“Life will shoot you out of a cannon where you want it or not. The universe is a cannon and we are the balls.”
Okay, I admit it. My copy of Jann Arden’s memoir, Falling Backwards, is a bit of a mess. But at least I have an almost acceptable excuse. As I started to read it I started turning down the top right hand corner of a few pages which contained remarks that made me laugh out loud. And then I turned down the corners of a few more pages. And one or two more. And now that I’ve finished the book it looks like it’s been chewed up by the Arden family attack dog, Aquarius. Who, as Ms Arden properly points out, was not really a guard dog, especially since he “licked complete strangers like they were cheeseburgers.” ‘Nuff said.
Arden’s memoir is a fascinating flashback to a childhood unlike yours and mine, because all her experiences are recreated through the uniquely humourous filter of her mind. And her considerable gifts as a writer only serve to make Falling Backwards more magical. She is still haunted by memories of childhood “and its boundless, heartless atrocities.” She flashes on piles of dead birds and gophers, the prey she stalked with neighborhood buddies Leonard and Dale. “I see their little faces, I really do, and am instantly ashamed.” She says she would not have wanted to be a gopher or a magpie between 1971 and 1976 in Springbank, Alberta. Nor, she assures you, would you.
As a child she was also an aspiring arsonist. One time she dropped about five hundred lit wooden matches down a heating vent one at a time; “I just liked striking the matches and seeing them burn. You could strike them on anything: a zipper, your two front teeth, your Levi’s jeans back pocket, the wall, the floor, your forehead. Any surface could light an Eddylite match.”
She and the two brothers she adored attended a rural school where “if you came to school and didn’t smell like some farm animal, you were considered weird.” And her parents literally built the family house, a process that kept them living in a trailer during a long. hard Canadian winter. How cold is winter in rural Alberta? “You can freeze your nose off in about three minutes if you’re not careful. I know a lot of people without a nose – they just have the nostril holes. [Okay, no I don’t.]”
When her father was unable to deal with his alcoholism, her mother told him he had to leave. He did. To keep the family afloat her mother took a number of odd jobs, including a job sorting eggs at a chicken farm. “When the wind blew in the right direction, the smell of chicken shit was so bad it could almost peel the red paint off a barn. I can’t really describe it but I’ll try; if you put a loaded diaper in a pot of boiling sock juice with goat balls you’d be about halfway there.”
Years later her mother and father, now reunited, opened a video store, where Arden remembers working long hours. “My mother tells me I was the worst employee they ever hired. I probably was.” She watched eighteen hundred movies the first year she worked there. “I was like Roger Ebert on crack.”
Falling Backwards is also a revealing history of the food and drink she consumed in her formative years. She and her brothers Duray and Patrick were raised on Crock-Pot dinners. Pop Shoppe soda, Old Dutch salt and vinegar chips, and Wagon Wheels. “A Wagon Wheel,” she informs the uninitiated, “is a godawful chocolate-covered cookie thing filled with marshmallow. We ate them by the millions even though they taste like used sports socks.” Her mother sent them to school with sandwiches. “We went through nine gallons of Cheez Whiz every week, I’m sure. I can’t wait to see what the long-term health effects of that will be.” But then cooking was not her mother’s strong suit. “We had some very well-done spaghetti over the years. A single noodle was usually about an inch in diameter. Italian folks would have lit themselves on fire if they’d had to eat my mother’s pasta.”
She saw what alcohol could do to her father and her older brother Duray. “It was almost a given that there would be confrontation if drinking was involved; you cannot reason with rum.” But that didn’t stop her from skipping math class to drink Lonesome Charlie by the river. “Lonesome Charlie,” she explains, “was a very cheap, incredibly crappy pink wine that was basically a headache in a bottle but was also sweet and bubbly and therefore very popular.”
Aside from some mesmerizing family dynamics and her own struggle to find herself, what makes Falling Backwards so memorable is Arden’s dry western wit — “One year I got jumper cables in my stocking for Christmas. It doesn’t get more Canadian than that” — and her consistently engaging use of language, whether she’s sharing her first experience with Grand Marnier (“That stuff could give a headache to a tree”) or describing a character named Colette, “a real firecracker” who “could talk the leg off the lamb of God.”
The first song she ever wrote, Paradise, was about her parents dying. Adds Arden: “I set the bar very high early in my career to write the most depressing songs possible.” Eight albums, eight Juno Awards and 17 top-ten singles later, Arden is living proof that “You are not what you did, but what you will do.” In Falling Backwards she revisits her triumphs and tragedies without fanfare, making her personal defeats all the more touching, until our eyes mist over. But after surviving a unique detox regimen, which really must be read to be believed, she emerges dry-eyed and strong and ready for her next tour.
“The things we choose to remember,” she notes, “say a heck of a lot about us.”
Wow. You can say that again.