Songs Only You Know: A Memoir

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Eighteen-year-old Sean Madigan Hoen was struggling to keep his involvement in the city’s hardcore punk scene a secret from his family. Then he learned that his father, too, had a second life—as a crack addict. 
Songs Only You Know begins in the '90s and spans a decade during which the family fights to hold itself together. Sean’s father cycles from rehab to binge, his heartsick sister spirals into depression, and his mother ...

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Eighteen-year-old Sean Madigan Hoen was struggling to keep his involvement in the city’s hardcore punk scene a secret from his family. Then he learned that his father, too, had a second life—as a crack addict. 
Songs Only You Know begins in the '90s and spans a decade during which the family fights to hold itself together. Sean’s father cycles from rehab to binge, his heartsick sister spirals into depression, and his mother works to spare what can be spared. Meanwhile, Sean seeks salvation in a community of eccentrics and outsiders, making music Spin magazine once referred to as “an art-core mindfuck.” But the closer Sean comes to realizing his musical dream, the further he drifts from his family and himself.
By turns heartbreaking and mordantly funny, Songs Only You Know is a fierce, compassionate rendering of the chaos and misadventure of a young man’s life.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Superficially seen, it seems odd that memoirist Sean Hadigan Hoen has attracted Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert as an ardent fan. Hoen is, after all, a veteran of Detroit's anarchistic punk scene and a survivor of a horrific home life in the dead-end Motor City. Gilbert, however, has no hesitation in praising him as "not merely an immensely gifted writer, but also a seeker—of redemption, of clarity, and hard family life." Of his book, she writes, "No flinching here. I admired every page of it." Discover readers did too; editor's recommendation.

Publishers Weekly
In this overlong memoir, Hoen tells of growing up in and outside of Detroit with a crack-smoking father, a helpless but stoic mother, and a painfully shy and desperately-seeking-meaning-in-life sister. Hoen channels his own frustration into playing in a punk music band. Weaving stories of the band’s life with his family life, he paints a now all-too-typical tale of a family going down in flames. Music sort of saves him, though: “With every traveled mile I sensed a mythology in the making, a history I imagined musicologists discussing years later.” Eventually, Hoen comes to himself, though not before losing himself again: “To achieve self-invention, you first evacuate the truest parts of yourself—they were slipping from me, connected only by a fear of losing touch completely.” In the end, what starts as a promising read, loses its rhythm. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
Perceptive, sprawling memoir of a young man's escape from cascading family tragedies into the noise-punk underground. Hoen's debut offers an intense panorama of the 1990s Rust Belt. As his hometown of Dearborn, Mich., contracted economically, what remained was a decayed landscape simultaneously urban and rural, rife with dark temptations. The author's family life began imploding when his father went from a stable career at Ford to a crack cocaine addiction. Hoen's response was to strike out on tour with his band, Thoughts of Ionesco, which developed a cult following for its members' intensely messy, gruesome live performances. As he engaged in the punk rituals of angry music and destructive carousing, he tried to keep this lifestyle separated from his long-suffering mother and his fragile sister, a sensitive, earnest girl who went from bullied outcast to her own hedonistic scene, concealing the depths of her depression. She committed suicide at 22 while hospitalized after several abortive attempts. As he mourned his sister and made amends with his father (still secretly using), he tried to develop a more sophisticated songcraft: "The trouble was that the sad, simple music I wanted to make was beyond my range." Hoen returned to an aggressive post-punk sound with his next band, The Holy Fire, which gained critical praise and a recording contract. However, the author found that this only led to nonstop touring and deepening debt, while his own substance abuse and failing health led him to wonder if he was following his father's path. Hoen writes with an acute eye and colorful yet controlled prose, but the overlong plot arc contains repetitive scenes of tour life and personal strife; this approach comes to feel rambling and slackens the power of his observations. A dark, knowing look at addiction, rock 'n' roll, and the ties that bind.
From the Publisher
A Flavorwire Must-Read Book
A Minnesota Public Radio Best Book

"Unsettling and riveting... Prompts us to reflect on our own demons, and how we've tried to—and perhaps succeeded in—exorcising them. The grit and guts of Songs Only You Know goad us into this introspection and stir anticipation for his next book."
—Time Out New York

"Eschewing rock ’n’ roll memoir stereotypes, Songs doesn’t glorify sex and drugs, instead exploring the harder parts of romance and addiction... the reader is exposed to every inch of Hoen’s struggle with keeping his family together through near-insurmountable circumstances while trying to keep his personal life in some semblance of order and keep his musical flame from being extinguished. It’s a compelling, engrossing read."
—Alternative Press

