Authors: Sean Madigan Hoen
Copyright © 2014 by Sean Madigan Hoen
All rights reserved.
Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Hoen, Sean Madigan, 1977–
Songs only you know : a memoir / Sean Madigan Hoen.
1. Hoen, Sean Madigan, 1977–
2. Rock musicians—United States—Biography.
Interior design by Janine Agro, Soho Press, Inc.
For my mom, and my sister … and my father, too
My intention was to tell this story as truthfully as I could, to someone else, people I didn’t know, in a language they would understand. These characters and places and events are still very real to me and this is how I remember them. Some names were changed at the request of those characterized herein; one or two were changed at the author’s discretion. Aspects of my bands’ histories have been compressed, while certain musical performances feature composited elements, in hopes of better representing the spirit of the music. My mother’s power of memory and clarity of observation helped make this a more accurate book, though we’ve agreed to disagree about the spelling of a certain dog’s name. I went with the one I preferred then and still do.
One thing I wanted to include but didn’t, a very inconsequential detail, this saying I heard on a long drive through one of those flatland states that sooner or later begin to feel endless:
You’ve gotta get to it, in order to get through it
. Something like that …
he 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
. 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. Façade 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 blonde 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.
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
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 felt 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. Base pleasures engaged him intensely, contemplation was regarded with suspicion. 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.