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John Leech, proprietor of the Onyx Cafe, has died

John LeechOnyx Cafe


A posting on Facebook (registration required) became a place for people to gather and remember John Leech after word got out Wednesday night that the founder of L.A.'s legendary Onyx Cafe had died. Leech's cafe was a haven for underground literary types in the city when L.A. was at something of a cultural nadir.

A bohemian coffeeshop located in Los Feliz, the Onyx was a beat-style holdover alive in the Reagan era. It was a little grimy, local artists displayed their paintings on the walls, and there was always some guy or other hunched over a table, chain-smoking, reading or writing or scratching himself. I can't count the number of poetry readings I went to there, and I hesitate to tally how many times my friends and I were ushered out for our drunken antics. In addition to the poets and the painters and the scratchers, musicians hung out and performed there, too, like the mind-bendingly brilliant guitar noisemaker Joe Baiza, genuine jazz ensembles and that skinny kid, Beck.

The LA County Coroner confirms that Leech, who was 74, died on March 18 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. An ad-hoc memorial of candles and poems was left on the sidewalk on Vermont, but it was removed by the new, fancier and far more expensive French cafe that now occupies what was once the Onyx's space.

So Facebook was a little more reliable place to pay tribute. Poet Steve Abee wrote:

John Leach provided a vision house place of love, pure in its Beat anarchy and kindness. We are the richer for his commitment to a business run without a cash register, families made there, life loves found there, mine, and yours and yours, all the ins and downs, organic chemical truth on a sleepy Big street back when only three people cared and we all were them. Thank you John...

More than a decade ago, the Onyx lost its lease and passed into memory. But poet S.A. Griffin writes, "The Onyx is always within you man, the old, the new, the Onyx is a place that will always be inside all of us, and so we shine."  In October 2008, there was a reunion at another cafe, organized by Griffin, which was attended by poets and artists and John Leech, too, smiling in all the pictures.

Now that he's gone. Poet Scott Wannberg writes:

john leech
lover of arts
the onyx big kahuna jehovah saxophone
the king of the pack
the leader of the dance
adios, compadre
sing well

-- Carolyn Kellogg

All poetry © the individual authors. Image: a flier for a poetry reading series at The Onyx.

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There is a new memorial at the Vista Cafe, next to the Vista movie theatre on Sunset--I learned today that this was the original site of the Onyx, before they moved to Vermont.

he was a really cool guy

a true individual, the ultimate mad scientist
my first job here, first home

Memories of John in his red (?) tuxedo jacket serving champagne at onyx art openings nurturing poets painters musicians at the corner of the most dangerous intersection of Los Angeles; where Hollywood meets Virgil.
Sitting for hours and watching cars swerve and crash trying to negotiate this confusing crossroads while John served and dispensed coffee and advice like the great surrogate art-father we all wished we had. And then there was that laugh that could knock you off your feet.
I will miss him...

I am unbelievably saddened by the loss of my Partner John Leech. (Known to a few as John Quincy Onyx) I do not know if it is fate we met, in fury. Fury to carve out a jewel made of artists. A gem which sings, a gem which feeds. A jewel that reflects the beauty and the pain, yet frames it and hangs it on the walls all over again. The fury to keep Silver Lake my home part of the dreams of our ancestors. Mine, as it were? Was to bring music, poetry, Buddhism, and a little mentorgarden for us all. Peace for suffering souls.

Later the Onyx took on a life all its own like an aquarium filled with beautiful flora and fauna. One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. I feel abandoned strangely. But all the fish had a school of swirling artists of many colors. Still, I am so angry at you for leaving. There were some smarmy lichen and strange growths. Some days I am sad, I moved to the Big Apple and left my sweet little Tangerine Silver Lake, that did not want to become a faux waxy orange.

Our John Leech, whizzing in his white truck filled with bread, cheese, coffee and tea. The fixings for that terrible pasta salad? Those crazy pies and cakes. All the Thai food we had. All the artists and wonderful music. We fought, we cried. We were good friends.

I am angry you abandoned the garden of gems. Please come and rain a little laughter, tears and spice. We will be listening for your thunderous laughter. I am glad that we got to speak nearly every other day, until the Onyx Gods took you back into the mysterious vapors of Poe-ish obsideon. I miss you, you old Goat. But you were our own stubborn Goat, who did not want attention. Who did not want credit.