"A moving, often harrowing story that's much more than just a tour diary of the Detroit hardcore scene in which Hoen grew up."
Revolver Magazine

“Songs Only You Know screams at you, its limbs flail, and parts of it provoke a visceral reaction that might have you setting down the book for a few moments to catch your breath... one hell of a book.”
—Flavorwire, Book of the Week

"[O]ne of the only punk memoirs you’ll ever have to read."
—Flavorwire, 10 Must-Read Books for April

"Songs Only You Know is a truly moving book, full of pain, longing, strangeness and even grim comedy, and one of its greatest triumphs is the way Hoen describes a certain creative intensity—youthful, monstrous, fragile—that is both life-giving and dangerous, especially in troubled times. Maybe everybody has a song, but Hoen sings his with fresh phrasing and genuine feeling."
—Sam Lipsyte, author of The Fun Parts

“Here is a writer with a musician’s awareness, the deep breath in before a long scream, the cocked bat, that ‘harsh internal music’ building as one of Songs strongest themes tries to comprehend the incomprehensible.... [Songs Only You Know] feels boundless, containing whole worlds of darkness and sweet domestic family life.”

“Brutally honest, and yet tender and introspective... Hoen deserves comparisons with Nick Flynn or Tobias Wolff for his depiction of a young man growing up in a world of family trouble and showing how we negotiate the ties and hard love that bind us. It also captures (as its dismal yet somehow hopeful backdrop) decaying rustbelt Detroit as well as anything Charlie LeDuff or Jim Daniels have done, which is saying something.”
—The Rumpus

"An unbound, raw, and cathartic expression of pain for [Hoen].... It hits deep."

"[Hoen] looks back on a life battling adversity with brutal honesty and humility, and is able to see the comedy in the worst things that life has to offer. In addition, despite the darkness, his description of the local hardcore scene makes you wish you were there (if you weren’t)."
—Detroit Metro News

"[A] unique literary voice.... almost eye-wateringly as he switches from mordantly funny to intensely honest, with a skeletal insight into a fanily in crisis and an emerging subculture."
—Vive le Rock

“Hoen is a particularly gifted writer who writes evocatively about Detroit's hardcore punk scene and decaying Midwest cities of the 1990s.”
—Michigan Live

“[Hoen’s writing] retains the sharp tang of honesty.... If you ever wondered what the punk life was like, this'll tell ya, and it ain't pretty; if you ever lived it, this'll remind ya; and even if you don't give a shit either way, Songs Only You Know will interest you.”
—Mark S. Tucker for FAME

“The manner in which Hoen describes people and events is spot-on, dropping readers into the action so convincingly that they’ll have to remind themselves that these are Hoen’s memories, not ours.... stabbing at the heart of the human condition and resonating long after the book jacket is closed.”

"To say Songs Only You Know is a gritty tale would be a gross understatement. Equal parts Catcher in the RyeRumble Fish, and Purple Rain, it’s the travelogue of a misguided minstrel.... [stabs] at the heart of the human condition and resonating long after the book jacket is closed." 
—North Coast Voice

“[This] tragic tale.... is the type of tale that pulls the reader in.”
—Mississippi Sun Herald

"Hoen shares his musical journey with us, warts and all, taking us into his dark world with unflinching passages.... I found myself immediately sucked into Hoen's world from the very first chapter; the writing and the stories are so good that I couldn't put it down."
—Pure Grain Audio

"An astonishing well-written debut.... a deeply emotional trip through Hoen’s formative years and an inspiration to the many of us who have shared similar challenges."
Book Patrol

“Astute and intensely self-aware, Hoen writes furious prose with a storyteller’s eye for detail... there’s no question that Hoen is a gifted, impassioned writer with a deep understanding of longing and pain.”

