What’s New in Music Books: A Candid Martha Wainwright, Leonard Cohen’s Sinai Moment, and the Birth of Canadian Cool


As concert schedules fill up, so does the release schedule for new music books. Michael Barclay’s account of five remarkable years in Canadian sounds, Martha Wainwright’s earthy but ultimately poignant memoir, and Matti Friedman’s look at Leonard Cohen’s forgotten visit to a war are recommended.

  • Title: Hearts on Fire: Six Years That Changed Canadian Music – 2000-2005
  • Author: Michael Barclay
  • Kind: nonfiction
  • Editor: ECW
  • Pages: 618

One winter night in 2001, author Michael Barclay bumped into fellow music journalist Stuart Berman on a club show in Toronto featuring upstart indie bands Hidden Cameras and Royal City. “Notice my words,” Berman told Barclay. “It’s the start of something.” He was right – it’s the anecdote that launches Barclay’s new book and, more importantly, it’s a moment that illustrates the coming of age of Canadian music.

Barclay is an elite authority on the subject, with particular expertise in the independent scene. He co-wrote 2001′s Were Not the Same: The Can-Rock Renaissance 1985-1995a book that focuses on bands and artists such as Blue Rodeo and Tragically Hip who conquered Canada but failed to break into bigger markets. flaming hearts (released April 26) is the cohesive, meticulous, and important sequel that documents the unexpected international rise of Canadian cool.

You can guess the hip artists who are getting attention here: the Feists, the Arcade Fires, the Broken Social Scenes. Yet Nickelback, the band music critics love to hate, isn’t ignored: the author both acknowledges and dismisses their phenomenon with a 2½-page chapter. You could call Barclay a music nerd, but I won’t. His tracks on Kathleen Edwards and his chapter on the rise and fall of Hawksley Workman, for example, are all human. Workman is quoted talking about timing and momentum – themes that resonate throughout the book.

In his introduction, Barclay predicts that readers across the country will judge flaming hearts as having “too much Toronto”. He’s right – some will. On the other hand, he also suggests that Toronto readers will complain about the lack of local content. I very much doubt it. Either way, Canadians everywhere have much to be proud of when it comes to country music. Barclay, with this learned but lively reading, also has much to be proud of.

  • Title: Who by the Fire: Leonard Cohen’s War, Atonement, and Resurrection
  • Author: Matti Friedman
  • Kind: nonfiction
  • Editor: McClelland & Stewart
  • Pages: 224

Courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada

“I am going to Israel. The war.”

Leonard Cohen wrote this about his strange and almost forgotten trip in 1973 to the Yom Kippur War. He didn’t bring his guitar. He was at a creative low point at 39, discouraged by the music industry. “I just want to shut up,” he told an interviewer. Three years earlier he had performed in front of hundreds of thousands of people at the Isle of Wight festival. Then he was in the Sinai desert, as good a front line as any for a warrior-poet.

Who by the fire is Canadian-Israeli journalist Matti Friedman’s forensic account of Cohen’s warzone Rolling Thunder review. Friedman digs deep, blowing dust off a Cohen-created literary manuscript of 45 typewritten pages found in the McClelland & Stewart archives, among other sources.

The result is a time capsule of impromptu appearances at military bases—”each gig was pure artistic transmission,” Friedman writes. It’s an inimitable read on a musical tour without any show business.

  • Title: Stories I might regret telling you
  • Author: Martha Wainwright
  • Kind: Memory
  • Editor: Random House Canada
  • pages: 246

Courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada

First, the cheeky title of Martha Wainwright’s memoir, Stories I might regret telling you, is not a click bait. The fact that an early draft of the book was used against the author in his divorce battle is indicative of his honesty. Attention, the book is not salacious. Yes, the Canadian-American singer-songwriter has a working knowledge of a variety of recreational drugs, and yes, she’s traveled in some pretty groovy circles. Tales are often tame: watching Mick Jagger eat a banana; sharing a hot tub with Cyndi Lauper. We don’t even get the name of the Hollywood hottie Wainwright had a one-night stand with.

Wainwright is the daughter of acclaimed musicians Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, and the younger sister of famed singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. The McGarrigle-Wainwright clan is made up of outspoken people. We learn that Loudon Wainwright told a teenage Martha that she nearly had an abortion. It had to do with the conflict between music careers and family obligations – something Martha had to deal with on her own as an adult.

Wainwright writes about her relationship with singer-songwriter Dan Bern, one of many Next Bob Dylan contestants. Wainwright fails to mention that his own father was also one of the Next Bob Dylans.

It is often said that music is a “man’s world”, but that’s not half. Wainwright occurs during pregnancy and pain. She squeezes in concerts while raising a baby because she needs bread. Her husband (who claims to have “made” Wainwright’s career, according to the singer) was not working.

Wainwright is less a great writer than an efficient and brutal writer. Anyone familiar with her infamous 2005 song about her father knows she can succinctly (if indelicately) get her point across. She doesn’t devote many words in this memoir to her music – perhaps she feels her songs are self-explanatory. Instead, she focuses on career choices and family ties and dysfunctions. His personal story resonates.

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