How Psyence Fiction helped me learn to live again with chronic pain

Sarah Rose // Features Editor

Being the first in line for a concert is probably the furthest thing from being inconspicuous when you’re seventeen and trying to sneak into a bar. This wasn’t something I’d considered while waiting two hours to see DJ Shadow outside of Flames Central in Calgary. Then again, I’ve never been good at hiding.

I borrowed money for the ticket from my mom, fabricating some story about going out as teenagers do. I think she knew. After watching your teenager spend a year locked in their room—writhing in the same body rending pain daily, dance shoes and textbooks left buried under a thin layer of dust—those moments of fleeing normalcy must feel like the first glass of water after crying.

The bouncer asked for my ID, pulling me out of my excited reverie. This was the moment I spent hours preparing for. I handed him the card borrowed from my friend’s nineteen-year-old girlfriend, every bit of information memorized. Having the wrong eye colour listed would be a good tell for an attentive bouncer, but as long as he didn’t ask me to take off the aviators covering half my face, he wouldn’t be able to tell. He wordlessly glanced up and down for a few seconds, taking in the girl in a dog tag necklace standing cross-armed in front of him, then took my ticket.

Maybe he knew, too. All I knew after walking through the doors was that I was there to fight for my life and that there’s no thought at 120 decibels.

Psyence Fiction was the ambitious project of DJ Shadow and James Lavelle, a man barely a teenager himself when it was released in 1998. On the surface, the record weaves a sort of space opera using an AKAI-MPC60, a pair of turntables, and a guitar in the hands of Metallica’s bassist. Sounds from Blade Runner to The Twilight Zone and the Star Wars Christmas Special accompany the narrators: Kool G Rap, Thom Yorke, Alice Temple, Mike D, Badly Drawn Boy, and Richard Ashcroft.

Joan Didion famously wrote in The White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live. […] We look for the sermon in the suicide.” Underneath the quirky frame, Psyence Fiction was an invitation for me to explore a more existential journey, to the idea of fighting back.

The fog of undiagnosed chronic illness is like standing on a train track, hearing the distant grind of a thousand-ton death machine barreling down the rail, seeking out a terminal sense it will always refuse you. You’re left chained to the tracks, paralyzed. You’ll never be able to move forward without looking over your shoulder, far away horns blaring in the distance as a reminder. Life becomes as uninhabitable as a rock jutting out from an angry sea, left to the whim of erosion by raging waves. Inside my island of isolation, Psyence Fiction found me.

It filtered in quietly, beneath the glow of my iPod screen and moonlight streaming in through the window of my bedroom. A flicker of radio static and the hiss of space—then it hit. Drums so loud I jolted up, like gasping for air after drowning. I motioned to the volume controls, my first instinct was to run from the intruding sound, but as I fell back onto my pillow, I felt like nothing would be able to play it loud enough. My hand didn’t touch my iPod again for the next hour. “Your whole frame laid in the white chalk / first-class ticket to resurrection / forever destined to a place where [we’re] never resting / headed in hell’s direction / lost at the crossroads and intersection,” Kool G Rap’s verse on Drums of Death exploded into the space, as if I was the one being pulled from the debris, “got yourself caught in a motherfucking tragedy.”

When your body and mind become recontextualized and dissected as an ideological battleground, destined to be relegated to a statistic, staying alive becomes an act of resistance. Buried behind the otherworldly characters from artist Futura2000 and the veneer of nerdy, pop culture theatrics from James Lavelle, Psyence Fiction is a story about a death sentence. It dares to ask what remains after being ejected into an environment that’s the antithesis of life and how to cope with being the only thing left standing in the wreckage. Psyence Fiction was the first thing I found that acknowledged the real gravity in our lives is carrying what’s been done to us through the rest of our endless days and still living.

After the concert concluded, I waded around the venue with a man I’d go on to date for three years, soaking in the energy that beaded from every pore in my body and rang in my ears before I faced the world again. Then I saw him—The man from UNKLE.

There’s a warning about meeting your heroes, but James Lavelle and DJ Shadow were never the heroes of my story. When the lights come on, he’s only a man, Josh Davis, a dad whose kids are likely now teenagers, too. Standing across from me, he struck me as an introspective figure of few words.

We don’t use language any more than we use oxygen when attempting to scream inside a vacuum; language uses us. Davis speaks through his music, connecting with and confronting the demons that felt so kindred to me. Here now, beyond the crossroads, there was nothing left for us to say to each other. I thanked him, and we shared a wordless hug.

Three weeks later, I travelled stateside for surgery, in another three weeks I went back to school, and the following summer I graduated. It’s not like a record, a show, or a man I’ve never spoken to had the power to make life more bearable. Many of the things I’ve endured in the subsequent decade since then have been infinitely more painful. I just want to keep fighting, keep creating, so that somewhere in space, someone else might, too.

“That’s why I wanted to make music in the first place,” Davis reflected in an interview with Kitty Richardson for The Line Of Best Fit. “I wanted to offer an individual voice that someone, maybe, somewhere, would latch onto and it would help them process.”

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