Only Jann Arden can get away with repeatedly mentioning “vagina” and “retarded.” Her just released memoir, Falling Backwards, is quintessentially Jann in 3D. Like her songs, it’s not all sunshine and cotton candy. Her book will seat readers on a see-saw that dips up and down between hyena-like laughter and the insidious penetration of bone-deep melancholy.
Red Smith said, “Writing is easy, you just open a vein and bleed.” This is precisely what Arden has done, and it’s also what fans have come to expect from her brooding lyrics, pensive Facebook posts and pithy radio show commentary.
It appears as though God gifted her with humour as a coping mechanism for the turbulence she has endured in life’s landscape. Falling Backwards doesn’t gloss over the anxiousness of a child with a father on the periphery of alcoholism. Her brother Duray’s tangled teenage years with the police and eventual incarceration for murder are also openly dissected. Always the observer, Arden has culled all her triumphs and battles into an engaging read, always questioning her surroundings and how they’ve shaped her. Her memoir doesn’t swerve away from the uncomfortable, gritty bits. No, instead we are led headlong into the emotional quagmire to see that this is also a story of survival, ambition and forgiveness.
Her writing is like that of a celebrity nose-to-tail chef’s cooking style. Beyond all the choice cuts, the carcass is appropriately used too. Arden pulls in all our senses with her wit-licked descriptions of Brussels sprouts “tasting like dog farts and copper pennies.” She laments on Wagon Wheels: “they tasted like used sport socks.” The amusing account of her botched home perm was instantly communicated in the perm solution that “smelled like someone had thrown a cat on a fire.” And a visit to the pig barn down the road? “(Pigs) sound like babies being thrown down a well.”
Her bull’s eye description of a perfectly executed silent treatment? When you are able “to hear heartbeats and mice walking on snow.” When she is in elementary school, trying to hold an HB pencil “with walnut-sized hands” readers are immediately transported back to that relatable childhood, “through panes of glass, sunlit and clear.”
This is where Arden shines like a just-buffed hardwood floor. She brings together universal elements that any human can tangibly identify. Like sitting on heat vents on brisk winter mornings (okay, maybe only Canadians can identify with that). Or that kid in school who could turn their eyelids inside out (there’s always a token one!). Whether she’s looking for ditch strawberries, playing Yahtzee with Grandma Richards or stealing ‘good wood’ from her dad, it’s all familiar.
Her recollection of school lunches and discovering a bloated wiener in her Thermos has been the part I’ve read out loud to numerous friends. My mother tried the exact same trick, but shoved the bun in there too. The bun absorbed all the moisture and was like wet dough around a lukewarm wiener by noon. I won’t spoil Jann’s experience that involves a pencil (insert laugh reel here).
As a songwriter, Arden is skilled at trusting the economy of words. Songwriters can weave decade-long stories in three minutes, and her memoir achieves the same, moving at an escalating pace to just before she turns 30. In Falling Backwards, we trail behind her as she evolves from an accidental contortionist to a small-time arson. Should I mention her attempt to put gophers on Canada’s extinction list? I’m sure a few PETA supporters will be cross-armed and huffy reading this section, forgetting the innocence of kids and the great thrill of an archery set. That’s what you do as a snotty-nosed child. You kill things smaller than you, you poke out fish eyes with sticks, and you ride around on your bike on the hottest day of the year with a small turtle in your pocket. This is all normal and familiar kid fare.
There are bum worms removed with Scotch tape blended with saccharine tales of riding Snoopy the horse down to the river, and into the river. Or, in Jann-speak, when the horse is nowhere to be found, “following Snoopy’s nuggets, like Hansel and Gretel, but much more disgusting.”
Between “youth and its boundless, heartless atrocities” and the “horrible things that stick to the inside of your eyeballs,” we learn about her not-so-glamorous road to fame that forks and dead ends and U-turns when one least expects it. From babysitting for free beer to salmon fishing for much needed cash and clarity, to siphoning gas from her mom’s car so she can get her Pinto into town to make her first demo tape, there is great vulnerability and innocence in her path. When she gets slugged in the face while busking on a soggy day in Gastown, the punch is palpable. How she found the drive to persevere is admirable.
Her pilgrimage to Vancouver, scratching out an existence in a crappy apartment (that was so hot “it could double as a Bikram yoga studio”) and boozing too much while trying to decipher life and its inertia becomes a career catalyst. All the hours spent surreptitiously playing her mom’s guitar, squirreled away in the basement, suddenly gain momentum. She’s gonna make it.
Falling Backwards is not a how-I-became-a-rock-star memoir. It’s a beautiful glimpse into a Prairie childhood and emergence, viewed by anecdotal snapshots that begin with sitting on the toilet with the Readers’ Digest Expanding Your Word Power. With a mom who keeps the toilets so clean you could make Jell-o in them.
Falling Backwards is a memoir that genuinely showcases the heart, guts and bones of a remarkable woman with a contagious, inspiring spirit. What might normally be a fireside or barstool confession, is plainly spilled out into her pages. It’s not sensationalism. It’s raw human emotion. It’s about an era. It’s about a ‘job’ not defining your being. She introduces us to a family that could have easily unravelled, but held fast, and knit themselves closer together. It’s about awkward youth, mistakes and acceptance. Her words provide solace and gratitude for life’s journey.
And it’s bloody funny. It’s Jann as we expect her.