March 21, 2009
Once upon a time, O Best Beloveds, I ran, with my friend Debbie Patino, a monthly offbeat spoken word and music show called Kamikaze Poets on Ice. It was held at the Onyx/Sequel, a low key coffeehouse on Vermont Ave in Los Feliz. It was owned by affable Englishman John Leech, who had had a prior incarnation of the Onyx next to the Vista Theater. This was when coffeehouse culture in LA was at a peak, and while the Onyx didn’t have the glamour decor of other local establishments (apart from the art, it had no decor at all), it had its regulars and devotees. More than that, in the form of John, it had a serious patron of the arts. There was something going on at the Onyx almost every night, plus he had monthly art shows, and ran outdoor barbeques on the occasional weekend. Consequently, the Onyx was the center of the local arts scene and an important neighborhood hang.
For me, it was a gift. Booking shows was difficult, as one had to guarantee a certain turnout, which was hard when one was trying to promote up and coming artists, who didn’t yet have a following. Or the owner of the venue wanted to dictate the content of the show. Or there was a serious cover fee. Instead, John just handed me a night, to do whatever I wanted, and the shows were free. He didn’t care if we had nine people show up–that was nine people who would buy coffee who otherwise wouldn’t have. Debbie and I did some incredible shows there over the years. One of them featured a singer songwriter who was at the receiving end of a bidding war among several major labels. All I cared about was that he was really late showing up and it was tough keeping the huge crowd mollified while we waited. They were happy when he did perform; I thought he was quirky and so what? Of course, he went on to be Beck, and years later, I’ve seen that show listed as one of the great LA live performances. Another night we did an event for Choice, and 200 people showed up. We had the performers go on twice, once inside the over crowded cafe, and a second time out on the sidewalk for the people who couldn’t get inside. The fire marshals were really nice; we just had to keep enough space on the sidewalk for people to walk through.
We had people read from rehab journals and perform with homemade instruments. We had singer songwriters with followings and people performing for the very first time. Through it all, John was fully supportive; whatever we did was fine by him. That kind of artistic freedom was extraordinary.
I write all this because I was thinking about John on Thursday; he lost his lease ten years ago and the Onyx is now a French bistro, full of the decor the space lacked before and empty of the spirit the coffeehouse overflowed with. I was thinking about John because Lindsay was in town and she read her poetry for the first time at one of my shows. I wondered what John was doing these days.
As it happens, I found out on Friday that John had killed himself two days before. He was 74.
There are a number of tributes on the web. The Onyx played an important role in a number of lives, and they have not forgotten. John and his coffeehouse were a huge part of my life for a few years and this is not the way that funny, gracious man’s story should end.