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Year in the life of a teenage music geek

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1982

By Jian Ghomeshi

Penguin, 274 pages, $30

Host of the popular CBC Radio arts program Q, and one of the Mother Corp.'s new generation of visible-minority stars, Jian Ghomeshi has a thing for lists.

In keeping with this enthusiasm, here are some adjectives that describe his new memoir, 1982:

1. Wholesome

2. Adolescent

3. Nostalgic

4. Discreet

5. Narrow

At least there's no false advertising. As his title makes clear, Ghomeshi focuses on one calendar year, 1982, the year he went from age 14 to 15 and from Grade 9 to 10 in Toronto's upscale suburb of Thornhill.

Another recent CBC memoirist, foreign correspondent and former Winnipegger Nahlah Ayed, deals with this period in her life in a page. But Ghomeshi sees it as his formative time -- when he threw himself into music and theatre, discovered his New Wave look, sang in public for the first time, served as his school PA system announcer, and even worked up the courage to ask out an older woman (well, a year older) who shared his passion for David Bowie.

Just don't expect much in the way of drama. In between including lists of everything from the required clothing items for his theatre class to the top moments in the Queen song Under Pressure, he portrays himself as having been a typical Canadian suburban teen, subspecies music geek, and he builds his case with the novelistic eye of a Nick Hornby or a David Mitchell.

Many of his CBC fans will be curious about his Iranian Muslim roots. Ghomeshi discusses them at length, although he emphasizes that his ethnic background has never defined him.

He is, in fact, a poster boy for the cultural assimilationist arguments in Toronto journalist Doug Saunders' new book, The Myth of the Muslim Tide.

Ghomeshi was born in England, where his father, an Iranian-educated engineer, immigrated after university. The family came to Canada in 1974, when Jian (pronounced Zhee-on) was seven and his sister, Jila, now a linguist at the University of Manitoba, was 10.

In a brief paragraph, Ghomeshi writes that his father, "a liberal nationalist," had opposed the shah of Iran for "his excessive and iron-fisted regime" and "originally held high hopes" for the 1979 revolution until it descended into despotism.

The family was secularist. "We never visited a mosque or engaged in any other religious activities," Ghomeshi writes. "In fact, we celebrated Christmas and Easter, and I learned the Lord's Prayer in school in England.... Later on in high school, most of my closest friends would be Jews."

Still, as a boy in Toronto, he felt the sting of bigotry. After the Iranian ayatollahs came to power, he says, kids at school called him a "terrorist."

A neighbour girl insisted he was "an Arab." (Iranians, in fact, are Aryans, though Ghomeshi prefers the adjective Persian.) A mean guy on his hockey squad, frustrated with his brown teammate's incompetence on the ice, said to him, "Why are you even playing hockey, Paki?"

But if young Jian wanted to disown his roots, it was because he yearned to be pale like his idol, the British rock star Bowie, and a New Wave schoolmate, Wendy, on whom he had a wild crush.

The memoir's central incident is his taking Wendy to a summer outdoor rock concert in Toronto, the Police Picnic, where he loses his gym bag -- filled with the symbolic detritus of childhood, one supposes -- and discovers his other lifelong musical idols, the equally pale Talking Heads.

Most striking about 1982 is how Ghomeshi avoids sounding like the earnest egghead he does on radio. His tone here is boyish, his burbly prose marked by comic repetition.

"I've always had a brownish tint to my skin," he writes. "And this is why I was 'Blackie' in England. And this is why I couldn't properly be New Wave. And this is why it was hard to look like Bowie. Bowie almost never had a tan. He was pale. Super pale."

Self-deprecating throughout, Ghomeshi emphasizes his youthful insecurities and his nerdy behaviour. Reading between the lines, however, you see that he was one of the cool kids, an A student, a performing talent and a mover on student council. He had his first girlfriend by Grade 5.

Amusingly, for a guy who tries to be honest about teenage life, he makes no mention of the one solo activity that has obsessed 14-year-old males since the invention of Kleenex. Or maybe nice Persian-Canadian boys don't do that sort of thing.

Another irritation, typical of the book's discretion, is his treatment of his parents. He does not even give us their names. They are "my father" and "my mother."

Insofar as they have personalities, his mother is nurturing and an excellent cook of Persian dishes. His father's major characteristic is being befuddled by his son's interest in the arts. That and speaking in broken English. He tells us nothing of his extended family, except a sentence acknowledging some paternal aunts and uncles in Tehran.

The memoir ends before anything grown-up happens. We learn nothing of his success in his '90s satirical pop band Moxy Früvous, his rise up the CBC ladder, or his philosophies or goals as a cultural journalist. His thoughts on Iranian-Canadian diplomatic relations? Not a chance.

In fact, he unwittingly comes across as being uncomfortable with the idea of memoir. It's as though he has gone into forensic detail about 30-year-old pop music to avoid addressing anything that matters to him as an adult.

Morley Walker edits the Free Press books section.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 22, 2012 J10

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