One on one with Jian: An interview with the host of CBC’s Q about nostalgia, memory and 1982

Nineteen eighty-two was a formative year for both Jian Ghomeshi and I.

In Ghomeshi’s case, it was the year when the host of CBC’s Q first became “New Wave,” when he discovered the Talking Heads, and when he met his dream girl.

For me? Well, it was the year I was formed. Quite literally.

That said, the 15 years between us didn’t keep me from connecting with many of the stories in 1982, Ghomeshi’s new quasi-memoir about that particular year of his life. It’s a colourful, engaging twist on the classic teenage quest to fit in, filtered through the lens of popular culture, media and the added wrinkle of being a visible minority (Iranian in the wake of the Iranian revolution, no less) in white, upper-middle-class Thornhill, Ontario.

If you’re at all familiar with Ghomeshi’s narrative style from listening to Q, you’ll have some idea what to expect here — which can be a plus or a minus, depending on your take. It certainly left me with a couple of stumbling blocks, such as how his affection for documenting how communications technology has changed since 1982 becomes exhausting at points, or how his radio-style prose, with a bias towards repetition and over-explanation, connects far too many dots for my taste.

But it’s Ghomeshi’s style and personality that are also central in his becoming one of Canada’s best interviewers, enabling him to get raw, honest and engaging insights from some of the world’s greatest culture iconoclasts. (As someone who also interviews musicians, let me assure you: what he does ain’t easy.) Likewise, when 1982 gets a rhythm going, and when his prose style connects with a particularly engaging anecdote, it becomes infectiously entertaining. In particular, the book’s two central stories — one about attending the Police Picnic music festival with dream girl Wendy and a beloved Adidas bag, the other about the school year’s big dance — are gripping page-turners filled with anxiety, pathos and heart.

I had the chance to talk through 1982 with Ghomeshi just prior to his book reading event in Halifax this past Saturday. (He was also in town to film a guest spot on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, which airs tonight.) Sitting down in the lobby of the Prince George Hotel, we began our chat where the book begins: with a young man already head-over-heels with pop music’s most infamous chameleon.

RM: Let’s start with Bowie. In the book, Bowie is a constant through-way across the chapters, but you kind of start in media res with your relationship with Bowie. It’s well established when the book begins, and even when you got around at the end to explaining how it started, it felt very perfunctory, like ‘Okay, I have to explain a bit of this, but isn’t Bowie kind of self-evident?’ I’m curious if that’s the way Bowie feels to you: so elemental that it seems as if he’s always been there.

JG: Well, yes, but I think part of it is that a lot of the book is in the voice of a 14-year-old. And part of what I’m communicating is the wondrous, unmitigated sort of devotion that we have to our idols when we’re teenagers — and beyond, but really when we’re teenagers. Like I say at another point, where Toke and I go on the pilgrimage for Rush, as you get older you never do that again. So Bowie is almost a mythical figure — certainly a mystical figure — when I’m that age.

And that’s fuelled, as well, by the fact that social media has completed changed the game the last 10, 15 years, [along with] the Internet and the way we consume music. Now our heroes, they’ll tweet us, we’ll have hundreds of photos of them available to us, and we can YouTube them. At the time [in the 80s], the only access you had to a big rock star like Bowie was what he allowed you to see, and his label in that respect, on album covers and videos. So rock stars could be mythical, could be larger than life. I can’t even imagine Bowie tweeting, really, and especially when he was a chameleon the way he was. So I think part of what you’re talking about is this bigger-than-life character that, as I do say later in the book, has always been there through my life.

The other part that is kind of the subtext of the book, but I don’t really say it overtly, expect maybe when I’m talking at one point about the song “Changes,” If the book is somewhat about feeling like an outsider — both in that fish-out-of-water grade 9 way and in general feeling like somebody who desperately wants to fit in and doesn’t — Bowie was the paragon, the role model, for outsiders. He was the ultimate outsider. He differentiated himself on purpose, and when people would get used to any one style of Bowie, he, chameleon-like, would change. And not only was he an outsider, but he was a pop star while doing it. I think part of it is this guy’s a role model, because if I can just be like him then not only will I fit in, but I’ll be satiating all of my alternative leanings that I’m talking about throughout the book.

And that gets into something that I wanted to discuss because, many teenagers use pop culture as sort of identity play, self-discovery. You highlight that in the book, but there’s also this tension between that idea and you being interpreted a certain way because of your Iranian dissent: your skin colour, how your family acts, even what lights you have on your house. I’m wondering if pop culture felt like an escape from that, a way to move beyond those issues. 

Yes, absolutely. Not just pop culture, and I’m not the first to talk about this — Richard Poplak talks about growing up in South Africa and pop music and pop culture being a lifeline for him in terms of seeing the world a different way from when he was growing up, as a white kid during apartheid. But absolutely that’s true, although I’d narrow it even further and say music. Music provided the escape. Music, in a way, provided the hope.

