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Falling Backwards ~ Reviewed by Brenda Brooks

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Falling Backwards by Jann Arden

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Falling Backwards by Jann Arden
Vintage Canada, 2011
269 pages

Reviewed by Brenda Brooks

In the introduction to her memoir, Falling Backwards, Jann Arden recalls re-visiting the scene of some raw, promiscuous, drunken years spent in Vancouver, years before success as a recording artist found her at age thirty. After a series of sold out shows, she takes the limo across the Lions Gate Bridge and cruises past the boarded up Third Street apartment building where she had lived twenty-five years earlier. The mattress on the floor, the ironing board doubling as a kitchen table, her cassette deck — she remembers it all and says a prayer “of gratitude and forgiveness” before heading back across the bridge to her hotel. That night she lies thinking about how she got where she is, and falls asleep smiling.

Arden was born Jann Richards in Springbank, Alberta in 1962 to middle-class parents who believed in persistence and advised their children that “the harder you work, the luckier you get.” Arden’s mother was an immaculate homemaker and her father worked long hours in the concrete and construction business. Every winter they charged up their credit cards to buy Jann and her two brothers, Duray and Patrick, Christmas presents — then they would spend the rest of the year paying them off. Times were often tough, but Arden recalls feeling happy and secure. Even in the years to come, when her father struggled with a drinking problem and her mother insisted he leave the home (until he joined AA and achieved sobriety), Arden maintained her trademark feisty humor.

It was her mother’s decision to learn to play guitar that piqued Arden’s interest in writing music, although she kept this enthusiasm to herself, practicing her mother’s guitar in the basement recreation room whenever she found herself alone. The first chords she learned were from the song Seventeen, by Janis Ian, while the first song penned was called Paradise, an evocation of her parents’ imagined death. Today she lives just fifty feet from their home, on fourteen acres west of Calgary.

Although Arden attended drama school for awhile at Mount Royal College, she soon dropped out and fled to Vancouver. The period seems both formative and hard-scrabble. She worked as a cashier; roomed with a call girl; busked in Gastown (until she was clobbered and robbed); sang in a very bad band (“we were terrible and I am not exaggerating”); drank too much; experienced sexual exchanges she later regretted; and finally found redemption on the sea, gutting fish for a living on a 42 foot salmon trawler before, returning to Alberta to work in her parent’s new video store.

It was while singing in a lounge act with a down and out mentor who introduced Arden to Motown and the black divas, that she was noticed by an agent named Neil MacGonigill. He encouraged her career, while at the same time pointing out that a lot more focus and effort, perhaps five-years-worth, was required to make it in the music business. He finds her an apartment of her own where she begins to write songs in earnest. It is MacGonigill who suggested she use her middle name as her surname. Soon, Arden’s father and mother lend her the cash that allows her to have a professional recording made in Nashville, eventually winning a record contract with A&A.

Of course it isn’t possible to pack absolutely every nuance of a life into a 269 page memoir. A case could be made that, after the work itself, what else does the artist owe her fans? On the other hand, if a memoir is offered up, the reader might logically expect to come to an increased understanding of what makes that artist tick, in respect to her chosen art. Although there is much reminiscing, balanced between dark and light — sometimes quite funny and other times sobering — there are some important gaps in Falling Backwords. Ms. Arden comments on the arrest in 1992 of her troubled brother Duray for the murder of a young woman named Carrie Marshall, but the memoir reveals nothing of her deeper feelings, beyond a vague suggestion that she may feel the conviction is unfair.

Equally unexplored in Falling Backwards are her intimate relationships. Here I do not necessarily mean strictly sexual — although she doesn’t shy away from acknowledging some problematic early sexual exchanges with men, including behavior she now considers promiscuous. The only other specific mention is a pass made by a straight female friend, during her brief sojourn at drama school, to the stirring strains of Nina Simone. (Sounds like the eighties to me.) But what she finds stirring in love, or gratifying in friendship, these remain unshared, along with the deeper nature of her personal despairs, and even perhaps her most profound joys. We might expect to learn more, in a musician’s memoir, about the depth and dimensions of the well the music is drawn from.

Clearly the book’s title is meant to evoke that well-known risk-taking exercise where the subject, in deciding to trust, allows herself to tumble back into the arms of a group of waiting strangers. Here, Arden seems to have caught herself half-way, not quite surrendering the full weight of herself to the arms of the assembled, who surely would have broken her fall.

Jann Arden released her debut album in 1993 and has seventeen top ten singles from eight albums. Winner of eight Junos and recipient of the National Achievement Award from SOCAN, Arden was also inducted into the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame. She is the author of two other books: If I Knew, Don’t You Think I’d Tell You? and I’ll Tell You One Damn Thing, and That’s All I Know.

Read more about Falling Backwards 

Brenda Brooks is the author of  Gotta Find Me An Angel, and two collections of poetry.

Other Reviews by Brenda Brooks

Ru by Kim Thúy

Stopping for Strangers by Daniel Griffin

Monoceros by Suzette Mayr

The Drifts by Thom Vernon

Tinkers by Paul Harding

The Fund by H.T. Narea

The Girl in the Box by Sheila Dalton

Memoir of a Good Death by Anne Sorbie

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