Songs Only You Know: A Memoir plunges us into the Detroit hardcore punk scene with eighteen-year-old Sean and spans a dark decade during which his father succumbs to crack addiction, his younger sister spirals into a fatal depression, and his sense of home crumbles. Sean’s salvation is music, and the many eccentrics and outsiders he befriends as frontman of a band once referred to by Spin Magazine as “an art-core mindfuck.” Sean’s prose whips from mordantly funny to searingly honest while offering an unflinching look at a family in crisis, low-rent music subculture, and the hard-earned identity of its author. A story of young manhood that deserves a place alongside Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army and Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Songs Only You Know is a beautiful, devastating exploration of family, friends, and one young man’s musical dream. It marks the arrival of a fiercely original literary voice.
“A book of almost spooky clarity and compassion …
—Darin Strauss, author of Half Life
“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. ”
—Stephen O’Connor, author of Here Comes Another Lesson
Read an Excerpt
We burned through a song, then another. Someone leaped from a windowsill and was passed over raised hands, hydrating the room with a beer mist. When the neighbors complained, Spider ordered the show into an empty bedroom, and our noise resumed, half the audience watching through the doorway, the heat reaching toward the thousands. Packed somewhere in a shoe box is a picture of me, midscream, framed against that bedroom wall. I barely recognize myself in the magenta-faced young man, eyes bloodshot, a glistening artery protruding from his neck. Yet, seeing the photo, I can almost feel again what it was like to be free of everything, screaming for my life.
We played every song we knew. By the end, only a few stood before us, naked and sweating, pleading for another.
“One more,” Repa said.
“We already played ’em all.”
“Then make it up.”
We improvised a five-chord pattern, six-eight time. A leg breaker never to be recreated, scalded once and for all into the plaster of that Denton bedroom. If only for a moment, we’d taken the reins of a sound we’d been chasing. Repa, I could tell by his rolled-back eyes, was finally satisfied. So was I. Say nothing of the crowds, the records sold or not sold, we would return to Michigan triumphant, carrying something that could not be taken back.
Repa kept the rhythm slamming, even as Ethan and I sat cross-legged at the foot of our switched-off amps; when he’d finished, he walked out of the house to a smattering of applause. Spider passed his mesh hat through the house, pestering the crowd to cough up a buck for the entertainment.
“What’s the name of your band, again?” he said. “That’s right. Yeah, yeah. Y’all was crazy. How about a beer?”
Repa took night duty in the van. While the party continued, Ethan and I spread our sleeping bags across the bedroom floor we’d sweated upon just hours before. Not much later, we were lying in the shadows of our amplifiers. From the room’s doorway, Spider touched the brim of his cap to bid us good night. “I saw a wolf spider in here earlier,” he said. “Gotta keep an eye on them. They’ll spin a web in your mouth as you sleep and pinch your nostrils till you suffocate.”
It was after our best performances, just before sleep, when the tones of home began calling loudest. I’d rest my head on a strange floor and hear Caitlin weeping, hear phrases spoken in my mother’s gentle, worried voice. The force I employed to avoid thinking deeply about my family might have been used instead to propel me toward a life of profound usefulness had I only been able to transfer the ungraspable powers of denial. Everything I did was shaped by a desire to escape the truth: that we—myself and the people I loved most—were on a horror ride. But once Ethan began to snore, I’d close my eyes and soon enough begin reliving the time six months earlier when
I’d slept on a cot before my dad’s quadruple bypass.
The feeling of being holed up in a courtesy room for out-oftown families at Piedmont Hospital, North Atlanta. Mom and Caitlin lying feet away, sharing a bed. December 22, snowless in Georgia. The room was decorated to look like a hotel, wallpapered and outfitted with a television, none of which altered our awareness of the institution’s fluorescence looming just beyond the door.
And beyond that?
On the cot, I’d had nightmares of being onstage, my hands mittenlike on a guitar I couldn’t remember how to play. Caitlin had thrashed in the sheets, stealing most of the bedspread as Mom made not a sound, and by the time we’d entered the cardiac unit the next morning, my dad was already wired to machines. “Good,” he’d said, unwrapping the Christmas gift I’d brought him, a Beatles CD anthology of outtakes and false starts. “I need some music.”
Some trips exhaust you long after they’ve ended. Mom couldn’t smile, and I’d seen the signs of fury and forgiveness cycling through her. A crusty, magenta third-eye boil had risen from her forehead and would remain there for weeks. Caitlin was gaining weight and losing it again in a span of days. I’d been having spells of breathlessness that I believed were caused by throat nodules, wounds owing to my pterodactyl vocal style. We’d all stared down at my dad lying there in a green paper gown, weak in the face, supine on a gurney.
They were about to carve his chest open and graft arteries onto his heart, a fact that brought my attention to the glugging beat of my own.
“Thanks for being here,” Dad said, gripping my hand as a nurse shaved his chest to prep him for the incision. Dark blood leaked from a razored mole. He twitched his jaw, searching for a funny line that would settle our nerves.
Barely 8:00 a.m.
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.