April 19, 2014
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Sean Madigan Hoen's Songs Only You Know is a candid and skillfully told memoir of dysfunctional family, addiction, and the power of music, one of the most moving books I have read in years.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"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."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
When I started writing Songs Only You Know, I had the idea that I'd forgo direct mention of records or bands, including the bands I played in, whose adventures form a significant portion of my book. I was hesitant to clutter the story with subcultural references, and feared that revealing too much of my spotted musical past might compromise the gravity of the events. By being elusive and drafting the music-related scenes in a way that avoided proper nouns, I thought I might achieve a kind of everyman or everyband quality when it came to the characterization of my music life.
Much to my disappointment, that strategy didn't work out. As I sharpened the details, trying to render them as honestly as I could, it became clear to me that I'd have to reveal some specifics about the music that scored so many moments of the lives I was portraying. So, tucked into this memoir is a ragtag playlist of the songs and albums that were in rotation during those years. They range from items as obscure as the Baltimore hardcore band Universal Order of Armageddon to something as ubiquitous as Fleetwood Mac's 1977 single "Dreams." For Book Notes, I've listed a couple songs that show up in my book, a few that didn't make it into those pages, and a few more that had some effect on my writing process.
Stars of the Lid "Don't Bother They're Here"
According to certain digital intelligences inside my computer, I spun this song close to two thousand times while working on Songs. It was usually played at low volume, yet it's such a resonant, harmonically powerful piece of music that it succeeded in deterring most of the city noises that arose outside my apartment's windows. To begin and end each writing session, I tried meditating on these tones and found them to grow more otherworldly with each listen. It strikes me that there's a yearning for resolution in everything Stars of the Lid does, yet their tongue-in-cheek song titles seem designed to counter that intention (how is it that one of this century's most beautiful pieces of music is stuck with the name "Dungtitled"?). Though my book features more onstage bloodletting and punk rock antics than most, I believe it's told from a place more suited to the wonderfully sad swells presented in "Don't Bother They're Here." And, as with so many good books, one's experience of this track deepens if you're willing to enter its chamber and surrender to the melody of its language.
David S. Ware "Ananda Rotation"
David S. Ware passed away while I was at work on my book. He'd driven a cab in New York throughout the ‘70s while apprenticing with the heaviest of the heavy jazzmen like Sonny Rollins and Cecil Taylor, tapping in to the most vital lineages of what some call free jazz. Legend has it Ware would come home after his shifts behind the taxi wheel and ceremoniously play Albert Ayler's Bells album, the aural equivalent of escaping one's human form in a cloud of black and gold smoke. Essentially, Ware was the most vital modern purveyor of experimental jazz in the ‘80s and ‘90s, devoted the work as a form of meditation, prayer, ecstatic surrender. By the time of his 2003 album Threads, on which this track appears, he'd brought keyboards and electronic atmospheres (as well as a violin and viola) into his orchestrations, and I've never heard a more powerful combination of tones. Compositionally, the material is staggering. Perhaps "Ananda Rotation" isn't jazz at all, but some brand of alien music from an alternate world where sentient beings are more deeply connected to their gods within. I played this close to two thousand times during the early phases of my book, when I was learning to write and seeking the highest levels of inspiration I could achieve. To close your eyes and take this rotational journey is to bring oneself closer to something like redemption—I truly believe that. Ware just might be my second favorite saxophonist, trumped only by Saint Coltrane.
