IN MEMORIAM: JOHN LEECH
ARTILLERY MAGAZINE, 2009, VOLUME 3, NUMBER 5
In the early 1980s Los Angeles was a place famed for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll while art was regarded as the domain of faggots, idiots and the unemployed. Hair Metal ruled the Sunset Strip and the West Hollywood galleries would have nothing to do with the nascent Low Brow Art movement.
It was in this atmosphere that an Englishman named John Leech opened the Onyx café in 1982, initially functioning as a way for Leech to cure his expatriate isolation. Located next to the Vista Theater at the intersection of Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards, the cafe quickly became the premier hangout for the bohemian artists and musicians of LA's eastside. Leech welcomed this and began to exhibit work by emerging talents like the Latino artist Gronk and the artist/musician Jonathon Rosen. Meanwhile, the lure of exotic coffee drinks, excellent desserts and cute art chicks brought in mainstream types who spread the word about the unique new coffee culture. Leech made no effort to boot broke patrons who spent an entire morning finishing a cup of coffee; they at least made the place look busy, even if they themselves weren't. Eventually the café outgrew its location and in 1989 it reopened on Vermont, just north of Hollywood Boulevard.
The Onyx thrived in its new larger location and Leech presided over the scene with his usual mix of distain for art wannabees and encouragement for those he deemed worthy. The monthly art receptions were notable for Leech's refusal to allow some people access to the champagne while allowing others liberal overindulgence in the libations. It may have been the artist's scene but it was Leech's café and during the LA riots of 1992, Leech kept the Onyx open day and night so that there was someplace for people to go. The democratic nature of the place was evidenced by stars such as Nicholas Cage hanging out alongside local street crazy Red Zulu as poets S.A. Griffin and Raphael Alvarado read their Neo Beat poetry. Leech allowed visual artists he trusted to produce shows and in 1995 Manuel Ocampo put together an all Philipino art show and in 1998 Kari French curated "The Barbie Show". Even improv comedy troupes were allowed to practice the same night that humorless feminists frothed at the mouth later in the evening. Leech never charged admission to get in to any Onyx event nor did he make anyone pay a fee to perform there; to be truly free, never pay a cover charge.
Leech may have experienced something like the Onyx when he was stationed in San Francisco in the late 1950s but he never explained his inspiration for opening a beat café; Leech preferred to be known for what he was at the moment, not what he was once. The Onyx closed in 1998 and Leech took his own life in March 2009 but the fertile cultural mulch that he spread around is still helping Los Angeles artists and musicians bloom.