And you know… I was intentionally trying to write a funny, entertaining book. I didn’t want it to be this earnest dirge about how I was a victim or something. And if you knew me in grade 9, I wasn’t cowering in the corner, freaked out and bawling. More so, I seemed like I fit in, I wasn’t unpopular, but it was all what was going on inside. And I think inside there was a feeling of, “How and where do I fit in?” And music was the place. Music was the gathering place, and that’s what Talking Heads, and The Clash and Bowie would come to represent.

How old are you, by the way?

I’m 30, so yeah, I was actually born in ‘82.

So you’re not super young…

Yeah, there’s about 15 years or so between us.

And you got a lot of the musical references?

Oh yeah, of course.

You’re a music guy, though.

I am, but that connects with something I wanted to ask you about: the preoccupation you have in the book, maybe to the point of obsession, with documenting the way in which your physical engagement with music and with culture would be radically different today, 30 years later. Today, we have the Internet and new technologies, and you’re talking about record stores, and following Rush when you hear a rumour they’re recording in your town.

To me that seems, in a way, a self-evident point, how different things are. So why does it fascinate you so much and form such a focus in this book?

I don’t know if it is self-evident, that’s the thing. I don’t think those of us who lived through it remember. The greatest reactions I’ve had, some of the most animated reactions to this book, are people going “Oh yeah, the way we used to use phones!” or “Oh yeah, going and buying records!” It’s like people remember once you tell them, but in a way, it’s hard to remember how radically different life was just 20, 30 years ago.

So the question I’m posing, without writing it in prose, is does our relationship to the music change, or do our relationships in general change, if instead of the three-and-a-half hour exercise to get to that Rush record, you can press a button and own a song and “oh yeah, now my iPod’s on random and I might not hear that song again for three weeks, but it doesn’t matter because I’ve got a million songs on my iPod”?

Well, the answer to that, the book argues, is very clearly “yes,” but is there a value judgment in this book, that something is lost, do you think?

I think there is something lost, so I think in that sense there is that value judgment. But at the same time, I’m also walking around with my iPod. I love the fact that the Internet has democratized music and made all kinds of music accessible to people who would not have had it before. But it does come at a cost. So yeah, in the case of the book, there’s early onset Andy Rooney. (laughs) It’s like “In my day…”

It’s funny, I saw Death From Above 1979 here in town last night, and I had a feeling like that: it was a rough crowd, and a young crowd. And I was struck by how I was there seven years ago when the band came through town, and the crowd was full of a certain class of “music people,” and this crowd [last night] was so much broader and more diverse. It brought in a clientele along with it that’s not my personal scene at all, but I realized that it was like I was seeing the democratization of music playing out in front of me, because it’s so easy of people from different scenes and crowds and backgrounds to discover this band and connect with them in ways that were not the case as much as even seven years ago. 

Yeah. That’s an amazing observation, and I don’t think it’s untrue. Like, the game has been changed, and the whole way that people find culture has been changed by the Internet. But also… You know, I take a lot of pride in what I’ve done and what we’ve done with Q on CBC in really, to a certain extent, revolutionizing the CBC. Nothing to take away from the incredible legacy of CBC and, in particular, CBC Radio, and that’s really important to say, because I don’t say this as if nothing worthy existed before; quite the opposite. But it’s inconceivable to imagine Jay-Z on CBC only five or six years ago, let alone Jay-Z wanting to come on CBC.

And so my experience last night, not dissimilar to yours, was Amanda Palmer.

Yeah, I saw on Twitter that you were at that show [in Toronto].

Yeah, so Amanda Palmer was on Q yesterday. I’m not sure that would have ever happened in the past. You might have a Cape Breton singer-songwriter who’s indie, but you wouldn’t necessarily have an American punk artist who does what she does. And similarly, it was generally a hipster crowd [at the concert] last night, but it was clear that she had broken through on some level. First of all, why are there 18-year-olds at an Amanda Palmer show? The Dresden Dolls were, like, a decade ago at least. And so there’s something really interesting happening there. I think it’s that the way that music comes to people is so different.

So we talked about the idea of what’s been lost from the past. Do you think this book is nostalgic — and if it’s not, how is it different than nostalgia?

I think it’s on the verge of nostalgia. (laughs) I think that there’s a sad descent, a sad spiraling that happens downward from critical proximity, to critical memory, to nostalgia. By way of example, I’d say that the greatest critics of the 80s, and in particular the early 80s, were people who were growing up in the 80s. It’s Gen-Xers who look back and go, “Oh, fuck, are you kidding me? With that hair and the shoulder pads and all that?” Because younger generations have never thought it was totally uncool. Lights, who’s 25 [ed. note: and who Ghomeshi manages], she’s always thought the 80s were cool, in the same way that I always thought the 60s were cool. It’s like “I wish I had lived in the 60s.”

But where it’s descending into nostalgia, to a certain extent, is that if I hear, like, that 10CC song “I’m Not in Love” — when I was a kid, when I was in grade 9, I would not be caught dead listening to that song. Or Hall & Oates is a great example. I used to run this coffee house open mic night at Thornlea [High School], and I once did this theme of the night where it was how much I hated Hall & Oates. It was a whole Hall & Oates hate-on thing, because I was like British punk New Wave guy. And I hear Hall & Oates now and I’m like “Oh, it’s so great!” Everything starts to go through the lens of cultural experience that is nostalgia. So yeah, that’s a really good question. It’s one I’ll have to explore a bit more, where that term applies in this book.