The term "punk" is mentioned on occasion in my book. A tricky distinction, freighted with some unpleasant cultural baggage also a word that means different things to different weirdos. The glossed over version of punk that hit the malls sometime in the '90s is as underwhelming as just about anything in mainstream media; the notion of punk that's germane to my book, however, is excellently articulated during this 1984 live performance by the mercurial Black Flag. Purists argue that their earliest work—the blueprint for "American hardcore"—is the only Flag that matters. As a teenager, I was immediately attracted to their middle period: longhaired, psycho-fusion explorations, fueled, as the story goes, by LSD and postal communication with Charles Manson. The art-damaged "My War," the lead track from their '83 album of the same name, is a grating, deranged number that was the dividing line for many fans of the group. Stretching toward the four minute mark and devoid of a proper chorus, the song rejects the hardcore punk standards the band helped institute, and, in essence, defines the genre's ethos for me: defying conventions the minute they're established. What it lacks in poetry is redeemed by the lunatic conviction of Henry's vocal—from 2:34 mark to the tune's end, especially. That it's a twenty-two year old woman holding down the finger-pumping bassline here is but another indication of how completely against the grain Black Flag were during this era of slam dance tribalism. The only thing missing is a Greg Ginn guitar solo, but you can still hear his Dan Armstrong sizzling. He was the first guitarist I truly loved and these sounds were very dear to the eighteen-year old kid characterized in my book.
The Beatles "Helter Skelter"
My sister liked to rewind certain moments of this song in order to isolate the occasional absurdities in Paul McCartney's vocal delivery. My dad always kept a few cassettes in his car and for some reason The White Album was the only one that remained always on hand, for years on end. All this time later, I'll hear a section of "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and find myself transported to a Sunday drive, scenes of Dearborn, Michigan whipping past the windows as my sister and I mime to each other in accordance with the song's stylistic and rhythmic transitions. A record with so many moods, sounds and voices—Didion's choice to repurpose its title for her collection of ‘60s/'70s reminiscences couldn't have been more perfect. "Helter Skelter" is the White Album's central mindmelter, a triumph of discordance and wily, psychedelic fun that carries with it a unique bag of cultural associations, namely blood on the door of Polanski's ranch; yet the secret messages I hear whispering beneath these fuzzy guitars have to do with a simple time when Paul's best screams brought huge smiles to my sister's young face.
Red House Painters "Have You Forgotten"
I can tell an uncomfortably true story about a time when Mark Kozelek slept in my mother's basement, an incident that almost made it impossible for me to enjoy to his music again. Prior to that, though, the Red House Painters' albums had nourished me throughout what might have been the worst year of my life. That year is detailed in my book, yet, despite having listened almost exclusively to the Red House Painters during that time, both the band and this great song go unmentioned in the text. Legend has it that Kozelek wrote and recorded this version (the better version, leading off the album Songs For A Blue Guitar) in a single day. It's one of those songs that's so nakedly sentimental as to, at first listen, bring one dangerously near to gagging, but then you hear the honesty of the voice. The heart of this tune feels so genuinely swollen with sublime longing, as vulnerable as the clean, dry vocal so up front in the mix, raw notes and all (he recorded it to analog tape, no computers). It's a song that reminds you of anyone whose ever joined you in listening to it, whether driving down the highway or leaning back into a couch, letting the music have its moment—I'm not ashamed to admit that I've wept to this on two occasions. Kozelek sings lines like "When we were kids, we hated things our sisters did" and succeeds in making the language, its child-like simplicity, mean something uniquely emotional. "Have You Forgotten" has all the melancholy sentimentality and obsessive long-windedness of the band's finest work. I'd spent my adolescence searching out the heaviest music I could find but this simple acoustic tune conveyed to me an emotional purity that made the crazy-eyed screamers seem like angry boys afraid of the deepest resonances. This song is as Midwestern as it gets—play it as you travel from Detroit to Kalamazoo.
