Jim Laing Alley Oop detailIt’s been a grey-grim few years for the passing of musicians who have, through their music and their words, influenced our lives, often in ways quite personal and intangible to others. But they have usually been distant famous figures, mostly in advanced years, and not often local heroes of mine like Jim Laing (The Jean Paul Sartre Experience, Lanky) who died suddenly this week, far too young.

Jim was a master of songs about feelings. “Grey Parade”  was always an emotional trip. I have no idea what or who it is about. I don’t need to know. It’s about feeling, about love, loss and regret maybe. And it’s perfect. As perfect as The Chills “Pink Frost” or anything else I can think of.

Jim wasn’t as well known as Bowie. But the impact on me of the music made by band he played in during his twenties, and the songs he wrote for the band and his later solo recording as Lanky, was just as significant.

Jim was the guitarist, vocalist and one of the three songwriters in a New Zealand band called The Jean Paul Sartre Experience (later abbreviated to JPS Experience or just JPSE) from the mid-80s through the early 90s. They released an EP, three albums (“Love Songs”, “The Size of Food”, “Bleeding Star”, and several singles on Flying Nun Records. An extensive LP/ CD box-set re-issue of their entire catalogue came out just last year on US/UK label Fire Recordings.

Their first EP – 5 songs on a 45 rpm 12″ – is one of my all-time favourite Flying Nun records releases. One of my all-time favourite releases ever. The three songs on side one may be the best sequence of magical songs ever pressed into one spiral groove.

“A magic record. Delicate as spider webbing and resilient as steel” said Richard Langston (Garage ‘zine editor) earlier today and I couldn’t put it better myself. It sounded like nothing else from New Zealand or anywhere else at the time. Still doesn’t.

Jean Paul Sartre Experience EPThroughout that sonic progression from debut EP to monumental final album you’ll still find threads to link back to the delicate/steel sounds of the debut… like the gorgeous “Block” (a Yetton/ Laing/ JPSE co-write) on “Bleeding Star”.

After JPSE split up Jim released a beautiful album as Lanky called “Wait” on Arch Hill recordings in 2000. It’s a lost/ forgotten classic album, another one of my favourites. It’s as hard to find online nowadays as it is in the physical CD format it was released in.

“Here Come The Rains” is one of the songs from “Wait”. Jim also wrote beautifully about rain as well as about feelings, or his feelings about rain I suppose.

“This morning’s filled with rain/ I’m clearing out my head”

I only met Jim a handful of times in the 1980s and 90s, whenever The Jean Paul Sartre Experience came to Invercargill to play. I interviewed him after a show in 1988 for an article in Alley Oop ‘zine another Dunedin music fanzine which took over from Garage in documenting the NZ (mostly) scene in the first half of the 1990s.

He was approachable, thoughtful, sensitive, honest and informative and had a wry self-deprecating humour and an infectious smile. I liked Jim and I liked his songs. I really wish I had been able to meet up with him years later and tell him how much I loved “Wait” by Lanky too.

Our reaction to music is so often a hard-to-explain thing – emotion and circumstance and feeling. The best music helps us feel, helps some of us us live in fact. When you are an “emotional cripple” – as my wife once described me in a moment of insightful frustration – hearing someone you can relate to express the feelings you wish you could express, within the safety of a song, is a powerful thing.

Music – songs – can lift us up, validate and reinforce our feelings – whether happiness, sadness, love, loss, regret, anger, contempt or confusion. Music and songs can provide escape and help block out memories and feelings for a bit, it can rekindle memories and feelings too.

There are a lot of memories and feelings in that back-catalogue of songs Jim was involved in and responsible for. My thoughts are with his family and friends and their memories and feelings. I hope it rains for his send off.