Lately, I’ve been reading the blog Stereogum, and they’ve become obsessed with these articles, to the point where I’m getting frustrated, like, “such-and-such album turns 10” or “such-and-such album turns 20.” And that reflects that 1992 and 2002 were great music years, but it’s like they’re obsessed with documenting how things were at a certain point in time, applying our modern documentary culture to a certain point in the past.

And you thought I was obsessed with documenting 30 years ago.

And they’re doing the same with just 10 or 20 years ago! It’s escalating.

But talking about the past, I want to ask about veracity and storytelling. The book is framed around two wonderfully told stories: the first is the Police Picnic, which flows through a bunch of chapters, and then the dance at the end, which you pay off which such an incredibly heartbreaking punchline.

And then on the next page, you have the author’s note, where you use the term “creative non-fiction” and you talk about this idea of “the spirit of the details.” My first thought, when I read this, was “Do I start to doubt the great story I’ve just read?” Is that something I should feel about the book, or does “the story” deserve priority over the literal truth?

I do think storytelling comes first, but you can’t call it non-fiction unless it’s non-fiction. The Police Picnic did happen. There was an incident. My gym bag did get tossed at Joan Jett. If you track down Joan Jett, and ask her, she will tell you on August 13, 1982, she was booed off the stage at the Police Picnic. I don’t know if she’d remember the gym bag, but she’d remember being pelted.

And as for the dance, one of the reasons why I felt it was important to label the creative stuff is because I’m not writing about 100 years ago. I’m writing about 30 years ago. These people still exist. I can’t remember the exact conversations I might have had. And there are some composite characters. A lot of this is my story, and so I wanted, I guess, to make it clear that if there are any inaccuracies that come out of the storytelling, about certain characters and stuff, that I know that that’s possible.

But isn’t that how life works in general? Like, in the stories I tell about my life, I’m sure I’m adding dramatic arcs that didn’t actually exist when I lived them in the first place.

Yes. I think it was Ondaatje who said that’s why he wouldn’t trust Henry Kissinger’s take on China — how could you believe it?

I think if you’re writing about an historical event, you do have a responsibility for it to be accurate. And there are moments here where I veer intentionally into the creative. But all the major events in the book — “Ebony and Ivory,” the Addidas bag, the mauve mini-dress, seeing the Talking Heads — all of that stuff is based on reality. In fact, I’ve learned a lot about the fine line between fiction and non-fiction, because there’s moments where I still think, change a couple more names and set it somewhere else and it’s The Buddha of Suburbia, it’s Hanif Kureishi. It’s a fictional story.

But that’s a different side of nostalgia. In order to understand our lives, we re-remember certain moments in certain contexts where the facts may be true, but the emotional story may be a little bit different.

Yeah, I think that’s true, but it’s funny, because in a way I am doing a cultural history, with something like the Police Picnic. But if I were to set out to write a book about the Police Picnic from 1982, it would be very different. It would be consciously more balanced. It’s the storytelling and the opinion that’s the creative part, you’re right.

My last question is about lists, because lists come up throughout the book. I’m sure that even when you were living the experiences described in the book that you had a list mindset. Now I feel like we’re living in an Internet age that is dominated by lists — Buzzfeed, Cracked, so forth. Why do lists matter to you personally?

I was always into lists, you’re right. Speaking of obsessions, my father had given me a book called The World Book of Rankings when I was a kid. I carried this book around with me. While other kids were stealing Playboy magazines, or reading Merchant’s digest or whatever, I had my World Book of Rankings. I would talk in these terms, like someone would ask “Want to go for ice cream?” and I’d be like, “Sure! The number one flavor of ice cream is pistachio. Number two is also pistachio. Number three, vanilla!”

But I think there’s something else that I intended [with the book], which is between the lists and each chapter being named after a song, the whole thing is a bit of a love letter to the mix tape. That’s why there’s the cassette on the front, and that’s why there’s the Bowie list on the back, which is actually from Grade 9, which I made and had given to a girl. Mixtapes were lists. They were like a list you’d create for someone, like a playlist, the important distinction being that mixtapes were a product of a necessary and obvious devotion, of time and energy. I sound like I’m being facetious, but I don’t know if there’s anything in our contemporary lives that can demonstrate as much affection as giving someone a mix tape that you labored over — hours spent wondering what’s going between the songs, what goes on side A and B, and what am I going to label it, and lining up the records to tape from. It’s a very beautiful gesture.

So I think that’s part of the instinct too, in the book. But I think you’re right that lists were always important, and they’ve become shorthand now for everything.

So along those lines, here is a list of five places where you can learn more about Ghomeshi and 1982: Ghomeshi’s website, Amazon, Penguin Books, Q website, @JianGhomeshi on Twitter

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