"Perceptive, sprawling memoir of a young man’s escape from cascading family tragedies into the noise-punk underground.... A dark, knowing look at addiction, rock ’n’ roll, and the ties that bind." 
—Kirkus Reviews

"I don’t know anyone who has described that terrible yearning for ecstasy and immolation through music as lucidly as Sean Madigan Hoen in Songs Only You Know. Only a thorough initiate of the scene who also had some genius with language could summon the demotic yet electric voice for the job. If there is ruefulness, now, for the way he treated his body, his girlfriends, and his family, he wisely reprises in his book, in neon detail, the fever that once placed him in the same drunken boat with Iggy Pop, Rimbaud and Artaud."
—Jaimy Gordon, National Book Award-winning author of Lord of Misrule

"Here's what you get when you mix Nick Flynn with Karl Ove Knausgaard: a book of almost spooky clarity and relentless compassion. I bet when Songs Only You Know gets translated to Norwegian they'll call it My Struggle (With Drugs and Rock-n-Roll). Which would kind of get it, and kind of wouldn't. Because it's also universal, and ridiculously readable, and Hoen has, in this memoir, brought his life pinned and wriggling to page, and you can't help but be moved by it, and even find yourself changed."
—Darin Strauss, National Book Critics Circle award-winning author of Half a Life

“Sean Madigan Hoen puts raw need indelibly on the page—the need for family, for belonging, for alcohol and drugs, and for a music that will burn all those things away (and if the music fails, try more alcohol and drugs). Hoen’s younger self thinks, ‘To achieve self-invention, you first evacuate the truest parts of yourself,’ not quite knowing yet that the sort of evacuation he craves is only ever temporary: the check always comes due. This moving, often brutal memoir records Hoen’s long journey back toward the truth.”
—Bill Clegg, author of Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man

"Sean Madigan Hoen is not merely an immensely gifted writer, but also a seeker—of redemption, of clarity, of hard family history. There are moments of Songs Only You Know that seem almost too painful to bear—but only almost. What carries the reader through is both the naked beauty of the prose and the deep human certainty that it is always better to face the truth than to flinch away from it. No flinching here. I admired every page of it."  
—Elizabeth Gilbert, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love and The Signature of All Things

“It's an odd feeling to have, to not want a book to end when it covers so many miserable and sometimes manic moments in a life, but that's how I felt reading this fantastic, honest, unsentimental and finally generous-hearted book.”
—Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances

"Songs Only You Know is cigarettes and buck knives, crabgrass and asphalt, rolling brownouts and horseshit vinyl. Sean Madigan Hoen offers the best things a writer can offer a reader: the big heart, the big hurts, the big bad news about the impermanence of life's gig." 
—Kyle Minor, author of Praying Drunk

“Sean Hoen has written a wise and moving memoir about anger, rock music and the endurance of familial love. For Hoen the ultimate redemption is rendering honestly the hard facts of his own transgression, while never losing track of the beauty and kindness that are also, thank goodness, ineradicable aspects of human existence.”
—Stephen O’Connor, author of Here Comes Another Lesson
"Like the best rock and roll memoirs, Songs Only You Know is as propulsive as the music it describes. But what truly sets this book apart is Hoen’s unflinching ability to portray dire situations while still being generous in his recollections. These searing shards of life are stamped into the page with genuine empathy."
—Jeff Jackson, author of Mira Corpora

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616953362
  • Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 4/15/2014
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 586,966
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Sean Madigan Hoen

Sean Madigan Hoen was raised in Dearborn, Michigan and spent his young adulthood touring and recording in several Detroit-based music groups, including Thoughts of Ionesco, The Holy Fire and Leaving Rouge. His fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including BOMB Magazine, where he was awarded the 2011 Fiction Award. He has taught creative writing at Columbia University and currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. Songs Only You Know: A Memoir is his first book.