Now, you will always be remembered as you deserve. With an crown of chipped and bitten jewels. One of the Fighters for the history of Art in Los Angeles. We we're clear that it we were not in it for the moneys. Oh, I have so much I remember. I do. Love from heart broken, Fumiko xoxo

Please I need all of your help to put together our Onyx Web page as John and I were working every week as much as we could for a year now. I am strangely after all of this time that we met 1980? I am in a great deal of grief. We we're and are planning to put all of the contributors to The Onyx Cafe into a biographical kaleidescope. Please email me if you contributed to the onyx in any shape or form that you would like to be mentioned. This is what John and I have tried to accomplish the last weeks of his days in the flesh. It will give rest to his soul.

Sorry for such a long post, one word is not enough or many for 29 years. Lots of Love, Im heartbroken.
Fumiko Robinson
email me with your info for The Onyx site.
I have a lot of photos and so forth to share with you all on his behalf as well. He fought, I am sure like a soldier to the end. Invicta.
Please put flowers in his house from me for his restless spirit I am praying. Much Love.

A little Hello from Paris to the onyx community there... Excuse my english, I left the US some 20 years ago. Mark Simmons sent me the bad news this morning and it really hit me too. Thank's to Michael Whitmore (remember those great nights talking and arguing about history and politics?)for his great post on http://www.amoeba.com/blog/tags/obits/page1.html
. It brought back so many wonderful souvenirs... Jean , Jill, Tilly, Mark Nickles, Eric, of course, my dear Eric and my dear Mia, the three of them who left us so young, too young, David and so many others, with whom we shared so many hours rebuilding the world in the haver of peace and ideas represented by the Onyx in those Reagan times anonciating the triumph of a "new america" that we all rejected... I remember so well John, his good laugh, his great british bad manners with the people from the valley who would get lost in virgil street. His deep honesty and pudor... The way he was hiring everybody who needed a job... So many expressos over those 2 to 3 years I spent there... So many talks, so many ideas written on a piece of paper, so many encounters day after day with all those people who dared calling them artists and whose aim in life was not owning three cars and having a big house in beverly hills. Who dared trying to have a different life than everybody out there. I remember a young sixtean years old kid who had left his family and was a great graffiti artist, I remember one who became a famous mucician, another who started a great film carrer. The Onyx cafe was the house af all the artists, all the marginals, all the people who wanted to exchange ideas... In a way, it looks like John, to go this way... Rest in peace, dear John, and one thousand thanks for what you did for us all...

Aubin (lemhel@free.fr)

The Onyx was my first home in LA. As I made my painful way through film school, it was the place I hung out until all hours of the morning with the many friends I made there...many friends to this day. John always had time to talk, bitch and in his round-a-bout way, encourage all those around him. I will miss him.

I caught of a glimpse of it's dynasty.. It was home away home.. It was sanctuary.. It was alive.. It was peaceful.. He was always there.. It was like if he was saying; "Don't worry! We're strong here.. We'll be good." He didn't really know me then... and I didn't really know what I needed..
But I was there...
If it wasn't for John, there would be no kids.. Not mine anyway.. Not that he did do anything.. He was just there... Thank you John you're a prince..

dear john,
i have combed over the many long testimonies both to your unique spirit and demeanor as well as our great indebtedness to the home you gave us to find our voices, our songs,our shapes and forms, and each other in an otherwise traffic-ridden city where no one smiles much. in that haven i found so many friends, many whose last names went unnoted for what remains a long time. and the art also: the shafting space where art was welcome and all her underlings as well. many felt as bound to you as i, remembering your enormous laugh, your modest manner, your no nonsense private self layered in hawaiian shirts. yes all that, all that and that rigid and vibrating hug you had such an intense self. i always felt like you were taking extensive notes on the whole lot of us, amused in a kind of dickenson way. there was something most beautiful about how you would step around all kinds of silly self-full folks whilst cleaning tables, as if you enjoyed secretly knowing that the whole world in which they blew their smoke and dropped their empty cups was your making.
your offering.
this is my dear john letter:
you were a lovely and good man, and we are bettered by your being.


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