In his new book, released last month, one of Canada's favourite interviewers interviews himself.
These days, it seems fair to say that Jian Ghomeshi is a pretty cool dude. Thanks to his time in Moxy Früvous he can definitely put “successful Canadian indie musician” on his resume, and he’s carved out his own place in the new-generation CBC firmament with people like Rich Terfry and (gulp) Strombo.
Respect, people: He is now known around the world for asking actor/director (and musician, apparently) Billy Bob Thornton a question he’d surely never have dared asked Tom Petty.
But his new book, 1982, reminds us that before he established his rep as a first-class interviewer on Q before he busked, and before he sang about how awesome CanLit is, Ghomeshi was just a brown-skinned teenager with “an industrial-sized nose” trying to find his way in the world.
1982 is part repository for random cultural observations and part memoir of a first-generation Canadian growing up in the Toronto suburbs. Not surprisingly, that makes it a bit of a mixed bag. While on the one hand there is something universal about Ghomeshi’s story—what 14-year-old isn’t trying to fit in, find a girlfriend, pick the right hair gel, etc.—it’s the specificity and detail of his experience that make for the book’s best moments.
“It’s real. I was 14 and I wanted to be Bowie,” he said to Torontoist at the end of a day of interviews. “I definitely wanted to tell stories that make me laugh, and be honest, and reflect how pathetic I am.”
Indeed, many a page is given over to his reverence for David Bowie, his attempts to achieve the proper New Wave aesthetic, and his general yearning for coolness. A blue-and-red Adidas bag is a crucial supporting character and (spoiler alert!) its premature demise is clearly a watershed moment for the teenage Jian.
Though he was born in London, England, Ghomeshi spent his formative years in Thornhill, not far from Yonge and Steeles. He attended Thornlea Secondary School, an artsy school that also spawned the likes of By Divine Right and Hayden. (For the record, other awesome things to come out of Thornhill: Hayden Christensen [no relation to Hayden], Milos Raonic, Golden Star Burgers, and Craig Kielburger [again, no relation].)
His parents still live in that same Thornhill house, but the world has changed all around them. What was once a fairly homogenous suburb is now a thriving ethnic enclave. In addition to large Jewish and Russian communities, the Iranian community has also found a home base nearby. Ghomeshi may have once been the only Iranian for miles, but today you can’t throw a rock without hitting a Persian rug shop.
“We were the only ethnic family on the street,” he said. “Today, everybody on the street is the ethnic family. At the time it was very isolating.”
When he was growing up, Iranians weren’t exactly getting the best press. You don’t have to be a newshound to know that not much has changed, but now that he’s older, Ghomeshi feels better equipped if someone asks him whether he’s Arab and/or a terrorist, and he’s less concerned about fitting in, in general. Given how deep the challenges run for being the child of immigrants, he hopes the increased diversity and tolerance in Toronto make it easier for the current generation.
While he acknowledges that his early insecurity is not something he has totally shed, Ghomeshi thinks he has become more confident in who he is. For one thing, he may still wear skinny jeans and black clothing, but he isn’t trying to look like Bowie anymore. That said, there was a time when, as he puts it, “Music was not just a persona, but an outlet, a unifier.”
In one of the book’s more endearing tales, he recalls the days he spent with a friend, camping outside the rehearsal studio Rush had procured just blocks from their houses. In the end, he managed to meet both Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson. (Interestingly, Gary Lee Weinrib and Alex Živojinović were also first-generation Canadians who grew up just on the other side of Steeles, in North York.) Not only did Ghomeshi get autographs, but he managed to get a shoutout from Lee on the 1982 book cover, too.
Eerily apropos given that the book came out just days before Sam Sniderman passed away, 1982 is replete with romantic reminisces of trips down to Sam the Record Man. It was a three-hour time investment for Ghomeshi to head down there to buy an album. He’d rip open the packaging and read the liner notes on the way home.
Of course, Ghomeshi also got to experience Sam’s as an artist. In the early 1990s, the Toronto music scene was taking off. Bands like Barenaked Ladies, The Lowest of the Low, and Moxy Früvous were given prime real estate at the store, right beside the bestseller chart. Sam made sure their humble indie casettes were sold throughout his network of shops.
“It really was a moment,” Ghomeshi says, trying to find quite the right words. He describes Sniderman’s influence as “so profound.”
If you grew up having to, say, put a tape in a Walkman or try to talk to a prospective girlfriend on the phone in the pre-cell, pre-cordless era, you’re bound to crack at least a smile or two at the cultural observations Ghomeshi threads through his narrative. But he admits that, especially since he didn’t want to do a memoir, per se, he was trying to get at something larger about how these drastic technological changes have altered our attitudes towards something as basic as music.
Can music mean as much to the kid who just has to click a button in iTunes as it did to the kid who made that pilgrimage to Sam’s, he wonders? For that matter, does “friend” even mean the same thing to a Facebook user as it did to an uncool kid in the suburbs 30 years ago?
However, not all Ghomeshi’s cultural observations are so challenging. He confesses to a penchant for lists and sprinkles little “top fives” regularly throughout the book. Fans of landscaping might be amused to know the five types of sprinklers in use in Thornhill when he was growing up: stationary, rotary, oscillating, pulsating, and travelling.
The book is at its best when the writing is personal. It would probably cut a bit deeper if Ghomeshi did away with some of the Seinfeldesque musings (e.g. why phones used to have curly cords or how weird it is that the word “Google” didn’t exist in 1982). It’s as if he thought the “teenager-as-outsider” narrative needed to be more entertaining.
Today, as the host of Q, he has established himself as one of the country’s best interviewers. He jokes that he sees himself segueing into a role as a “brown, new millennium Andy Rooney.” Of course, his job has given him a chance to meet a few of his heroes. David Byrne was “amazing” and “everything you’d want him to be,” he says. The Clash’s Mick Jones was drunk, which seems like it would put him in those same categories.
But still out there, somewhere, looms Bowie. Despite having interviewed everyone from Spike Lee, to the Beach Boys, to Deadmau5, to Neil Gaiman, Ghomeshi reverts to fretful, teenage hero worship when it comes to Ziggy Stardust himself.
“I’m kind of freaked out about it. What if he’s a jerk?” he wonders of a potential encounter.
But it definitely wouldn’t be as bad as the run-in with Billy Bob. If he finds himself at a loss, we figure Ghomeshi can always just ask Bowie about his film career, right?
Photo Courtesy of CBC.