It starts as early as high school for some aspiring authors. You overdue it a little on an English assignment, stretching a one-page book report into a ten-page thesis. Maybe crank out a couple short stories whose surprisingly well-drawn characters and compelling plot twists grab the attention of a fellow student, friend, or family member.
“When are you gonna write the next Great American Novel?” they ask.
Sean Madigan Hoen won’t have to shrug his shoulders at the question anymore. He can simply hand his daft interrogators a copy of Songs Only You Know.
It’d be a fitting response for the Michigan-bred rocker-turned-writer. Perfect, in fact—a silent-yet-scholarly f-you to anyone who doubted he’d ever make something of himself.
Hoen’s autobiographical Songs is brimming with naysayers and fringe dwellers who threw an awful lot of stones, lost souls who (it’s a fair guess) never rose above the Dearborn dystopia that provides the book’s bleak backdrop. The curbside critics and street skeptics may not care that Hoen (pronounced Hayne) has worked them into his memoirs since quitting their company. If his story is to be believed—and Hoen’s naked honesty assures us it is—those judgmental few probably haven’t sufficient energy left to snub their noses.
Now available from Soho books, Songs chronicles Hoen’s tenure as a working musician over the course of ten decadent, drug-fueled years (circa 1999-2009) spent languishing in the impoverished outskirts of Detroit.
To say Songs is a gritty tale would be gross understatement. Equal parts Catcher in the Rye, Rumble Fish, and Purple Rain, it’s the travelogue of a misguided minstrel whose wrong turns and personal tragedies allegorize not only the author’s hometown (or the horizontal swath of Michigan “mitten” from Lansing to Kalamazoo), but the whole of modern America. We laugh in recognition of ourselves, we cry in spite thereof—and while the picture’s rarely a pretty one up close, the wisdom gained from the experience (by Hoen as writer and by us as readers) is priceless. Like art aficionados beholding a museum Monet, we draw back a distance. Removed in time and taken in from a new vantage, the images (of ourselves) often yield more than we first imagined.
All of 17 when the book begins, the already embittered Hoen is principal songwriter of indie rock band Thoughts of Ionesco, who’ve gained a local cult following and cling to fantasies of a big break. Inspired but impetuous, Hoen barely makes it out of high school and swears off college. He’s wiry, scrappy, drinks too much, and conceals his musical misadventures from his family. But when he learns his once-reliable dad is strung out on crack cocaine, his diametrically-opposed personalities start overlapping—often with disastrous consequences.
Hoen paints the patriarch as a muscle-bound provider with streets smarts and occasional soft spots, an old school, post-WWII Catholic whose work ethic extends far beyond his employ at Ford Motors. With the family’s anchor uprooted by a drug habit, life at home becomes more unpredictable than Midwest weather. Hoen’s mom, Cyn, develops a chronic bronchial hack and Pavlovian aversion to phone calls at odd hours, yet retains an idealized beauty and poetic grace that serve as Hoen’s Gibraltar in tough times. His younger sister, Caitlin, pin-balls from one lifestyle and trend to the next, a social and spiritual drifter who somehow finds it easier saving the planet than herself.
We meet Hoen’s goofy Dearborn friends: Andrew, the relatively “normal” best buddy whose good looks and confident ease wins Caitlin over, and Will, the free-spirited “artist without a medium.” We go on tour at the turn of the century with Hoen’s band mates—steady bassist Ethan and rambunctious drummer Repa—in a cramped cargo van dubbed the “Orgasmatron,” and alternately wince and awe at our protagonist’s primal onstage scream-fits in seedy dive bars and basements. We squat on sofas and crash in college dorms (and dodge wolf spiders) with the trio as they trek across country for pennies and pints, wrecking their innards with booze and warping their minds with the grandeur of it all.
Hoen’s primary love interest, Lauren, has come to know his family so well over time that she’s practically a member herself, playing sister to Caitlin as much as muse and consoler to Sean. But their romance plays like a classic punk album, replete with dynamic ups-and-downs and defined as much by its stops and starts as true, palpable substance. A new girl figures emerges midway through the tome, and while arts-minded Angela seems a perfect match for our ragged rebel, her dreams—and the resources needed to attain them—exceed Hoen’s own. Both courtships generate the majority of “up” moments for our hapless hero, and we believe it when the author opines he’s a better man now for having loved them.
The first half focuses on Hoen’s musical tunnel vision and malaise, which comes to a slow boil as his dad’s addiction fractures the family. In the second act, the attention shifts to Hoen’s love life and concern for suicidal Caitlin, who makes repeated attempts to quit this mortal coil. Recording and touring are relegated to a backburner—until Hoen’s own drug addiction plunges him to a spiritual nadir; it’s here that music becomes his salvation, his redemption.
Hailing from all walks of life, the book’s peripheral characters shape Hoen’s trajectory in ways both significant and minute, shaping his perception of them and the world at large. A motley assortment of grandparents, aunts, and uncles welcome him over the course of several Halloweens and Christmas holidays—yet he comes away feeling alienated and ashamed. An elderly Armenian couple tasks him with a job threading tattered oriental rugs—and are duly impressed by his potential. Warden, who runs Hoen’s ragtag record label (Conquer the World) reads like a 40-year old mama’s boy; his heart is in the music, and we suspect he’s on Hoen’s side—but he’s a sad sack of Hilly Kristal proportions. When his electricity is shut off for nonpayment, he rolls his refrigerator outside to be rid of the stench.