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Read an Excerpt

The aluminum bat leaned against the garage wall, next to a rake and a hoe and four bicycles with flat tires and rusty chains.…
            I didn’t think it over, just grabbed the thing by its handle and kept walking, out the back door and down the driveway, cutting onto the sidewalk, all the while possessed by a harsh internal music. Tonight’s was midtempo and repetitive, a minor key blaring silently and in time with each footfall­­. Just about anywhere, anytime, there’d be a song in mind, and I never tired of moving notes, shifting the rhythms, sliding one chord into the next. I’d do this at work, at family dinners, while listening to my girlfriend Lauren on the phone—no one suspected the storm of guitars happening in my thoughts. As a kid sitting in church pews I’d written my earliest songs, reinventing the solemn melodies of the Catholic mass as dramatic rock epics of mayhem and destruction. They’d always sounded best in the low ranges, and the one I was hearing tonight was no exception. I saw the bass tones waving out to drench whatever was before me: houses and parked cars, the roadside mailboxes lining the street. Twelve-something a.m. The kind of boiler-hot Michigan night we got once or so a year. 
            After a couple blocks, as if surrendering to the trance, I veered curbward and cocked my elbow and swung the bat just hard enough to ruin a postbox, the hatch of which fell open as the sound of crumpling aluminum snapped through the streets. I stood there feeling it—metal-on-metal impact jolting through my arms. The streets led in every direction. I had no idea how far I intended to go.
            This was August of 1996.
            I was eighteen and things had been looking up since I’d started my first band a year earlier, a mean-sounding three-piece I believed had the stuff to take us around the country, maybe farther. My hair was buzzed to the scalp. With each step, my steel-toed shoes clapped the sidewalk. I’d left the house shirtless, thinking the darkness might cool things down, but I was sweating before I’d turned out of the driveway. Though I considered myself a shade too pale, a few pounds too skinny, just then I was unashamed. No one was around to see.
           My pace doubled as I scanned the street, keeping an eye out for the headlights of my sister Caitlin’s Ford Escort. Six hours earlier, our dad had made off with her beloved two-door, driving straight from the parking lot of Brighton Center for Recovery to who the hell knew where.
            The moon, probably. Over the rainbow.
            I turned onto Ridgewood Drive, a central road that wound through the neighborhood—subdivision, they called it around there. Friday night, yet the streets were so still, so quiet, my footsteps echoed off garage doors. It wasn’t hard to imagine the place deserted, the homes vacated, jutting nails where pictures once hung, wall-to-wall carpet imprinted by the legs of long-gone furniture. My friends back in Dearborn called my new hood a McMansion village. The kind of place glimpsed from any midwestern freeway, a sprawl of prefabricated colonies just outside whatever major city you’re approaching. Facade towns of vinyl siding and numbskull architecture not meant to survive too far into the future. Other than certain windows lit from inside, every house looked the same to me, especially up top where their rooftops met the sky.
            The bat was feeling lighter by the second.
            I gave it a shake, passed it from one hand to the other. And then the song inside changed, a tonal variation corresponding to the moment, quiet at first, like someone faded the volume knob only to begin inching it slowly toward mind-searing decibels. 
            Back at our house, Mom and Caitlin had gone to bed nervous, mounting the stairs as though, before they reached the top, they might hear the Escort pulling into the driveway. Still, like any other night, they’d yanked their blond hair into ponytails and scrubbed the day from their faces. If I knew them at all, there’d be some prayers going on. They hadn’t said much, other than “I don’t believe this.” They hadn’t quite learned to speak the words “crack cocaine,” and neither had I. To say it was to acknowledge the arrival of an alien terror, something not meant for people like us, decent, true-blooded Catholics.
            All of us but me, anyway.
            Though I’d long ago coerced my mom into naming our black-bearded terrier Ozzy, Mr. Osbourne himself had once seemed the devil incarnate. As a kid I’d stashed his albums in the cleverest places, knowing even then the grief it would cause my sweet mother to find her twelve-year-old son’s copy of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, its jacket decorated by a demon-inclusive orgy presided over by the number 666. Now Ozzy was seven, and heavy metal was old news, a studded-leather cartoon. I was on to Black Flag, and Mom was facing a truer menace.
