Jian Ghomeshi can trace time — in 1982
In 1982, he discovered the dangers of wearing eyeliner.
There are countless stories Ghomeshi could have chosen to tell in his new memoir, titled 1982, about the 30 years in between those life milestones. But the ones he decided to share — like his misguided decision one day to glam up his look by wearing purple eyeliner, eliciting much mockery in the halls of his high school — all take place in a single, seminal year in his life, when he was a David Bowie-obsessed 14-year-old Canadian of Iranian descent navigating life, love and, most frighteningly, adolescence, in Thornhill, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto.
It’s Ghomeshi’s first book, but the broadcaster, writer and musician (formerly of the folk-rock band Moxy Früvous), said he had definite ideas going in about how he wanted it to take shape.
“First and foremost, I wanted to write a creative book, and if it wasn’t going to be fiction, it was going to be literary non-fiction, as opposed to what they call a ‘womb-to-tomb’ memoir,” Ghomeshi, 45, explained. “You know: ‘This happened and then that happened and that’s how I ended up at the CBC!’ I had no interest in that. I wanted the book to be entertaining, and real, but I also wanted it to have reflections on popular culture.”
Ghomeshi said he didn’t realize until after finishing 1982 how he had laid bare in the book’s pages some of the most intensely personal moments of his young life: falling in love, questioning his sexuality or often feeling like an alien as a brown person living in then-lily-white Thornhill.
“When I finished the book, a close friend of mine who works in the music business, whose opinion I respect, read it. At that point, maybe three people had read it, and I was sh—ting bricks, and he took me out for a beer after reading it and said, ‘I loved it!’ And then he said, ‘Wow, man, you really put yourself out there!’ That’s when I realized (the book) was actually quite revealing, too.”
Writing about an era three decades ago, Ghomeshi said he took care in the book to contextualize what life was like back in the day, highlighting facets of it that might seem comically archaic to younger readers in particular, things as basic as making an actual mixtape, using a land line with a cord or lining up to buy concert tickets.
“Maybe more than at any other time in history, certainly technologically, the world has changed so dramatically in the last 30 years,” Ghomeshi said. “So I wanted to make it accessible for those who weren’t there at the time — but it’s also kind of a wink to those who are close to my age range who were there. Doug Saunders (a Globe and Mail columnist and old friend of Ghomeshi’s) said, ‘Yeah, man, your book — it’s like our Big Chill!’ referring to the 1983 film about the baby boomer generation coming of age.
“And it’s true, we are just getting to that point now where stuff like this is coming out about our era. Which is funny, because, do you remember, about 20 years ago, when we were going ‘Fu—ing boomers, stop imposing your s—t on us!’ ”
As a result, Ghomeshi said one of the most gratifying aspects about the feedback he has received so far about 1982 is the diversity of people who say they related to the book so personally, regardless of their demographic.
“There’s this sweet spot of people, a range of about 20 years, so if you’re anywhere from about age 35 to 55 right now, you’re just going to get every reference,” Ghomeshi said. “Lights (the 25-year-old Juno Award-winning pop singer from Ontario who Ghomeshi manages) even read it and she said ‘This is my story!’
“Part of it is this: High school is hard, man. It’s fish out of water. It’s John Hughes. I think everyone can relate to it on at least that level.”
Being a fish out of water on another level also played a key role in Ghomeshi’s formative years, as it does in 1982. Having moved as a child to Canada from London, England, and with his Persian ancestry, Ghomeshi is, in many ways, a poster boy for classic Canadian multiculturalism. But in the book he is not shy about detailing the xenophobic experiences he was confronted with while growing up, occasionally shining a not especially flattering light on the immigrant experience in Canada.
“Thornhill at the time just was not a diverse place, and it really was hard. Now, there’s an Iranian community there, just like there is in Montreal and Toronto — but that was not there when I was a kid, so we felt really isolated,” Ghomeshi said. “And I say that realizing that there is indeed this contradiction in the fact that I am one of those people who romanticizes the notion of multiculturalism, but as a first-generation immigrant I had a really hard time. And that’s definitely one of the subtexts of the book.”
The power of music, perhaps unsurprisingly, given Ghomeshi’s background and the strong emphasis his program places on bringing the work of new artists to its audience, is another strong subtext to the book, which is peppered with music-related lists, and is even divided into chapters titled by era-specific songs that play a role in each of the book’s acts.
“I had a sense that each chapter would revolve around a song. I knew I wanted to do cultural observations and I knew I had stories to tell, and I knew it was all about this pivotal time,” Ghomeshi explained. “And the device was going to be through music — not because it’s a trick, but because that really was the most important thing to me then. And increasingly I am starting to realize that this is true of a lot of people: we’re defined by the music from our teens.”
Of the many musicians referenced in the book, the one who looms largest is unquestionably Bowie, of whom Ghomeshi is an unavowed fan, and whose glam, independent spirit is the spine that holds 1982 together. Surprisingly, given Ghomeshi’s line of work, he has never met his musical idol, although looking back on his teen years now, he’s clear on why Bowie and his music meant so much in his life, then as now.
“Remember when we were kids, and we’d never known a prime minister who wasn’t Trudeau? Like, ‘What do you mean, Mulroney? There’s only one prime minister and his name is Pierre Elliott Trudeau?’ ” Ghomeshi said with a laugh. “From when I was a kid, Bowie provided this throughline in my life, ever since my mom first taped the Laughing Gnome for me when I was 4 or 5 years old.
“I always self-identified, and still do, as an outsider — which I know sounds strange for a guy who is on the air every day hosting a national radio program. And Bowie was the champion of outsiders. That’s what Changes is about. He was implicitly saying that it’s okay to be different. That resonated so much to the 14-year-old me, and it still does today.”
Ghomeshi also makes it a point in 1982 to underscore how the passage of time allows us to constantly recalibrate our definition of “cool,” referencing several artists in the book — including Dan Hill, Billy Joel and Phil Collins — who the 14-year-old Ghomeshi disdained, but whose craft and musicality his 45-year-old self has come to appreciate.
“It is in part a meditation on cool, and the ephemeral nature of cool. As I say in the book, if something isn’t cool, just hang on long enough and it will become cool again,” Ghomeshi said. “As a 14-year-old, so much of it is about fitting in and constructing one’s identity that the wrong haircut or garb turns somebody into the enemy.
“The other thing that happens is that as we get older we get this fondness for, and grow nostalgic for, these things we were so divided about back in the day. Songs that I hated when I was a kid, like that Spandau Ballet song True — I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to that. They had become this ‘preppy’ band who made ‘sellout’ music.
“But if that song were to come on right now, I would crank it and laugh — and pretend I’m laughing ironically, but I’m really not: I actually love it!”
1982, by Jian Ghomeshi, 304 pages, $30, published by Penguin Canada, is on sale now.