We wanted to think that we’d be different, that we wouldn’t be disarmed by Jian Ghomeshi’s professional charm like pretty much every guest on his CBC radio show, Q, (a prickly Billy Bob Thornton famously included). But then you sit down with him, and he immediately starts asking questions, as if he thinks you’ll spill something more interesting than anything he has to say, and you realize that his affable on-air persona, that unique blend of curiosity and fandom, with a polite, yet finely tuned bullshit detector, isn’t an act. Jian Ghomeshi is good at his job. It is at the core of who he is.
Now, the esteemed interviewer is letting people learn a little bit more about who that is. 1982, his first foray into creative non-fiction, is about Ghomeshi at 14, before he was so smooth, back when he was just a kid trying to win over an older girl, who reminded him of David Bowie. “I think with this book it’s so painfully confessional,” he says. “I put on purple eyeliner, I go to school, I get made fun of, I take off the purple eyeliner, I struggle with trying to be new wave. I don’t think I will be able to hide.” And so, the interviewer becomes the interviewee.
I haven’t read the book, obviously.
It’s shitty. A kid wants to be Bowie, fails.
I usually assume going into any interview that whatever they’re promoting is shitty.
“Lower your expectations, even lower than they are.”
So why did you decide to write this kind of memoir?
I had been approached about writing a book by different publishers and I had a real resistance to writing one of those ‘womb to tomb,’ books: ‘I was born and then I did this and that’s how I got to CBC,’ and a picture of me in a suit on the cover, smiling.
Standing in the Q, or something like that?
Exactly, exactly, like From A to Q.
That’s even better.
But the ‘A’ is ‘eh’.
When I was 14, I had a very specific set of people that I gravitated to; it was usually rock stars with huge egos. What was it about new wave that little Jian was like, ‘that’s what I want to be?’
What new wave represented at the time was the counter culture, counter sexual ideas, androgyny, the outsider, and at the pinnacle of that was Bowie. I mean, Bowie would go on to be quite mainstream. But for most of the 70s and into the 80s, despite his fame, he represented all the outsiders. He was the messiah to the little monsters a couple generations before the current one, who sort of owes all of that to him, as far as I’m concerned. So, as somebody who felt—I mean didn’t have this all figured out at the time—but as somebody who felt like I didn’t fit in, and desperately wanted to, Bowie represented a symbol of success without having to conform. The problem was I was born in Ontario, and I was a Middle Eastern kid with a big nose, so trying to be a skinny, white rock n’ roll hero who was a heroine addict was not as easy as it would have been to be aspiring to be a 15-year-old suburban kid with a big nose.
In adolescence, one of the major things people latch onto to define themselves is music. Why do you think that is?
I wouldn’t do all the things I do, both musically and as a supporter of music, if I didn’t believe that it had some magical qualities. Some say that no matter what music you discover through your whole life, you will always think the best music is the music from when you were in your late teens. So that’s why Boomers are like, ‘no, it’s the Beach Boys, it’s the Stones,’ and Gen Xers like me might point to someone like Bowie. And your generation might be like, ‘One Direction forever!’
Thank you for lumping me in with that,
I think there is something that happens on a creative level that can come from music, but I also think that music has become so intertwined at the top levels of our cultural identification. I mean, there’s TV, there’s video games, with what do we self define? Our musical heroes have become that. It was always thus, but more so with the advent of rock n’ roll as a popular music. Pop music in its own nature is considered a youthful genre, so it becomes intertwined with the teenage experience.”
Is it still possible to be a fan of artists now that you meet them so often?
I think on the one hand I’m much more aware that these people who may have been superheroes in my eyes are just normal people. They talk, and they eat cheese, and they have frustrations, and they shit. In the book, there is this whole thing about how I camped out with my friend Toke when Rush were rehearsing for a tour, and we sat there for weeks waiting to meet them, and two days ago I had them in my studio for an hour. In a sense, these guys are just human beings. Some of the stars in one’s eyes begin to ebb. But on the other hand, my fanboy side has almost been amplified by what I do. I’ll love people for what they do creatively, and then they’ll turn out to be incredible humans who have amazing things to say. Guillermo Del Toro was in the studio a couple weeks ago. He makes great films, but I realized just how awesome, accessible, and interesting a guy he is: this creative mind you just want to ask about anything—that made me more of a fan. I like the idea of fandom. I like the idea of getting excited about and celebrating role models.”
So, you still have that capacity to be surprised?
Yes. When I do the interviews, I’m genuinely interested and I think that helps. If you were more interested in me, this would be a better interview. Instead of faking it.
That actually brings up a point. I feel like the role of memoirist and the role of interviewer are connected: in both you have to be able to hone in on what’s interesting about the subject. Are you able to have that same critical eye, when you’re turning it on yourself?
No, absolutely not. I have to rely on other people. When I’m doing interviews—not that I don’t have an incredible team around me at Q—I have an intuitive sense. An interview will end and I’ll go, ‘that went really well’. Whereas with my own work there wasn’t a day where I wouldn’t finish a few words, or a chapter and wonder, ‘is this just shit? Is anybody going to care?’ I would have been worried about that, if I hadn’t spoken to hundreds of writers on my show that said the same thing. Great writers who kind of go, ‘I never know if the next thing is any good.’ Except for maybe Stephen King; he’s the one who said, ‘I now know when I’m writing something good.
The other day I was talking to this actress, and I could tell as I was asking her questions, she was trying to figure out my angle. How do you get past that in interviews? Or how do you get past the self-consciousness yourself when you’re writing?
“The great thing about writing a book is you can create whatever you want; it’s not an interview. I sort of found the voice and identity of me in the book. I have a vision and version of who I was at 14 that would be very different from my own self-identity at 14. And it may be different 15 years from now again. But in interviews, I find that I will generally be on a ‘message’ track. If you were to ask me five questions that were written on that page: what’s the book about; what were you like when you were 14 blah blah blah, I would probably be telling you the same things I’m going to be telling everybody on this book tour. It’s incumbent upon the interviewer to inspire the interviewee to take them places where they’ll have the energy to give you something new.”
Nowadays, interview podcasts are getting more and more popular. Some are worthwhile, others…
It’s like blogs. It’s like digital photos. Everybody thinks they can be a journalist, and in a lot of cases they can, but content and quality is king. It’s very interesting for me to be on this side of the interview at this point. I was the interviewee for 10 years when I was in [Moxy Früvous], but I haven’t really been for the last little while. The quality of the interviews varies massively: between someone who blows me away, getting me to think about things about myself that I never thought of, to somebody who clearly hasn’t done any homework. That to me is the bottom line. There is no free pass to doing a great interview. But, there is a tremendous power in being the interviewee; I only wish I was exercising it right now.”