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Review: 1982 by Jian Ghomeshi

In 1982 the Commodore 64 computer was introduced, Ronald Reagan survived being shot, the Falkland War started and ended, Michael Jackson released Thriller, Canada repatriated its Constitution, and the first compact disc was sold in Germany. And that’s not all. Over the course of 1982, I blossomed from a naïve 14 year-old trying to fit in with the cool kids to something much more: A naïve, eyeliner-wearing 15 year-old trying to fit in with the cool kids.

So writes Jian Ghomeshi in this, his first book, 1982. It is a memoir told across ten intertwined stories of the songs and musical moments that changed his life. Obsessed with David Bowie (“I wanted to be Bowie,” he recalls), the adolescent Ghomeshi embarks on a Nick Hornbyesque journey to make music the centre of his life. Acceptance meant being cool, and being cool meant being Bowie. And being Bowie meant pointy black boots, eyeliner, and hair gel. Add to that the essential all-black wardrobe and you have two very confused Iranian parents, busy themselves with gaining acceptance in Canada against the backdrop of the revolution in Iran.

~ from the publisher

“ […] You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground”
Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime, Remain in the Light

When Jian Ghomeshi was fourteen years old, he attended the Police picnic in Toronto. In addition to seeing some seriously amazing bands (sigh), his attendance at the event signified a profound change in his personal view of the world. Not only was it the first date with the girl he’d been crushing on since, well, forever, but it was the moment Ghomeshi learned to let go. Literally, in fact, as an oversized music ‘enthusiast’ chose Ghomeshi’s prized red and blue Adidas bag as a way to show his displeasure for Joan Jett’s set during the music fest and threw it onstage at the band. Much like David Byrne’s narrator in Once in a Lifetime, Ghomeshi must have wondered just how he had ended up there. Watching one of his most prized possessions land on stage (with black-markered nametag prominently on display) gave him two options: lose it in front of the girl he really liked, or quietly mourn its loss and accept that this was a chance for a new start. He chose the latter.

Music was then, and remains to this day, one of the filters by which Ghomeshi views his life, with each chapter heading reflective of a song title of particular meaning. As a child of immigrants and an immigrant himself (albeit from England), he identifies the struggles and challenges (realized and otherwise) of growing up “different” in suburban Thornhill in the early ‘80s. While obviously deeply protective and caring of his family, he’s also acutely aware that his fourteen year old self wasn’t always so accepting of his family’s quirks and differences. As a skinny, Bowie-loving Persian-Canadian (whose New Wave fanaticism remains to this day), his experiences are surprisingly familiar. Like any fourteen year old, he wanted to fit in, and like any teen his parents embarrassed him. The how’s and why’s may be different, but the feelings are entirely relatable.

Blue skies above
and sun on your arms 
strength in your stride
And hope in those squeaky clean eyes
You’ll get chilly receptions 
everywhere you go
Blinded with desire 
– guess the season is on
~ David Bowie, Teenage Wildlife, Scary Monsters

Ghomeshi gives some great mental pictures of how his parents may have stood out compared to his friends (The Dan Hill! He was popular in my house too), but he does so with love and kindness. His descriptions of the innate racism experienced by his family are sadly still familiar, thirty years on. Without belabouring the point, Ghomeshi gives us a gentle but uncomfortable reminder that perhaps we haven’t come as far as we would like to think in accepting the varied nationalities that make up our city. What saves his memoir from becoming maudlin or mired in angst is a very sharp sense of self-deprecation, and an awareness that the problems faced at fourteen, while seemingly insurmountable at times, were something we’ve all struggled through in order to emerge, battered and beaten, and changed on the other side.

In 1982, I was two years younger than Jian, and my musical tastes were eerily similar. Reading 1982 was, for me, a fantastic walk down a musical memory lane, as I suspect it will be for many. I do have to wonder how many new iTunes New Wave playlists will be created in the wake of this book (not counting my own – and thanks for the ear worm in “Ebony & Ivory”, Jian). In addition to the musical memories, he veers off on relatable tangents, including the process of trying to make a “private” call on a very public house phone in an era without cell phones or tablets (example: our family phone was in the kitchen, and I spent many a night precariously perched on the stovetop, chatting with friends). These asides can be a little jarring at first, pulling you out of the story and into a completely different space until you adjust to his narrative style. What helped me was hearing his voice, familiar to millions of CBC “Q” listeners, as I read the book. Eventually, it felt as if I was having a series of coffee meetings with Jian, where he told his story in person, with the jokes and asides as a natural part of the conversation. Once you are into his memoir, it’s interesting to see the seeds of the musician/broadcaster developing in his fourteen-year-old self. From essentially stalking the members of Rush as they rehearsed for a world tour to the vivid description of the achingly inept handling of his relationship with poor Janelle (sorry, man, but you really, really owe her), you can see how each event would have had an effect on him. Hindsight may be 20/20, but even the most cynical critic must admit that the awkwardly poignant experience of singing “Ebony and Ivory” at Harbourfront as “Ivory” couldn’t help but add something to a developing Persian-Canadian cultural identity.

I won’t put in my own Top-Ten list of reasons why you should read 1982; I’m sure that there will be many of those appearing over the next few weeks. What I will suggest is this: if you’ve ever felt awkward, unsure or uncool, if you’ve ever obsessed about a band or singer (of any kind – no judgment here), or if you were ever fourteen and struggled to figure out who the hell you were meant to be, then this is a book that would be well worth your time.

More than this you know there’s nothing
More than this tell me one thing
More than this ooh there is nothing
Roxy Music, More Than This, Avalon – and my vote for the best underrated song of 1982. 

1982 is published by Viking Canada, an imprint of Penguin Canada. I received it from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. It is available for purchase from Indigo, Amazon and your friendly independent bookstore. Hardcover, 304 pages

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3 Responses »

  1. This is a great review. Jian Ghomeshi was actually at my university this past Saturday. Unfortunately I couldn’t be there because I went home for the weekend, but my friend and Islamic History professor got to meet him and they got their books signed :).


  2. “In 1982 President Reagan survived getting shot…” Happened in 1981.


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