A Life's Story
November 04, 2023
Former Crash Test Dummy, forever cherished curmudgeon
Onetime Blue Note waiter George West and stalwart of music scene beloved as caustic, funny collector of fine music, good friends
By: Alan Small
George West chose the Blue Note Café over the Crash Test Dummies.
That fateful decision in 1988 would lead to the creation of his own legend, both curmudgeonly and cherished, which according to friends across the country is richer than his footnote in Winnipeg rock history.
“He was a real character. A tremendous force,” says Toronto artist Kevin Mutch, who worked with West at the Blue Note during the 1980s. “He had strong opinions. He was caustic and funny.
“I’ve seen people say on Facebook, ‘Oh George, he never had an unkind word to say about anyone.’
“People that knew him well keep laughing when they see that because he had plenty of unkind things to say about everyone.”
West was 61 when he died in May 18, and yes, he left many fond memories among his friends.
So many that an evening in his honour, called the George West Fest, was held Aug. 18 at the Blue Note Park, the outdoor summer music venue located on the same lot on Main Street where the Blue Note Café, one of Winnipeg’s most notorious after-hours hangouts, once was located.
It was there where West worked, first as a dishwasher and later as a waiter, but mostly as a sort of music man about town. John Scoles, who runs the park, called him “the definitive character of the Blue Note Café.”
It was also there where Bad Brad Roberts and the St. James Rhythm Pigs began playing gigs in 1986. By 1988 the group would be known as the Crash Test Dummies, and became the joint’s de facto house band, with West on bass.
According to the book Superman’s Song: The Story of the Crash Test Dummies, by Stephen Ostick, the late Free Press music writer, West was “an imaginative melodic player,” who provided the rocky edge to the band, which could flip between folk and punk at the drop of a hat.
He left the Dummies in 1988, and his decision remains a mystery to his family to this day. His mother, Lorraine, made a career as a singer and actor in Winnipeg during the 1960s, and knew the band had potential.
”My mom and I were beside ourselves because there was something we could see that he could not,” Martine Dahlke, his sister, says, adding she believes West didn’t like the music he was playing.
“He walked away from this opportunity. He wasn’t let go. He quit.”
Ben Darvill, who played mandolin and harmonica with the Dummies from 1988 to 2001 and performs in Canada and the United Kingdom as Son of Dave, remembers West wearing funky sunglasses and a sweater on stage, even if it was the hottest day of the year.
“He and I got along really well,” Darvill says. “The local band quite suddenly turned into something that was going to be on the road and I don’t think George wanted to go along with that.”
By 1991, the Crash Test Dummies were a hit across North America with The Superman Song, transforming the Blue Note Café cover band into one of Winnipeg’s most famous musical exports that continues to record and perform three decades later.
“Georgie West never made any money, playing the bass with the Crash Test Dummies,” Dahlke sings, changing the words to The Superman Song to fit West’s role in the early days of the group and lamenting the opportunity she feels he passed on.
West’s legend grew anyways, and he appears in a graphic novel by Toronto artist Kevin Mutch, who worked with West at the Blue Note. Titled, Fantastic Life, the book is set in 1980s Winnipeg and the café, with one panel showing West about to serve some uncomfortable customers.
“I put George in there because he was part of the soul of the place,” Mutch said. “I wanted to include some real people I remembered from those days so it would have a sense of authenticity.”
Another panel shows West and Mutch in a collision with a bicyclist, a night Mutch remembered so well he had to share it in the book.
“You see the back of his head but the look on his face is reflected on the mirror of the car, “Aaaah!”
West was born seven weeks premature on Feb. 24, 1962 and was proud to share the same birthday as George Harrison, says longtime friend Rod Kozak, who would hang out listening to music with West and attend record shows together.
Harrison and the Beatles made their debut on the Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964, and his father, George Sr., who would tape his wife Lorraine performing on CBC radio and television with a reel-to-reel recorder in the 1960s, set it up beside the TV in their St. James home to capture the famous TV moment.
Dahlke still has the tape and the recorder.
The younger George West picked up the habit — “he wasn’t the king of bootleggers, he was the son of the king of bootleggers,” Dahlke says — and he would record many concerts he’d attend, stringing wires and small microphones within his clothing to get past security.
“I went to a few of them with him and he’s like, ‘OK, you can clap between songs, but no singing. And no talking,’” she says.
If you’ve come across a compact disc or cassette that’s a live recording of a band that played in Winnipeg, chances are it was West who taped it.
Kozak estimated West had 1,800 to 2,000 records, and he was judicious in what he kept.
“There were no Debbie Gibsons in his collection,” Kozak jokes, referring to the bubblegum pop sensation from the 1980s. “He didn’t have any junk in his collection.”
While West loved the Beatles, it was his devotion to the new-wave band Crowded House that friends remember most vividly, whether hearing the band’s songs on his car stereo when he gave them a ride or if it was a bootleg tape he’d stick in their hands as a gift.
“George was a musicologist of the highest level,” says Kerry Krishna, another pal from the Blue Note. “George turned me on to Crowded House and now they’re easily one of my favourite rock bands of all time, so I’m never going to forget George for that.”
West’s vast musical knowledge became part of the UMFM overnight music show The Wee Hours, which had host Joe Myles, Kozak, West and others trading music recommendations since 1998.
Myles paid tribute to West on a five-hour edition of The Wee Hours on May 26 (wfp.to/umfmgeorgewest) that began with a recording of Lorraine West singing Send in the Clowns with actor Len Cariou, followed by West’s favourite songs by Iggy Pop, Genesis, David Bowie and, of course, Crowded House.
It also includes West’s last appearance on the program, when he called in to the show on March 31.
He requests Sherry by the Four Seasons for a laugh, and then they talk about his childhood autograph of Don Jonas, the early 1970s Blue Bombers quarterback, a life-sized display of Elton John he sold on eBay, how much he digs a new album by the band Boygenius and joking about replacing the word “love” in titles of Beatles songs with “drugs.”
West had respiratory difficulties throughout his life, beginning with asthma as a kid. Smoking made his breathing worse and it was the effects of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that would lead to his death.
What he left behind, besides all the music and memories, proved to be a shocker to his family.
At a memorial service shortly after his death, Wally Landreth, the city musician, said West collected only the best music, and those attending should feel grateful because he also collected friends with the same discerning taste.
“We knew him a certain way, and I was aware he had a lot of friends and loved music,” Dahlke says. “Imagine reading a day or two after your sibling has died, people are coming out of the woodwork saying how kind he was, how generous he was, how thoughtful he was.”
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