           We’d landed in Ridgewood Hills two years earlier by means of my dad muscling up the ranks of Ford Motor and saving stock options along the way. We'd gone from used Pintos to Taurus station wagons, bargain-brand everything to the usual supplies you find at the mall. Dad said we’d moved because Detroit was a lost cause—a maniac on Greenfield Avenue had flashed a knife at my mom just before our place went on the market. Truly, the motive had been to widen the distance between him and the drug netherworld. Mom hoped a move twenty minutes west would do the trick, to this town whose name I rarely spoke.
            The sidewalks had no crabgrass. The cars were new, tucked into garages. Sodded lawns and rock gardens, motion-sensor lights tripping on when the wind blew.  The lie I told most often was that I still lived in Dearborn, the city I’d been raised in, fifteen minutes from the Ambassador Bridge and flanked by Detroit to the north and east. There my family had known simple days. Dearborn had giant parks and record stores and doughnut shops, backstreets on which my friends and I biked from one neighborhood to the next, down to the Rouge Steel plant where blue flames rose toward the sky. They called Detroit the Motor City, but Dearborn was where the Ford Rangers were made from iron ore shipped by the boatload up the Rouge River.
            I knew jack about cars, but I’d been ashamed to leave, had driven back each morning to finish high school in the land of Ford. In a matter of five hours, my alarm was set to wake me for my latest job as a groundskeeper at a golf course set on the concrete banks of the Rouge—a toxic passage rumored about Dearborn to turn your tongue black if you drank from it. My parents made the same commute: Dad to Ford Motor and Mom to Dearborn’s public schools, working as a speech therapist. Caitlin had switched districts without a gripe, reporting so little about her enormous new school and her ability to disappear there. I had two years on her, but my sister’s book smarts and extra-credit volunteer work made it so that she’d be graduating a half year behind me. She fixed lattes at a coffee shop in the new town, earning more than I did, once you counted her tips. Had she known what I was up to tonight, she’d have followed me out in her nightie, whispering commands in her small voice. She’d be tugging at the bat with that scared, angry look she reserved only for me, or my father. 
I took a swing, chopping in rhythm with my tune in the making, certain it would dissolve before I’d ever pluck it on my guitar. In the distance, a sprinkler system began clacking away, giving me a beat to work with—the rat-tat of it. Caitlin and I had learned about our dad’s problem three weeks earlier, the very day he left for Brighton Treatment Center. One night he’s chiding me for having slacked on college in order keep my band going; the next, he’s a confessed addict. Twenty-one days in detox was supposed to do the trick, and I’d honestly thought it would, had not believed we were in a major situation until he hijacked Caitlin’s Escort and shot to hell the chances of anything ever being the same.
            An aluminum bat and rows of postboxes stretching for miles.
As his son, I had the urge to respond dramatically, though I had little in mind beyond walking and swiping at the air. To conjure something that might scare him straight if the headlights of my sister’s car came rushing down the street. I’d step into the glare. 
            And what then?
            The music inside me was on the fade out, another song lost to the ether.
            As if it might propel me forward, I tried to picture my father dragging from a crack pipe but summoned instead the guy I’d known: An early-rising warhorse of a man. A wearer of creaseless suits who was also gifted with locker-room charisma and expertise with a hammer. I knew his firm handshake, his soft spot for underdogs, beautiful-loser types who had no chance of winning but just might snap their necks trying. His eyes were faintly blue, revealing so little of his mood, whatever shape it might take at any given moment. He was an earnest hugger and world-class jokester one minute; seconds later, my use of the saltshaker might send him into a fury. Whenever he rattled the pages of the Detroit Free Press and called my name, I could never guess what was coming, but until earlier that day I’d more or less believed every word he’d told me.
Now imagine the pipe inserted between his lips, the flame lifting toward the poison. . . .
            I cut the bat hard, following through with the swing. And this was true, what Dad said about certain muscle memories, that they always come right back to you: riding a bike, swinging for the fence. I hadn’t held a bat in years. Pulling it close, I saw my best friend’s name scrawled in black marker across the aluminum barrel: will. Damn thing had found its way into our boxes during the move, an artifact of something distant and other: summer-morning baseball games, the weedy diamonds at Ford Woods Park. Will and I kicking the dirt, wadding chaw into our gums. 
