I'm gonna kinda mix author Sean Madigan Hoen's style and genre with my own for this review, part autobio, part critique.
I'm not terribly thrilled with modern novelists for the most part,instead favoring 70s sci-fi and fantasy, comedies of manners, Shakespeare, Brecht plays, and that sort of thing. Nor am I all that taken with the lion's share of punk music. My first concert (1970) was the triple bill of Cat Mother & the All-Night News Boys, Chicago Transit Authority (later 'Chicago'), and Jimi Hendrix. From there, I saw a lot of the biggies, a lot of them. Too, friends and I frequented the Whisky A Go Go as much as we could. With hair past my shoulders and known to wear a monkeyfur cape or two, knee-high boots with 3-inch heels, drawstring pirate trousers, and God only knows what else to King Crimson, Gentle Giant, or Blue Oyster Cult gigs, I was a dyed in the wool urban hippie. Not the Haight-Ashbury / Freak Bros. / Grateful Dead type but the stuck-in-Hawthorne-Ca.-with-no-way-out brand. Worse, I loved and still love progrock, and when the punkers came up and started slamming Yes, King Crimson, and the many other bands they secretly and hypocritically were listening to, I decided, since "fellow" prog scribes are almost all pussies, I needed to return the attacks…and did, in print and out.
But punk was nothing if not rebellion, and I've always loved rebellion, from the Byron/Shelley Romantics to the Beats to the Hippies to the Punkadunks...who were, of course, the NuHippies. Don't say that to their faces unless you're looking for a tussle, but they were and they know it. Most punks I knew or knew of were aggro assholes, many all show, no go, but, by the time the phenomenon had come along, I was more than capable of taking care of myself and didn't get hassled. Still, I located a few who were very nice intelligent gents. When I asked why they were punks, they plainly said "Because I like the lifestyle". "Hmmm, okay, yeah, I get that" replied I, and we got along. As to the music, I and a bud once sallied to the Hollywood Palladium to catch Iggy, and Social Distortion opened for the loon. After the third song of SD's set, my friend and I looked at each other wide-eyed, simultaneously asking "Is it just me or are they playing the same fucking song over and over?", then retired to the foyer to shoot the breeze with others gathered there until SocDist got off-stage.
I say all this because book reviews are very rare in FAME, and though I was disinclined to review Sean Hoen's Songs Only You Know, as I paged through it, I found myself liking the guy's style and identifying with his having lived a life of loving music, come what may. Readers here know I tout a florid convoluted mode in my own work because I like the art of it, but I also appreciate those who can succinctly throw images and truths across short distances without losing flavor and nuance, without deleting too much. Every page I settled on in Songs showed me that Hoen's one of those cats. His sentences are simple but packed and he knows how to drive the narrative forward. Take these two contiguous passages for instance:
"It was obvious that Blaine was a shape-shifter who'd joined our band for local status. Punk rock points, some called it. He was nineteen, two years younger than I and six younger than Ethan. Brown eyed and brown haired, he had a smooth face that was never in need of a shave, but he could play anything, even Repa's parts—albeit half as loud. A big label, Relapse Records, had gotten in touch with the band, and we were counting on Blaine to play a tight set when the time came to impress. But, about Blaine's girlfriend—
"Watching his hatchback vanish, I decided her business with him was a naive misfortune. One of those self-prescribed disasters people bring upon themselves as a ploy to excuse their worst selves, communing with what they least desire in order to orchestrate their triumph over it."
You could literally teach students many of the tricks of the writing trade from those paragraphs. Their examples of economy is style itself. The more I read, the more I was impressed. Songs is a diaristic exercise, not written in that genre's norm (usually either schoolgirl hearts and flowers or Henry Milleresque) but chronological, disclosive, and linear. Unlike me, who never joined a band (though, after the release of my music in the mid-80s, I was invited to play keyboards with John Farris after a later incarnation of Zephyr, the ensemble from which Tommy Bolin had issued), Hoen paints his murals from the inside. I was one those guys who looked at what he wrote about when it was going on, standing behind those who screamed, ululated, raged, and moshed or just got sotted and stood around between me and him. In other words, Hoen, per my first two paragraphs, on the stage, and I was just watching.
Everything stays close to the ground in Songs and continually retains the sharp tang of honesty. The promo lit and book blurbs are a trifle cagy at somewhat avoiding whether or not the tome is pure biography or a blend of that and fiction, though I suspect the latter but with the additional understanding that the fictional element, if it indeed exists, is minimal. Lotsa drugs, violence, music, rousts, craziness, emo-dramaturgy, and all the ornamentalia that goes with it. If you ever wondered what the punk life was like, this'll tell ya, and it ain't pretty; if you ever lived it, this'll remind ya; and even if you don't give a shit either way, Songs will interest you. I'm giving nothing of it away other than that, and don't be surprised when one day you see it adapted as a graphic novel. It has the clear imagery and dusty framed-life quality to it that makes for easy but engrossing storyboarding and rendering.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2014, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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