I’ve been sitting here all day trying to write something perfect.
I didn’t get much sleep. After I crawled out of bed on Thursday morning, out of nowhere, a heavy fog rolled in; but it made complete sense to me, it was more than a sign -- it was my destination. I was already there. The previous night I got the phone call I didn’t expect to receive for a while. I wasn’t at all prepared for the news: John Leech, the owner and founder of LA’s great arts hangout and bohemian cafe, The Onyx, had died.
John had no blood relatives, though he did leave behind a close knit extended family of former customers and employees who loved him as kin. I worked for John for some 14 years, and back then I saw him on a daily basis. Now that he’s gone I realize I needed to spend more time with him. Once the Onyx was closed in 1998, John retired and he started trekking across the US and Canada, often by train. Briefly John chased the idea of opening up another café, maybe here in LA or up in Portland, Oregon, but I think his renewed interest in travel got the best of those plans. While I bounced around the west coast, living for a while up in the Puget Sound, John was spending a lot of time in his cabin on the Russian River. I had excuses, but too many excuses. We’d get together for lunch or dinner every once in a while, but never as often as I wished we had now.
Though we were friends for some 26 years, there was so much I never knew about John. He was a man of many secrets. For example, I never knew his birthday. No one did. I once actually figured out how old he was; he laughed because he knew I’d forget it. I did. I swear with a wave of his hand the number vanished. John created a public space and even though he was the face of the Onyx, he was an incredibly private person.
John however, was truly an odd bird who stood out in the crowd of weirdly plumed eccentrics. Years ago he took to wearing Hawaiian shirts, but as the time went on he found it necessary to wear two, if not three shirts at the same time. My opinion may be a bit skewed, if not perfectly preposterous -- and why wouldn’t it be -- but only John could look so damned dapper wearing three Hawaiian shirts. No, he wasn’t batty, he just had a lot of Hawaiian shirts the world needed to experience. John was not exactly subtle but he did have an air of mystery about him. One part Bohemian, one part drill-sergeant, one part raconteur and muckraker, one part doting step-dad, he was a genuine man of the world. He hated bullshit, though a good bullshitter would be welcomed at his table. John had no patience for fools, but he knew when foolishness was a breath of fresh air. A few mediocre cups of coffee may have been poured at the Onyx now and then, but there was more pulsating life on that vibrant stretch of Vermont Ave than most any other part of Los Angeles during the 1980’s and 90’s. The cafe and the gallery next door was a genuine sanctuary from the volatile, irritating, confounding world outside. During the LA riots in 1992 John kept the Onyx open 24 hours a day so that the community had somewhere to gather and talk and be still. He believed in an unfettered creative experience, personal choice, personal responsibility, freedom of expression, the independence to live your life as you saw fit. And goddamn did he hate bureaucracy!
I would have to say John was not particularly blessed with many organizational skills -- trust me on that! -- somehow, either by luck, pluck or design, he created a home for hundreds of artists, musicians, writers and poets. The Onyx was a place where the odd, oddly beautiful or simply unconventional endeavors -- often excluded from the mainstream venues and galleries -- could find an audience and find a life. John’s support of the arts was an essential element of the café; he never took a percentage of the art sales and never charged at the door for music or theatrical performances. The bar-b-ques John concocted in the parking lot behind the Onyx and the champagne soaked art openings are legendary. We owe him so, so much; I am incredibly indebted to John. My life is so much better because of his efforts. At the Onyx I found life-long friends, direction, and most significantly, I met my wife there almost 18 years ago.
There is a votive memorial at the former Onyx location at 1802 N. Vermont Ave in front of what is now Cafe Figaro in Los Feliz. Another memorial is in front of the original Onyx location next to the Vista Theater at the Virgil Ave and Sunset Blvd intersection. Tributes can also be found on several sites on Facebook. There are tentative plans for a memorial service in late April or May.
John Leech in his own very peculiar way was a great man. He was a hell of a man, unique and one of a kind. People like John Leech don’t come down the pike every day; it’s a huge loss, I can’t even begin to explain it, I just can’t.
With our love, my love, rest in peace John.