The Stooges "Down on the Street"
People from Detroit often claim a by-proxy ownership of the Stooges, but they were actually barely-legal burnouts from late ‘60s Ypsilanti, a place void of flower power in the summer of love. Instead you get black leather and shirtless stage-crawls and really great sounding fuzz guitar. In their early days, they were less like a city band than a gang of feral dog-boys who made some of rock's gnarliest records at a point when their musical proficiency was just awesome enough to hold down the dirty grooves—and it's that crazy spirit and about-to-break delivery that makes this song so violent and enchanting and sexual. The snare hit/sliding chord intro slams me instantly into a time now passed: my friend Will, a significant presence in my book, often played this when the sun was going down and the night ahead seemed full of unspeakable possibilities. The Funhouse album inspires a certain kind of person to get busy commencing with any manner of bad behavior and "Down on the Street" is mentioned in my book because it was always spinning. Thinking twice about it, there probably isn't a better soundtrack for rolling down the Detroit stretch of Michigan Avenue circa 1998, past the topless bars and burned out storefronts, as the nightcrawlers emerged and daylight was the last thing imaginable.
Slowdive "Blue Skied and Clear"
The city of Kalamazoo appears late in my book and, though I didn't include this detail, my fondest memories of that place are often accompanied by this 1995 voyage into sublime Spirit of Eden atmospherics. From what you can make out of the echo chamber whispers, it sounds like a love lyric, and I knew true love in that weird tiny, funny-named city. Once, I played "Blue Skied and Clear" on repeat as I tried to sleep a night in my Ford Escort, parked outside K-Zoo's historic Mountain Home Cemetery; when, in the morning, I found the car battery dead, I concluded the inconvenience was worth the alone time I'd spent with this piece. Maybe it's my weakness for nostalgia, but this song seems designed to float through your life, coloring beautifully moments now passed.
Bruce Springsteen "Darkness on the Edge of Town"
I'm not a Boss devotee. You can get into trouble with some people by inquiring into the artistic validity of tunes like "Jungleland," but I don't connect with the larger part of his catalog and I was, perhaps childishly, offended when "the working man's songwriter" went momentarily exclusive with Wal-Mart, effectively patronizing big, ugly anti-union business while also cutting out what he might call "ma and pa" record stores. Impressive, then, that the melodramatic ferocity of his 1978 album (Darkness of the Edge of Town) coverts even a skeptic. On this song I hear a guy working overtime to prove whatever he's trying to prove, "lives on the line" and "paying the cost" and all that. It's with slight insecurity that I list this track, particularly because it's to admit that I played it repeatedly during a phase—somewhere around the three-year mark of writing Songs—when I was struggling to believe I had the talent to do justice to the story I wanted to tell—or to write at all, for that matter. I suppose Bruce's music is a reliable prescription for times like that, because I'd fire up "Darkness" song and wait for the line:
Everybody's got a secret/something that they just can't face
Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it/they carry it with them every step of the way
Till one day, the just cut it loose/cut it loose or let it drag them down
The words grind out of his throat, the syllables convey something physical, the wear and tear it takes to make them sound that way. When it came down to the unglamorous labor of hammering away my umpteenth draft—in the face of what felt like certain failure—I leaned heavily on this track and, once or twice, it kept me upright. I decided why not lay it all out there, rip out the guts and see what it looked like. That, at least, I could do.
Easy Action "Kool Aide"
A number of the scenes in Songs take place in late ‘90s/early 2000s Detroit, before the current boom of interest in the quiet, largely evacuated metropolis that is the city at large. A special place. Growing up, I could ride my bike down Michigan Avenue to the Dearborn/Detroit border, and to cross that line was a scary thing for a kid on a BMX. People who haven't lived in proximity to Motown can't really grasp how it felt to consider Detroit "the city." "Detroit rock" as a descriptor means something and I'm pretty sure it has to do with electric guitar grit and a rawness worthy of accompanying the unglamorous nature of the place. If you buy that, then you might agree that one of the most supremely underrated Detroit rock bands is Easy Action, named after Detroit-native Alice Cooper's 1970 album. The MC5 and The Stooges blazed the trail, but neither sustained careers based in Detroit, not like Easy Action's John Brannon, who's been a line cook in Cass Corridor for most of my adult life.