Songs also boasts colorful villains, like the steroid-enhanced “Turbo” (who hassles Caitlin) and jealous Blaine (who stalks Angela after she hooks up with Hoen). But most of the adversaries are invisible—phantom menaces like depression, rejection, and apathy—or are inanimate objects manifested in the accoutrements of poor decision-making: the resin in a crack pipe, ashtrays littered with cigarette butts, empty fifths of liquor on trophy shelves.
Hoen’s numerous punk rock references will warm the hearts of silver-haired slam-dancers (like myself), and—given that this stuff actually happened, and centers on Detroit’s hardcore scene—Hoen can’t really be accused of namedropping for the sake of added cred. Mentions of Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, and Black Flag occur in the contexts one would expect them, so we’re not at all surprised Hoen had a dog named Ozzy and cats named Samhain and Izzy.
But Hoen’s musical tastes aren’t as narrow as one might think: He listens to Coltrane as much as The Cure. He digs Nick Drake and Joy Division, acquires a taste for Sinatra at the carpet shop, and ceremoniously plays a Fleetwood Mac cassette on repeat in the van. Angela turns him on to piano works by Chopin. He appreciates his dad’s affinity for Simon and Garfunkel, and secretly plays Billy Joel’s Nylon Curtain on vinyl (“Surprises” and “Laura” are my personal faves from that album). Gradually, these universal interests redirect Hoen’s songwriting when Thoughts of Ionesco stall. When he reenters the fray later, it’s as a proper composer / singer rather than a guttural howler who brandishes his guitar like medieval mace or protective phallus. He finds potential lyrics in the most mundane aspects of life, from spoiled bananas and microwave chicken to Angela’s tank tops and Lauren’s dye job, and the logic (and beauty) of a gifted teenage wordsmith like Hoen transitioning from rapid-fire Neanderthal songs of catharsis to the wider canvas (and slow burn) afforded by a novel eventually occurs to us in a pleasing, edifying way.
Indeed, we confess we envy Hoen’s ability to impart a person’s essence without dwelling on physical attributes, and to evoke scenery without relying on minutiae. There’s nothing fancy about the writing per se—the language is ergonomic and brisk (e.g. it’s punk)—but 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.
Tapping the first-date anxiety we’ve all felt, the author recalls discovering a “cable of dried snot” in his nose the morning after. During a road trip late in the book, he envisions the Rocky Mountains as “isosceles hunks of metal.” The adjectives and phrasings cut to the quick, producing immediate, visceral images that enhance rather than shortchange the emotional impact of each scenario. Hoen also uses pop culture to instill a sense of time: His friend’s Y2K bunker and mom’s centennial quarter collection transport us back to 1999-2000, and his use of a flashlight at a funeral take on surreal significance during the East Coast “Brownout” of August 2003.
Curiously, Hoen manages to tell his life story without ever using his name, first or last. His friends and loved ones surely referred to him as “Sean” or “Hoen” or something, but such tags never leave anyone’s lips in the story. It’s as if the author has completely stripped himself of ego during his literary self-actualization. His omniscient, first person “I” relays the story, but he doesn’t allow himself the privilege (or burden) of a name because—as he repeatedly attests in Songs—he wasn’t sure who he was back then.
Still, even when popped on pills or drowning in booze, Hoen displays keen insight and a philosophical perception beyond his years:
“A corny old saying: ‘Everywhere you look, you find yourself.’ In a way, it was true; there was death in everything I saw. A game of hangman drawn on a napkin, one table over at Peking Express; a hospital, an ambulance; a blond stranger as she passed… I saw my own life: beginning and ending, taking its course. Eighty, ninety years began to seem a short while, and I’d believed I’d come to understand the impermanence of life’s gig. Even the sun, the moon—to be one day pulled through a knothole in the universe.”
Ironically, it’s souls more wayward than he who reel him in from despair:
“It only matters that you were here,” his father informs him at a wake.
The parent in us doesn’t sympathize with the younger Hoen, who can be counted on to make bad choices throughout the novel. His gigs flood him with false invulnerability; living for the moment numbs him to consequence. An unrepentant delinquent, the singer smashes mailboxes with a baseball bat, upturns his father’s flat with a hockey stick, and stomps enemies with steel-toed boots. Mature, rational adults realize that just because someone has a little payback coming doesn’t mean we should be the one to deliver it. We let karma run its course. But the angst-ridden teen still lurking within us identifies with Hoen’s rage and is better able to comprehend—if not appreciate—the author’s tantrums.
It’s not for us to say it’s best that Hoen—now a teacher living in Brooklyn, New York—never “made it” in music (though he certainly left his mark). But his candid autobiography benefits from his teenage turmoil and early-20s battle with obscurity (and mediocrity); the happiness and horror are in Hoen's journey, not in his arrival at any particular destination or accord with record exec "Californians" distributing his CDs. Songs Only You Know packs far greater emotional heft than most run-of-the-mill celebrity rock bios as a result, stabbing at the heart of the human condition and resonating long after the book jacket is closed. Hoen may not have given the world his “Dark Side of the Moon” (at least not yet), but he’s written a memoir worthy of summer high school reading lists and college courses in creative writing.
Songs Only You Know available now at Amazon: