”Be cool or be cast out.”
– “Subdivisions”, Rush, 1982
Whenever I see broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi on Canadian TV, I almost feel sorry for the guy. He always looks uncomfortable, a little out-of-place, with that deer in the headlights, “What am I doing here?” look on his face. He tries hard to be cool. He tries hard to be cool, in addition, by softballing his interview subjects on his five-times-a-week show on CBC Radio, Q.
Here’s a case in point: in October 2012, I wound up falling ill at my job. After about two and a half hours of hacking up my lungs, my co-workers begged me to go home so they wouldn’t fall sick with whatever cold I had. I complied, and wound up taking a taxi back to my downtown apartment (much quicker and less painful than waiting up to a half-hour for the bus). Anyway, the cab driver had the radio tuned into Q ,and Ghomeshi was interviewing some guy. I wasn’t really paying attention, though the interview subject seemed to eventually get quite animated about whatever he was talking about. I don’t remember that part of the conversation, but when the interview subject finished, Ghomeshi then said – and I’ll always remember this, as Ghomeshi seemed not at ease to be admitting it – “Had I known you wanted to talk about all that, I would have asked you much harder questions. But we’re out of time. Tune in tomorrow, when I blah blah blah.”
Okay, so Ghomeshi didn’t say “blah blah blah”, but the point is I was so infuriated I wanted to throw a brick at the cabbie’s car radio. As a former journalist who tried and failed to make a full-time living as a freelancer, I know how important it is to ask at least one hard question at the end of an interview. It’s just journalistic convention and an overall good thing to do to really get to the meat of a story. So I basically, was left with the impression that Ghomeshi treats his subjects with kid gloves. How on earth the guy won the Gold Award for Best Talk Show Host at the New York Festivals International Radio Awards in 2012 is just beyond me, based on that incident.
You may think from my writing of this that I dislike Ghomeshi. Far from it. I actually find him to be mildly fascinating, such that when his memoir about growing up in a Toronto suburb as a teenager, 1982, appeared on bookstore shelves in Canada in the fall of 2012, I was itching to read it. I have a friend who finds Ghomeshi irritating, and he may well be, in that he tries so hard to be cool and liked (from my observations of what I’ve seen and heard from him), that he sometimes rubs people the wrong way. However, he is cool, whether he knows it or not. His cool factor comes from the fact that he was a founding member of the ‘90s folk-rock act Moxy Früvous, who had a couple of hits in Canada with “King of Spain” and “Stuck in the ‘90s”. They were fun, they were cool. Granted, they fizzled out after their initial burst of Canadian popularity, but any guy who was in Moxy Früvous is kinda cool in my book.
And Ghomeshi is still cool to some: his promotional reading of 1982 at an Ottawa venue this fall was reportedly sold out. So it may be a bit ironic that 1982 is one guy’s quest to be cool as a nerdy, New Wave-loving 15-year-old kid who happens to have a huge man crush on none other than David Bowie. Bowie figures prominently in the periphery of 1982, with Ghomeshi gravitating towards his dream girl, Wendy, because she has Bowie-ish qualities. And when Ghomeshi tries to impress another girl, he does so by making a Bowie mix tape. In essence, 1982 is not just a personal reminiscence, a nostalgic look back at the way things were some 30 years ago, it is a huge sopping love letter to David Bowie. Among other things, of course.
The book is entertaining, and is actually quite successful on a number of fronts. Ghomeshi captures what it is like to be a British born, Canadian raised kid of Iranian descent, trying to make sense of suburban life in Toronto. And, beyond that, 1982 is about trying to get along with one’s parents and older sibling, the pains of growing apart from your childhood friends, about trying to fit in after a harrowing incident where Ghomeshi wore purple eyeliner to school in an effort to be more Bowie-like. And, yes, Ghomeshi pines for Wendy relentlessly throughout this nearly 300 page book.
In short, 1982 quite effectively works as a Bildungsroman, and a fondly nostalgic one at that. As Ghomeshi points out, we weren’t as interconnected with or dependent on technology as we are now in 1982. If you wanted to ask someone out on a date, you pretty much had to scrunch up all of your courage and do it in person – or, perhaps more harrowing, by phone. No Facebooking or text messaging. So, yes, there is a bit of that old-timey, “things were tougher back in the day” kind of speak that goes on in this book, but, for those of us who remember the ‘80s, it’s a fond look back at how things were, in some ways, a little bit harder.
Where the book really succeeds, though, is when Ghomeshi goes into long monologues about how confused he was about his identity during his upbringing. Ghomeshi notes that at least one cute girl walked up to him on the street and ask if he was an Arab. He would then have to explain that he was Persian, to limited degrees of success. Later, in high school, he would wind up having to sing – here’s an incongruity for you – the “Ivory” part of “Ebony and Ivory” during a performance duet during a public show sponsored by his school’s vocal class. (I suppose you might call this a “glee club”.) That would cause Ghomeshi much consternation and hand wringing, as he’s much more olive brown than white: “Maybe this was another colourful example of the paradox that was me in 1982 and beyond,” writes Ghomeshi. “I was a terribly sensitive and insecure soul who wanted to be accepted. I wanted to fade into the woodwork. And yet I never shied away from putting myself out there in some form of potentially masochistic public adventure. It’s like I needed to keep proving to myself as much as to others that I wouldn’t succumb to judgment.” That’s a very honest, raw and brave assessment.