            I planted my feet to give another mailbox a half-assed smack, lost heart before the swing. Ridgewood Hills was the last subdivision before miles of farmland to the west, and in the distance the cars traveling the highway sounded oceanic. Pressed against my cheek, the bat was cool metal. will­­: faded black ink scrawled wild style over the barrel’s sweet spot. The bat belonged to a time when jotting your name on your belongings was running the risk of wussiness, but Will had his reasons for personalizing the thirty-two-inch Easton. It had gone missing early one season, and he’d stood there scowling beneath the brim of his mesh-and-foam hat, thwacking his glove against his thigh. Will had a stutter. Back then, it was at its worst when he was anxious or pissed or girls were around.
            “Fucking bat” was all he’d managed as the park cleared.
“Don’t worry,” I’d said. “We’ll find it.”
            Tall, dapper, brown-mopped Will was the closest thing I had to a brother. We’d long ago developed a shared-thought channel inaccessible to others. Even with me, though, he’d maneuver around words that gave him trouble, skirting questions and situations, which may or may not have rewired his brain to interpret reality from slanted angles. “How’s life out there in Candyland?” he liked to say of my new residence. “About ready to do a little burn job one night after everyone has said their prayers? Are you ready for gasoline?” We didn’t talk about life. The truth was in the pauses after a joke, then the hiss of our laughter. He’d been five years old when I met him. Like many friends in the old neighborhood, he’d acknowledged my dad as a force to behold—the stout, agile mentor who’d tossed the ball with us, who’d made a show of pressing me above his head with a strength their fathers did not possess.
A car motored down a nearby stretch. I pulled the bat to my thigh until the stillness returned. I’d been walking ten, fifteen minutes. No sense arose to indicate my dad was out there anywhere, but piece by piece the fable of Will’s Easton was coming back to me. Strange as it seems, I never once think of that August night without reliving the tale of my best friend’s bat. How, the game after it vanished, I’d been on the mound, chucking fastballs. Dad had spent a thousand nights coaching me through the windup, the snap of the elbow, and I could pitch the ball straight up the middle—hard as I could, straight as I could. A few innings in, a portly marmot-faced kid named Moe had stepped to the plate, his team groaning Moe, Moe as he wielded the bat. From the mound, I’d seen it: the silver Easton, gleaming and new. I waved Will over from third.
            “There’s the rat,” he said, chaw in his teeth.
            “I’m gonna put a curse on him,” I said.
            We’d been—what—eleven, twelve years old? Already bored with ball games, coming into our own as a duo forged in blood oaths, the heaviest metal, the ghastliest horror flicks. Pentagrams and electric guitars, phantasms that defied Sunday mornings in church. Cassettes my dad had smashed. Thrillers that gave Caitlin the heebie-jeebies.
           Will shuffled back to third, and I wound up to chuck one straight at Moe’s breastplate. A fastball. By some miracle of instinct he fumbled away from the pitch, cursing and tossing Will’s bat to the dirt. From the outfield someone let loose a war cry that silenced the earth, until Moe’s coach said, “Shake it off.”
            Only at a distance of years can I admit I was a kid of pulled punches. A daredevil prankster—stealthy yet without true guts. I’d feared just about everything and was angry about being afraid, all of which changed me into a tyrant if ever a viable, deserving victim presented itself. I held steady as Moe pulled his helmet tight, returning to the plate. And a feeling came over me like my limbs were senseless and my teeth had grown giant. The windup, the pitch. Moe ducking as the ball streaked over his head, saying, “What the goddamn shit?” How coyly I’d given my pitching arm the noodle shake. And, yes, I’d felt for Moe, baffled and squinting. I’d thought about giving him one straight up the middle, but I needed Will to know I’d see it through.
            A curse was a curse.
            I wound and pitched again. A sinker that jerked him into a spastic dance. 
            “You hit me, and I stick this bat up your ass.” It sounded almost complimentary, the way Moe had turned his head as he said it.
            “It’s not your bat,” I said.
            That’s when Moe knew what it was about.
A few blocks ahead on Ridgewood Drive, a large wooden sign graced the subdivision’s entrance. Gold letters painted on stained-green wood: ridgewood hills . . .
Hills that had been dozed and sodded and assigned street addresses.
I got the idea to batter that sign into splinters, jagged shards of green wood my dad might view as he made his way home, once his drug run finally ended.
            How many swings to tear it down?
           Twenty, thirty.
           Will would see the green scars on his Easton when I returned it after all these years. He’d tell the story of Moe and the curse, how there’d been one last pitch, right into Moe’s buttocks. After the game, Moe shook our hands, saying, “Swear, I just found it. I didn’t know.”
           I’d crunched Moe’s palm respectfully, no hard feelings.
            And like that, the curse was lifted.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Sean Madigan Hoen, Author of Songs Only You Know

