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It was a year of blockbuster music biographies, with books that included Britney Spears’s The Woman in Me, Barbra Streisand’s My Name Is Barbra and, closer to home, My Effin’ Life by Rush singer-bassist Geddy Lee. In contrast to the celebrity-driven fare, here are three titles from Canadian authors on Canadian subjects that flew under the radar in 2023. They are available at bookstores and Amazon, unless otherwise noted.

Max Webster: High Class, by Bob Wegner (self-published)

Author Bob Wegner describes the seventies rock band Max Webster as “iconic, innovative, immersive and incomparable.” One could add another adjective: invisible. The Toronto group led by Kim Mitchell was signed to the same management team and record label that looked after Rush, and had its debut self-titled album co-produced by Rush associate Terry Brown.

Despite a loyal fan base and the admiration of peers, Max Webster never broke big. Singer-guitarist Mitchell, helped by the MuchMusic exposure of his solo hits Go For a Soda and Patio Lanterns in the 1980s, achieved the level of success on his own that his old band Max Webster once seemed destined for.

With a gorgeous softcover coffee-table book, the beloved band gets its due – and then some. A forward by singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith – “They’ll always be my fave Canadian band” – precedes a 396-page tome of photographs, oral history and chronology. This is a labour of love that does not hide its heaping amounts of both.

Heartstrings: First Guitars, by Sean Barrette (self-published)

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Famously, we know that Bryan Adams got his “first real six-string” at a five-and-dime store in the summer of 1969. That’s what the song says, anyway.

Knowing that people prize their firsts – kisses, cars and whatever Adams was alluding to – songwriter Sean Barrette asked guitarists to reminisce about an instrument that represented a first in their lives and careers. It could be the guitar on which they learned to play, the first purchased with their own money, the one used on their debut recording, even the guitar that got away.

An Elvis-obsessed Gordon Lightfoot bought a reasonably priced Harmony acoustic in an electrical store in his hometown of Orillia, Ont. Later, at age 17, with money earned from his summer job driving a truck, he purchased a more sophisticated model, a Martin D-28.

“Having a good guitar and keeping it in good shape is critical to getting it properly in tune and having the right intonation,” the late Lightfoot told the author. “You have to get the sound right, because 99 per cent of song writing is intonation.”

Barrette, of Sudbury, Ont., spoke to other well-known artists, including the late April Wine front man Myles Goodwyn: “My dad bought me a Norma acoustic guitar as my first guitar when I was about 14 years old. It was a Japanese copy of a Gibson Hummingbird. He bought the guitar at a store in Dartmouth, N.S., called Nieforth Furnishers.”

The book gathers stories from no-name musicians as well, and those, invariably, are the most affecting vignettes. For the guitar player in your life, forget the set of Ernie Ball Super Slinkys and go with Heartstrings instead. (Available at firstguitars.ca.)

You Get Bigger as You Go: Bruce Cockburn’s Influence and Evolution, by M.D. Dunn (Fermata Press)

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If you’ve read Heartstrings by Sean Barrette, you know that Bruce Cockburn’s first guitar was a cheap, dusty thing found in his grandmother’s attic. If you read You Get Bigger as You Go: Bruce Cockburn’s Influence and Evolution by M.D. Dunn, you’ll get lessons on how to play guitar in the Cockburn style.

And good luck with that.

The guitar tutorials – yes, there are two – are typical of You Get Bigger as You Go, an atypical book. It is written as a long, gracefully meandering essay, or as a biography that considers its subject from hundreds of feet above: Big picture, but with an elegant intimacy and, occasionally, unexpected instruction.

The author is M.D. Dunn, a musician, poet and college teacher in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. He begins his book with a delightful anecdote about an old choir master who compared him to Cockburn. High praise? Not so much.

“Cockburn would benefit from elocution lessons,” the woman told him. “He sings with marbles. You sing like he does – like you are scoffing at the world.”

Cockburn was interviewed a number of times by the author. Asked how he goes about doing laundry knowing that millions of people think of him as a living legend, the 78-year-old singer-songwriter answered, “You can be a legend, or you can be present. You don’t get to be both. I don’t think too much about that legend-status thing.”

Others do.

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