Title: Songs Only You Know: A Memoir (SoHo Press, 2014)
Author: Sean Madigan Hoen
I occasionally review albums here, but this the first dedicated to a book. And while I’m not out to review it per se, I do want to highly recommend it to all readers of this blog. Songs Only You Know is the debut memoir of Sean Madigan Hoen, a now good friend of mine whom I met through music and mutual friends two years ago. Sean has appeared on this blog a couple of times but not by name – see mentions of his projects White Gold Scorpio and Your Skull. On top of his writing talents, he is also a tremendous songwriter and musician. (See albums under his own name and otherwise, including the bands Thoughts of Ionesco, The Holy Fire, Leaving Rouge, White Gold Scorpio, and Your Skull.)
Sean now resides in Brooklyn but he’s originally from Detroit, which provides the backdrop of Songs Only You Know. The book chronicles a ten year span from Sean’s late teens to late twenties, during which time he became a fixture of Detroit’s hardcore rock scene while, separately, he and his family dealt with the devastation caused by his father’s crack addiction. Throughout the story Sean details his struggle not only with the two aforementioned scenarios, but also in doing his damnedest to keep both worlds separate. On its surface, one could write the book off as being either a tale of rock music debauchery or a quasi-self help pamphlet chock-full of advice. There are plenty of debaucherous anecdotes, but they’re neither glorified nor condescended upon. Instead, Hoen’s lucid narrative and unwavering honesty about his family, friends, and himself, give the book a lot of heart. This isn’t a “rock book” or a “drug book,” but rather a compelling story about family, music, and growth.
The book is more a series of scenes connected by the threads of family strife and musical conquest than a grand narrative. The musical struggles are about rock in this instance, but the aspirations and challenges transcend style: staying true to (and sometimes failing) one’s aesthetic principles, endlessly driving from gig to gig, alternately playing to packed houses and empty rooms, navigating interpersonal connections with bandmates. Regarding the music, poet Diane Wakoski said it best in her discussion with Sean at a reading in Lansing, MI: that while she still dislikes that style of music, the book helped her to better understand the music’s appeal and scene/lifestyle. Similarly, the tale of his family’s struggle isn’t just for those who’ve experienced addiction or depression firsthand. No family is perfect, and learning how to grow alongside – be it away from, toward, or both – and understand and empathize with family is universal. It’s a dark book, no doubt, but it’s not cynical. It’s hopeful throughout, and the catharsis one feels at the end is quite moving.
Songs Only You Know is a taut, lean 384 pages. Sean’s economical writing leaves no fat, and in turn he packs in a lot of substance. Because of that, you’ll have a hard time putting the book down. A number of people I know – Sean’s friends and otherwise – read it in very few sittings, myself included. So do yourself a favor and check it out. It’s available at independent book stores nationally, all Barnes & Nobles locations, and of course Amazon.