But 1982 also proves valuable insight into pop culture as a phenomena. Ghomeshi wound up going to a number of New Wave concerts during the year, and the book is a penetrating look at the concert scene of 1982, full of observations of public performances that took place in the Greater Toronto Area. For one, he recalls going to the Police Picnic in August 1982 – the Police Picnic was an annual Toronto event where British band the Police would headline, and the roster would be full of other New Wave-y acts on the bill, including the Talking Heads (a transcendent experience for Ghomeshi, apparently) – and recalling that people actually booed and threw stuff at Joan Jett for appearing, considering her a sellout for having a hit single in “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”. (Nevermind the fact that the Police were more popular and had even more hit singles, but they were still considered to be offbeat and cool.)
Upon seeing Siouxsie and the Banshees live in 1982, Ghomeshi notes that the show only lasted 45 minutes, because, upon playing their well-known “Arabian Knights” – which boasts the line “I heard a rumour” – frontwoman Siouxsie Sioux, for one reason or another, got really, really pissed off and told the crowd, “Yeah, I heard a rumour. I heard a rumour that we played here tonight. We didn’t. Fuck off!” Such colourful stories about seeing shows some 30 years ago is an enjoyable vicarious experience, and makes the book worthy for those who want a sort of insider’s view of what it was like to see certain New Wave bands of the ‘80s when they were in their prime.
Alas, the memoir is not perfect, and a large part of it has to do with the fact that Ghomeshi is a bit of a neurotic. To prove that the Thornhill suburb of Toronto where he grew up was boring, Ghomeshi spends three pages going on about how the men of the ‘burb would water their lawn, including the types of lawn sprinklers that were employed. And the book is annoyingly chock full of lists of the most banal things. “Anyone who has ever known me well knows that I love lists,” Ghomeshi writes. Well, it’s annoying and repetitive, and it gets in the way of the narrative in places. I mean, do we really need to know what types of T-shirts for the Clash were available as well as all of the colour combinations fake leather Adidas bags came in during the early ‘80s? Ghomeshi feels that we do.
And speaking of Adidas bags, Ghomeshi had one during 1982 and lost it at the Police Picnic (along with his new Walkman, mixed tapes and hair gel) to an overzealous punk fan who tossed it at Joan Jett, as Ghomeshi and his date were near the front rows. Ghomeshi actually spends a full chapter and then some mourning the loss of this bag, to which readers may cringe and say, “Get over it!” Clearly, anyone who brings something of value to a rock concert is begging to have it lost, broken or (in this case) stolen.
More importantly, I felt that 1982 sometimes glosses over facts or gets them entirely wrong – which goes against a vital tenement of good journalism. For one, Ghomeshi writes, “In 1982, the Commodore 64 computer was introduced, Ronald Reagan had survived being shot ...” He goes on to list other things, but hold it right there. Regan was shot in 1981, not 1982.Elsewhere, Ghomeshi writes this about the Clash’s seminal London Calling album: “Rolling Stone magazine would later declare it the best album of the 1980s, even though it came out in 1979. That is how good the record was.” Well, this might be splitting hairs, but although, yes, London Calling came out in 1979, it did so only in Europe. It didn’t reach American shores until 1980. So, technically, to American audiences, it’s a product of the ‘80s. However, mentioning that would only get in the way of Ghomeshi trying to look cool with his stylistic tics, but I expected more from someone considered to be a veteran and venerable talk show host.
Still, 1982 is a fun and enjoyable read, and my personal liking of the book grew as Ghomeshi grows more confident in both his maturity as a youth and his writing style. The memoir is at its best when it is frank and serious, and less so when it tries to be funny and quirky. Which is odd considering that I did like Moxy Früvous. Anyway, 1982 is a good book to read if you’re a pop culture junkie (especially with an aficionado for all things New Wave) and love David Bowie as much as the author does.
The book does end with a cliffhanger – we don’t really know if Ghomeshi gets his dream girl or not after having one final slow dance with her in his high school gym – but I guess that only means that we’ll have to wait until 1983 comes out until we find out for sure. Still, 1982 is a tome about learning to be cool and fitting in, and even if it comes with its share of whining over lost fake leather bags, it’s a worthwhile book that’s easy to enjoy. Ghomeshi might still be trying hard to be cool, as this memoir shows, but it works best when he simply unspools his narrative and just, you know, tries to be as honest and penetrating about himself as he can be.
If only he could show that side of him more often in his public life, in addition to asking more tough questions and doing some more rigorous fact checking. He might come across as a little less annoying to some.