Songs Only You Know: A Memoir by Sean Madigan HoenSongs Only You Know: A Memoir by Sean Madigan Hoen

Songs Only You Know: A Memoir

bySean Madigan Hoen

Paperback | March 10, 2015

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Described by Darin Strauss as “Nick Flynn meets Karl Ove Knausgard” and “a book of relentless compassion” Songs Only You Know—Sean Madigan Hoen’s debut—is an intense, sprawling memoir equal parts family tragedy and punk rock road trip.
Songs Only You Know begins in late ‘90s Detroit and spans a decade during which a family fights to hold together in the face of insurmountable odds. 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 an artful, compassionate rendering of the chaos and misadventure of a young man’s life.
“Few books convey the fever-pitch intensity of youth with such vividness and so little glamorization, or as deeply explore the heartbreaking complexity of family — both those we're born into and the ones we choose.” —Rolling Stone Magazine

From the Hardcover edition.
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 tau...
Title:Songs Only You Know: A MemoirFormat:PaperbackDimensions:384 pages, 7.89 × 5.13 × 0.99 inPublished:March 10, 2015Publisher:Soho PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1616955333

ISBN - 13:9781616955335

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Read from the Book

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.

Editorial Reviews

A Rolling Stone Best Book of 2014A Flavorwire Must-Read BookA Minnesota Public Radio Best Book"[Songs Only You Know is a] gritty, gripping punk-rock memoir . . . nuanced and poetic. It's funny at times, always brutally honest; a half-healed bruise, tender and multi-colored. Few books convey the fever-pitch intensity of youth with such vividness and so little glamorization, or as deeply explore the heartbreaking complexity of family—both those we're born into and the ones we choose."—Rolling Stone"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"A Kerouac-like saga fueled with energy and ecstasy. [Hoen] chronicles the small audience clubs and cities through an alcohol- and drug-addled haze. Don’t be fooled that this might be strictly a wild ride about the punk music scene because it certainly isn’t . . . Ultimately, it is the honesty and passion with which he writes that overwhelms the reader."—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette"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"Sean Madigan Hoen's Songs Only You Know is a candid and skillfully told memoir of dysfunctional family, addiction, and the power of music."—Largehearted Boy"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.”—PASTE “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."—Razorcake"[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 Rye, Rumble 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.”—Booklist"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 CorporaFrom the Hardcover edition.