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John Leech, proprietor of the Onyx Cafe, has died

March 20, 2009 | 10:29 am


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.