Brannon's first band Negative Approach was Detroit's most significant contemporary of Black Flag and his next, The Laughing Hyenas, was the nastiest blues damage on Touch and Go Records. The Hyenas, opening for Fugazi, were the first live band I ever saw and the experience was not forgettable. Three decades in, John Brannon is the longest-lasting screamer in all of rock n' roll and "Kool Aide" (by Brannon's third and longest-lasting band) is testament to this fact. It would be a mistake to dismiss the track for its garage brutality, because there's a truly human performance unfolding within—a pure moment, sound and screams resulting in a beautifully horrible gestalt. You could argue that the blues has long since been relegated to bar band orthodoxy, but the spirit of the bluesman lives in John Brannon: Fifty-something and you can hear the years in his howls (listen to him take over this bridge-into-chorus from 1:45-2:16). The kind of screaming characterized in my book has its roots in Brannon. I mention this track—taken from the Friends of Rock n' Roll album—because it's my favorite example of contemporary Detroit Rock and because I played it often while joy riding through the city.
Fugazi "Smallpox Champion"
Speaking of Fugazi, I'd have had a lot less ammunition to face the modern world if not for this band. They channeled the social, personal and aesthetic, doing things with their guitars that, for me, epitomize a perfect balance between melody and discordance. It surprises me that Fugazi's business model hasn't inspired more of us to realize that smart people can effectively step off the corporate carousel and succeed, ethics in tact. Their philosophy was so uncompromising: artistic and moral integrity comes first, everything else can meet those terms. It wasn't a pose. They remain the best live band I've ever seen (1993). There's a section in my book that portrays what was, in my estimation, an attempt on my part to sell out in the interest of becoming a "career musician." My concessions were mild, as far as those things go, but once that plan crashed and burned, I gave myself a hard time for eating of the poisoned apple. Bob Dylan's gonna sell women's underwear and Henry Rollins is gonna act in children's movies, but you can always count on the Fugazi men to keep the art at odds with the machine. Their purity extended to every aspect of their existence, and their influence played a part in guiding many toward honest expression, myself included. Why "Smallpox Champion"? Because I played it this morning for the ten millionth time and it never fails.
John Coltrane "Ascension"
There's a version of this piece that is forty minutes long, and that is the version that accompanies a rather kaleidoscopic scene in Songs. It's one of those works of art that, at mere mention of its name, I'll actually taste its substance, feel it beneath my skin. A sound storm that whorls with every accessible feeling there is, as though conjured by forces light years beyond the present incarnation of our species—I don't think we've caught up Coltrane yet, or else we need him to lead us back toward our truest nature. Late in his career, he'd so thoroughly mastered the art of improvisation, in-the-moment expressions of whatever was channeling through his being. He was interested in a phenomenon so totally extrapolated from linear composition. "Ascension," as I understand it, was born out of Coltrane's need to "hear more sound moving around him." He wanted to be in the middle of it, touched from every angle—imagine what a man of his musical genius was experiencing while divining these "sheets of sound." We can't truly understand—that's the beauty. The track features two trumpet players and five saxophonists, all responding to J.C.'s telepathy. That I was tripping very intensely on special drugs when I first heard this might have allowed my young, feeble mind to better absorb "Ascension's" miracles, but I can also attest to feeling it even more deeply all these years later. People call Coltrane's "free" period challenging, yet its spiritual benefits are undeniable to those who feel with their ears. Some days this particular piece of music is as mysterious to me as the sun.
Roy Orbison "Pretty Woman"
When my sister was in intensive care, I sang this song in a whisper and hoped she could hear me. It was an inside joke between she and I, the last one I ever told her. Roy always struck me as a kind soul, the truest troubadour, a man with his feet in country music and his head way out in the cosmos, and my appreciation for his classy ways had deepened as I've grown older. "Do they make ‘em like Roy anymore?" Despite the personal connotations "Pretty Woman" has for me, it lightens my spirit whenever I hear that gracious voice crooning over the waves. My sister could groove to this, sweetly and kindly.
Sean Madigan Hoen and Songs Only You Know links:
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