Too Cool

One of Canada’s best broadcasters produces a memoir that’s … a little narrow.

An informal survey reveals that Jian Ghomeshi is an important Canadian for the following reasons:

 

he maintained his composure during Billy Bob Thornton’s on-air meltdown;

he is nice;

ladies think he is sexy and smart, having the perfect mix of vulnerability and confidence;

through Q, he made CBC cool again.

 

Readers of Ghomeshi’s memoir, 1982, learn very quickly that being cool is paramount to the young New Wave Iranian Canadian from Thornhill. Lengthy sections of text are devoted to musings about what was cool in the 1980s, what is cool now and how cool can change: “Cool can be fleeting. And what is cool in your head this minute might not be cool in a couple of years from now. It will stop being cool if it lacks substance, or if it has too much substance or if it is a substance.”

In case readers miss this description of cool, it occurs again, and again. The topic of cool is also rendered in litany form when Ghomeshi lists things that were “cool and then not cool and cool again”:

 

vinyl

eggs

cigars

SNL

Joan Jett

 

This memoirist loves: lists, callbacks about coolness and repetition—particularly of anecdotes, references and the words “cool” and “sartorial.” With an overly simplistic, circular style, Ghomeshi weaves songs, concerts and pivotal personal theatre and musical performances with memories about his unlikely friendship with an afro-haired boy nicknamed Toke, as well as about Ghomeshi family dynamics and a Bowie-esque girl named Wendy. Playing street hockey, purchasing records, wearing eyeliner, meeting members of Rush and witnessing his red-and-blue Adidas bag get flung onstage by a punker named Forbes form the bulk of dramatic moments in the future CBC broadcaster’s autobiography.

Another stylistic feature is Ghomeshi’s conversational revelling in extended descriptions of archaic 1980s technology, which draws attention to the fact that the author believes his audience to be composed of young readers unfamiliar with the prehistoric era of life-before-the-internet. Much of the book focuses on over-explaining his 1980s wardrobe, as well as the ancient social and communication practices of adolescents in that distant decade: “telephone receivers were attached to wires that went into a box with a dial pad on it, and that box had wires that came out of it and went directly into the wall underneath the box,” and so forth. These frequent and extremely detailed tangents about life before we had social and informational oracles such as iPhones and when we thought shoulder pads were the pinnacle of couture are distractingly obvious to readers who lived through these technological dark ages and fashion tragedies. They force the reader to wonder who this memoir is for. Certainly not members of society familiar with said phone wires and Sam-the-Record-Man record purchasing. Is Ghomeshi writing to a teen fan base?

Along with the sense that Ghomeshi is unclear about who his audience is and what might be interesting to them is the fact that successful tried-and-true conventions and adherence to the unwritten rules of successful memoir form do not appear to exist in 1982. Despite the artificial firewall between fiction and non-fiction, all writers know that the best first-person narrators, whether they are subjective, fictional or real, always talk more about others than themselves. Think of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby: Carraway never lets the reader’s gaze rest too long on his own bland turmoils—although we are aware of them—yet without Carraway, we would never know the shatteringly romantic story of Gatsby.  Unfortunately, in 1982, little starlight actually shines beyond Ghomeshi’s pointy black 1980s boots onto his supposed rock idol. Although readers are told, many times, that Ghomeshi wants to be David Bowie (because David Bowie is “cool”), we learn little about the glam iconoclast from Canada’s premier broadcaster in spite of his self-declared obsession with the androgynous rocker.

Like Carraway, Bowie revealed himself as a great storyteller by projecting his gaze onto others and, in his case, physically, artistically and emotionally inhabiting other people. It was through Bowie, in fact, that, as a budding novelist, I first understood the narrative importance of a character in crisis as the starting point of story. Through the incarnation of characters, from Aladdin Sane to The Thin White Duke, Bowie not only redefined the concept album but also music and storytelling. For over two decades, Bowie created characters that mimicked his own inner psyche and alienation while reflecting the darker and uncelebrated aspects of rock celebrity: drug addiction, inflated egoism and the curse of fame.  Through lyrics, style and innovation, he transformed mere albums into complex audio novels all while, yes Jian, wearing pirate eye-patches, glitter and platform shoes.

It is surprising that Ghomeshi fails to mention the why of Bowie’s coolness, especially given that the memoir poses as a pop culture archive; any Bowie-phile worth his or her vinyl is keen to explain the artist’s widespread influence, as well as citing nerdy rock ’n’ roll facts such as that Bowie shares a birthday with Elvis Presley and, interestingly, was the only other individual artist, besides Presley, to be preened and honed to RCA stardom, despite many fiscal setbacks. Ghomeshi mentions that Bowie is dramatic and theatrical but does not think to mention that Bowie was the first musician to collapse the wall between narrative, theatre and music—that without Bowie there would be no Madonna, let alone Lady Gaga, and countless other theatrical rockers, all of whom owe Bowie a significant debt.

Perhaps, having been in the role of Q host, listener and question poser since 2007, Ghomeshi wanted to put on his metaphoric one-legged Ziggy Stardust leotard, draw the trademark Bowie lightning bolt on his face and rock out in spotlight. Perhaps he was feeling nostalgic. And, after all, memoirs are not easy to write. However, someone in Ghomeshi’s wide circle of advisors might have reminded him that often formal and structural memoir conventions can be ignored only for the following reasons:

 

You are Augusten Burroughs.

You are a member of Mötley Crüe.

You survived some mental illness/drug addiction/extreme form of torture or abuse.

You are a ghost.

 

Unfortunately, because Ghomeshi had a nice, stable, suburban, middle class upbringing, marred only by being the target of racism from time to time, this memoir leaves the distinct impression that he should stick to doing what he does best: talking with and about others.