Book of the Week: ‘Songs Only You Know’ by Sean Madigan Hoen

In the mid-to-late 1990s the Midwest produced a handful of bands that fell under the umbrella of punk rock, but they hardly made sense to kids looking to hear poppy stuff that was fit for the radio in the post-Dookie era or the type of testosterone-filled hardcore that was sometimes labeled as “chugga chugga,” featuring bands fronted by singers who employed “Cookie Monster” vocals. These Midwestern bands, with names like My Lai, Jihad, and Racebannon, played louder, faster, angrier, and, in the case of Detroit’s Thoughts of Ionesco, better than just about any punk or hardcore band that graced the same stages. They were loud and furious, like Black Flag jacked up on that special brand of Motor City aggression that great bands from the area have channeled for decades.

“Once we let loose, it didn’t matter how many people were watching,” Sean Madigan Hoen, Thoughts of Ionesco’s singer and guitarist, writes in his memoir, Songs Only You Know. He writes of his band’s empty shows and their tours of nowhere places, and he does so while avoiding a lot of the clichés that sometimes accompany personal recollections of old bands. Of a set he and his bandmates played set in a Houston bar, he writes, “Repa closed his eyes. Ethan played facing his amp, convulsing with the low end. We did what we’d come to do, which was to forget where we’d come from.”

Where the author comes from, and what he was trying to get away from, is exactly what makes Songs Only You Know much more than just another attempt to rewrite Henry Rollins’ famous tour diary, Get in the Van. It probably helps that Hoen, who has taught creative writing at Columbia University, is a talented writer, and not just some ex-rock star who had a ghostwriter jot down his thoughts and feelings, as seems to be the case with so many rock ‘n’ roll memoirs. His sentences are crisp, and when he writes, “The weather was January muck,” it automatically registers to anybody who has spent a winter in the middle of the country. That’s really the only way you can describe it. 

That one line, in particular, comes from one of the toughest parts of the book, as Hoen attends the funeral for his sister, who committed suicide at the age of 22 — another troubled kid in a troubled part of America; really, much like her brother and just about everybody else in Songs Only You Know. That’s really what the theme of this book is: trouble. Troubled kid, troubled family life, and Detroit decaying in the background: these are all things Hoen balances without any of the schmaltz you’d normally get with a book like this. There’s no Dickensian trappings of a kid pulling himself up by his bootstraps and going from rags to riches, and he doesn’t employ corny analogies to describe playing in a band or the failing post-industrial region.

This isn’t a book of excess, but much like his music, 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. But like his band, who knew how to play the living hell out of their instruments, Hoen is a technically sound writer, who delivers the type of punk-rock memoir that rises above most others for one very important reason: Songs Only You Know is one hell of a book.