Your memoir is about your time playing a very rough music in a very rough scene. What drew you to that scene as opposed to anything else that was going on musically at the time?

Songs Only You Know is the story of a young life and the way people in my family, myself included, responded to some very intense, mind-bending events. Having been music obsessive in my teenage years, I directed my confusion and rage and sadness into the musical dream because I hadn't been given the tools to deal with some of the harsh realities going on around me. I wasn't actually a connoisseur of "rough" music, per se, but gravitated toward music played by people who seemed, to my ears, driven by a need that was beyond suppression. What I had access to as a Midwestern kid mail ordering records was stuff like mid-period Black Flag and Fugazi, as well as some John Coltrane records I'd found in my parents' basement. When I met the guys in my first band, it was a gestalt effect—the music we made together was deranged by nature. We developed a collective tunnel vision and set out to make the heaviest sounds we could. For us, heaviness wasn't just low end and high decibels; it had to have an emotional dimension, too. Or at least a degree of madness or absurdity that raised it above sheer bravado and volume, tough-guy stuff.

Our participation in the '90s hardcore scene happened out of necessity: it was the only place that would have us. I've never succeeded in doing anything worthwhile musically, but I felt the story of my musical failures was interesting because a lot of young people chase that dragon and I felt my experience unfolded in colorfully unusual ways. There was a self-destructive mechanism built into what we did, expressed in every aspect, including antagonism toward the "scene." To my mind, the finest show we ever played—unmentioned in the book—was in a Philadelphia basement, beneath a single light bulb: after clearing the room of spectators we found ourselves playing to one another, which we took as an opportunity to perform with more vigor than ever before. I became so enthralled and adrenaline-flooded that I vomited on the floor, and we kept on screaming at the bare cinder block walls of that dingy basement. You could say that's what we were after: experiences from which you learn a little more about how far you can drive yourself. And what gave me that need were the traumas occurring on in my "real life," the things happening to my family and the people I loved—which is what's really at the heart of the book. It's not a rock memoir but a story about people doing their best to survive.

Were you writing then, too? Or was music all-consuming?

I grew up in a culture where reading and writing were valued about as much as the mastery of video games or roller skating; actually, literature was probably held in lesser esteem than video games. My mom was a quietly avid reader, but I can't recall another person in my life that had a genuine affection for books. So, music was all-consuming for me in my teens and early twenties, though I'd begun writing these long, hallucinatory rants. I wouldn't dare call them poems, more like right brain transmissions, psychedelic exercises. At one point I printed up a chapbook of these experiments and sold them at my band's shows; god willing, I'll never have to see one again. But my relationship to words began to feel special. No one has ever accused me of being excessively social, so writing was a vehicle to investigate in an abstract manner the many, many things I felt unable to express in conversation. After my first band broke up, I was half-heartedly studying clinical psychology and noticed a university-wide short story competition. I wrote a 5,000-word story in a single night—the only time that would ever happen—about cultural tension in a Dearborn, Michigan lumberyard. After it won the contest, I was informed about these things called MFA programs and literary journals, though I wound up playing music for another eight years or so before I undertook writing with any true commitment. What drew you to writing? It's a different sort of art, of course. But are there similarities between the process or the inspirations?

I feel like I came to writing in a very instinctual, almost feral way. No one was encouraging me to do it; I discovered it as a survival mechanism. I wasn't a big reader growing up; then I read Henry Miller in high school and that burned a large, gaping hole into my notion of what was possible in this life in terms of experience and mind expansion. In terms of art, too. Tropic of Capricorn was, in a way, the first book I ever actually read. Sitting in a Midwestern high school secretly reading about Henry's exploits and his insatiable lust for life: that was a real education. He says a lot about the artist's life, what it means to inhabit your work and to live it. Reading his books, I had this young, naïve sense that, "Hey, I could do that... I wanna be there, whatever planet he's on... let's get there."

As far as comparing the processes of writing music and writing prose, that's a long conversation. I'll say that I felt best creating music when it was impulsive and visceral, when objective thought vanished and there was no filter between the body and the instrument. I guess I aim for something similar during the writing process, even when revising: I try to work myself into a trance, in hopes of accessing something very native, very pure and without pretense. You've got to deal with whatever mess you make later, but that part of the process—the doing— is what matters most to me, and I think I learned how to get there through years of making music.

Music, though, was always a struggle for me. It was as though there were superior forces at work, repeatedly informing me that I had no business seeking out the musician's life—I remember feeling that very early on, and it never relented. But the whole endeavor was an important struggle for me as a human; I like to think that my comparatively healthy relationship to writing has been something like a reward for all of my musical failures.

It's intimidating enough to publish a debut. But to also have that debut be such an intense, personal memoir—what has that been like?

I've wondered how I should answer this sort of question. At the moment I'm still deep in woods, really, hoping the final phases of publication will provide a little bit of resolution. Honestly, the effects of writing this book have proven more extreme than I'd bargained for. It's not the most natural thing for a relatively private person to offer up a story like Songs, but I think that was part of my subconscious drive with the project: To be witnessed by the world and to tell the truth about my experience. Not that it's been an endless struggle. I worked hard to write from a place of love and would actually laugh out loud when drafting some of the scenes. But undertaking this kind of project changes who you are, and that change is not yet complete for me... and it's strange to be in the middle of that transformation. I didn't really choose to write the book; I just started writing it and looked up a few years later with just a vague comprehension of what I'd done. Someone asked me the other day if I'd do it all over again, write this story, and I snapped, "No way." Then I realized I feel that way because I've already written it; I've done the work.

