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The Great Leslie | A Family by Any Other Name

I never wanted to play bass. Since the age of 6, I had learnt piano with an old man called Mr. Stoodley who lived 2 doors up the road from me on a housing estate in West Dorset. I can still remember his piano room so vividly in my head. The faded red carpet, the creaky floorboard just to the right of the sustain pedal, the back wall covered in a veneer of tatty music theory books. However, what really stuck with me was the smell. The mustiness of those yellowed pages, the richness of the maple, even Mr. Stoodley’s breath, masked as it was with a never-ending supply of Fisherman’s Friends. Ever since then, I’ve been acutely aware of how evocative smell can be. One second, you’re walking down Denmark Street, deciding whether that 1972 Fender Jazz bass is really worth selling your remaining kidney for (it is), when you catch a waft of a perfume an ex used to wear. Next second, you’re briefly 17 again, in said ex’s bedroom, attempting to navigate the complexities of an overzealous bra strap. As I said, smell can be an evocative sense, and I still think of that piano room whenever I sit down at the keys.

Years later, I’m in love with a girl in my class called Martha, but being a shy 14 year old, I will obviously never tell her that to her face, and for reasons that still evade scientists to this day, the demo button on the school’s Casio keyboards isn’t getting my point across. It’s almost as though piano isn’t cool to teenage girls. You know what is cool, though? Rock bands. And who’s the coolest member of a rock band? That’s right; the singer. Or the guitarist. Or the drummer. Anyone but the bassist. And thanks to this sort of thinking, I spot my gap in the market. After a few months of begging, my parents finally buy me my first bass guitar for Christmas. A deep blue Encore Precision with a white pearloid scratchplate. Looking back on it, it was terrible. Bad intonation, dodgy electronics and a gap between the strings and fretboard that you could park a bus in. It was terrible, but it was mine. And I loved it.

Like any self-respecting bedroom musician, the first song I learn is Smells Like Teen Spirit, and I will play it in any school band that will take me. I spend every spare hour practising, trying to get a little better, get my fingers a little stronger, a little more stamina in my forearms… That feeling of finally nailing a piece I’d been working on for days far outweighed the pain from my blistered, bleeding fingertips. It’s addictive. Eventually, I form a band with the remarkably distasteful name of Steve Irwin & The Stingrays, and we write terrible songs about pointless shit. It is my first taste of a musical family. We argue all the time, then get drunk playing Guitar Hero and write a song about it. Then argue about that song. Then get drunk and write a song about that. Our livers pay the price for the experience. The drummer eventually moves to London for a year to study a diploma at Tech Music School (now called BIMM London), so that’s the end of that. But it gets me thinking; if he can do it, why can’t I? So I do.

It’s the 29th September and I’m turning 21 today. I have lived in London for a little over a week and I’m celebrating in the Kings Arms on The Vale in Acton (now a car park, last time I checked) with my housemates, and a couple of friends from class. One of these friends is a man called Rohan, who moved over from New Delhi. We bonded instantly over our love of Porcupine Tree and Scotch, and proceeded to drink a bottle or two in this drab Russian pub in West London to celebrate this important milestone in my life. I’ve forgotten the hangover, but I will remember the night forever. Rohan is unable to make it home this year for Christmas (like most of us in 2020), so I invite him down to Dorset to spend it with me. It snows this year. Back in London, and we are doing well on our diploma, so the university offers us the chance to skip to the 2nd year of a degree course, if we so wished. We do just that. We live together and become family. Like family, spending too much time with each other, we argue over pointless things, but we are always there for each other. He got married last month back in India, and I was unable to share that milestone in his life, thanks to Covid.

It’s 2014 and I’m now living in Poland. My friend Federico and I have landed a job writing, recording, and touring an album for a Polish rock band. The hours are long, the tour bus is cramped, the partying is excessive. Though I was never massively into cocaine, I can see why bands turn to it on long arena tours. Having to maintain that level of energy when the sea of people no longer gets your adrenaline pumping is a difficult task. Our bodies suffer, but the experience is new and exciting. Tempers flare. We hate each other. We love each other. After a couple of years, I’m done with putting my name to bands, and decide to be a gun for hire instead. Fede asks me to work on his other project with him, and we live together when we move back to London. We are family.

Five or so years pass and I’ve spent my time playing for other artists. It’s time to put my name to something again. An advert online catches my eye for a band that would go on to be known as The Great Leslie. I chuck my hat into the ring. My hat gets selected. Roughly six months, hundreds of pints, a few singles and a music video or two later, and here I am, writing this blog for another new family during one of the strangest Christmases most of us have ever had. Like every other family, we fight (a lot), but we always manage to steer the ship into the right direction. We are able to forget the hangovers.

It’s been an odd time, and if I look back on it, half of my life has been dedicated to something that I never wanted to do. Yet through doing it, and loving it along the way, I have found myself closer to some than my own biological family. I guess, if I’m trying to get any points across in these ramblings, it’s that at this time of year, when some of us are stuck, isolated from our families, feeling angry, frustrated, scared, or just tired, it’s worth remembering that family is much more than blood. Or perhaps it’s that whilst some may be celebrating their personal achievements in 2020, others are just happy to have survived it, and both are OK. So be gluttonous over Christmas; you’ll forget the hangover. Or maybe my point is to try more shit. I don’t know. I do know that we will all see each other again. Until then, I’ll leave you with Orwell, who said things far more eloquently than I ever could.

“It’s not so much staying alive, it’s staying human that’s important. What counts is that we don’t betray each other.” 

Stay safe. Stay human. 

With love, Jason. xxx