeling on top of the world and I remember this song playing in my head. It is impossible not to feel anything but unbridled joy while listening to this track. Trumpets and glee. I didn’t know what Chaka was singing about, really. But I knew she was thrilled be singing. I felt that thrill on the stage. I still always listen to this track when my spirits need lifting. I like to feel the sun in the morning. I like to see the moon at night. What else do you need?
“A House is Not a Home” by Luther Vandross
Luther Vandross is the first Black gay man I ever saw that I knew was gay. No one announced it. He was in the closet for his whole life, after all. But I just knew. I devoted a whole chapter in the book to this experience and could think of nothing else to call the chapter other than “A House is Not a Home.” My mother had a serious crush on Luther Vandross and I realize now as an adult, I did too. She let me stay up late one night to watch his first appearance on Saturday Night Live. I learned a lot that night. About my mother and me. Luther Vandross’ voice is unique in its brilliance. Playful, generous and rich. He changed my life that night. His voice started me on a journey that I am still on to this day.
“Rio” by Duran Duran
The Red Caboose was a “teen disco” that my mother would never allow me to go to because we didn’t have the money. All the cool kids went there every weekend. One night, I bribed a friend of a friend to drive me there and I remember this song playing a few times. Duran Duran is quintessential 1980s. I danced so hard to this song and felt every note before the night got away from me.
“I Know What Boys Like” by The Waitresses
This song was released in the eighties but I found it in the nineties right around the time that I found out that sex was power. And, as long as I was drunk, I felt sexy in the nineties. I taunted. “nyah-nyah-nyah”. I hated old gay men for being old and gay. I teased them like a bully.
I scammed them for drinks. I made fun of them to their faces.
Then I became an old gay man myself. I still like this track because it reminds me of the folly of youth and the fact that I was a party to a joke whose punchline wouldn’t be delivered for twenty-five more years.
“I Call Your Name” by Switch
Hands down, this is still the Blackest song in existence. It reminds of the brief period when I had a girlfriend. I use the term “girlfriend” impossibly loosely. In the chapter “Game Theory,” I write about walking through the rain in Pittsburgh holding her hand. It ends about the way one would expect. But I knew Black heterosexual love for a time. This song plays in my mind thinking about my time with this young woman whom I’m still friends with today. As we walked through Pittsburgh in the rain and I felt “normal.”
“Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas
There’s a ridiculousness to this song that I love. It reminds me of my father and his Hai Karate cologne. I listened to this track as I was writing a scene with me playing basketball. Writing this scene while listening to a tale about “fast as lighting” dudes who were “a little bit frightening” was an exercise in irony, and it made me laugh out loud. I was not anything like that. But, it’s a fun song. A quirky song. It’s a song about masculinity and fighting and all the things that are supposed to go along with being a man. But I used it for a different purpose altogether.
“Song to the Siren” by This Mortal Coil
There is no song that exudes devotion and heartbreak like this one does. I have listened to it at the lowest points in my life and hummed it from within the confines of mental institutions. It reminds me of those times whenever I listen to it. Only now, I do so without sadness. More with melancholy. I hope that I never listen to it the way that I once did, with thoughts of ending my own life by walking headlong into a highway tunnel. For now, it’s just beautiful.
“You Don’t Know How It Feels” by Tom Petty
You aren’t supposed to glamourize your time in active addiction. But I think it’s fine sometimes. I would get blind drunk and sing this song at the top of my lungs. Bars with jukeboxes hated to see me coming. Even the percussion in this sound sounds drunk. It’s a time in my life that I’ll never forget and never want to relive.
“Fifteen Rounds for Jesus” by Sister Wynona Carr
I am reminded of my mother and her devotion to Jesus when I hear this song. I am reminded of the Black church in general. Paper Jesus fans and rhythmic clapping. I am reminded of shouting pastors, the usher board, the nurses guild and the junior choir. This song brings back all of that. But most of all, it brings back memories of my mother sitting in the congregation as I looked out at her from the choir stand. Those were, to my mind, the only times that she was ever proud of me. When I was soloing in First Baptist Church choir singing “Soon and Very Soon.” Though I am not a religious man, I still recognize the power that Black gospel music has over me and have learned to embrace it.
“Rehab” by Amy Winehouse
I too believed that there was nothing they could teach me that I couldn’t learn from Mr. Hathaway.
“Non je ne Regrette Rien” by Edith Piaf
I hope to someday get back to France. I felt freer there than I do in America. Maybe, like James Baldwin, I’ll live there. I listened to Edith Piaf on a beach in Nice. I have no idea what she’s saying. But that doesn’t matter. I felt free with the ocean spread out before me and a bunch of sharp rocks beneath me. This song ends the journey of my book. But it began a new chapter in my life.
Brian Broome, a poet and screenwriter, is the K. Leroy Irvis Fellow and instructor in the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh. He has been a finalist in The Moth storytelling competition and won the grand prize in Carnegie Mellon University’s Martin Luther King Writing Awards. He also won a VANN Award from the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation for journalism in 2019. Punch Me Up to the Gods is Brian’s first full-length book. He lives in Pittsburgh.