As far as Songs being a debut and autobiographical, well, it is doubly intense. I figured that if I were going to devote myself to the writing life, I'd test my mettle by attempting this book. It was, at the time, the story that meant the most to me. About three years in, I realized how rapidly I was progressing; material I'd written four months before already seemed so amateur. Then I became afraid: What if I worked for ten years, would I be that much better? Would it serve this story? The stakes are so high for me with this book; failure would mean so many things beyond, simply, "I'm a lousy writer." Characterizing my sister, for example, was such a tall order. There were years when I could barely say her name. I knew I had to devote all of my forces to learning how to write, in hopes of doing justice to this story. My feeling was: okay, if I can make something true and beautiful out of this, then maybe I belong here, with the proverbial pen in hand.

You asked earlier about similarities between writing and making music. Something I considered while writing this "debut" is that a lot of the music—especially guitar-based music—I love was made by people early in their careers, before they'd achieved any mastery of their instrument. That primal energy, primitive and unrefined expression— it's what I like most about good punk and garage and new wave records. The Stooges. Joy Division. So, I tried to stay in touch with that beginner's intuition while writing, tried to ride the primal energies and use the desperation of the "debut" experience to benefit the work. I imagine I'll eventually become a better writer, but Songs felt like crawling out of the muck, bloodied by birth and wet behind the ears. Wide-eyed. You have to accept your current station in life and make use of the available energies—this book was raw tissue and exposed nerves.

You won the BOMB Fiction award in 2011. What are some of the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction? Do you prefer or like writing one over the other?

I enjoy writing both very much and many of my heroes did/do both quite well, though my love for the novel is supreme. There were so many times while writing Songs that I wished I could manipulate time and plot circumstances in order to achieve more narrative energy and render the story in a more novelistic way. It's constraining to write about true things that occurred in real time, but I didn't feel right taking liberties with the facts. For example, I love dialogue, but didn't feel right letting it rip in the memoir because I was trying to work with phrases I actually remembered hearing and tones of voice that were true to the characters—it would have felt too fabricated had I reimagined long-winded monologues, even for the characters who tended to speak that way. These constraints forced me to discover other possibilities for characterization. On a technical level, I think it was a great challenge for a first book: to manage ten years' worth of memory and wild, untidy events.

Now I'm exploding with story ideas, just walking around dazed by all these characters that seem to be begging for life on the page. I wrote fifteen or so short stories while I was working on Songs, but finishing the memoir has really opened up the gates. Over the past five years I've spent most of my nights writing and I'm so hooked on that process; it's a perfect antidote to all the noise and chatter and high-speed whatever. Hokey as it sounds, I finally understand what people mean when they call literature their religion.

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 26, 2014

    This memoir was difficult to put down even through all the sadne

    This memoir was difficult to put down even through all the sadness. How a mother and son could survive a life from the tragic loss of a child and sibling and dealing with a father addicted to crack cocaine. The father was a Ford executive who tried to live a secret life. The author secretly used his punk music scene to get through the pain. This book must have been difficult to write because finally the two secret worlds collide for family and friends to read. Yet, throughout it all, his mother bravely raised the children and went to work each day. It is a book no one should miss!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 29, 2014

    It was interesting... First it was about NASA... Next it was abo

    It was interesting... First it was about NASA... Next it was about deep sea mammals...
    Seriously. The author utilizes a catch and release form with his imagery; that's both captivating and liberating simultaneously

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 20, 2014

    A must read for lit and music fans

    Just finished this book and I can already tell it will be one— like my favorite books— where I go back and reread scenes again and again. I've never read one quite like this, though, because it's so powerful, so sad, yet so funny in some places. It also looks at music subculture in a way I've never read, and it's so rare you see into a life through both a narrator's relationships and family, as well as his music. The writing gets pretty dense at times, but it all builds toward some really moving conclusions. Having a hard time suggesting comparisons, but I'd say that if you like really well written literature, then you'd have to get into this, even if you don't care about music subculture. Maybe fans of Jonathan Franzen and Junot Diaz would like this.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2014

    Tough story to live, must have been tough to write it all down.

    Tough story to live, must have been tough to write it all down. There were some lighter moments, some laughs. The music descriptions were right on. This all happened to one person at the same time. Amazing.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2014

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