Stripping Lessons

On a Saturday morning earlier this month, several of us gather on benches inside the Huntington Library and Gardens before opening time. The gardens to the south are green and bronzed, tranquil, steeped in cool, deep early-morning winter light. At first, only bird song is heard, then a lawnmower chimes in. We’re a motley crew, ranging from our 20s on up. One gent in overalls announces to nobody in particular, “I’m 82.” The day is on its way to being unseasonably hot.

Many of us have brought gloves and pruning shears, and there are all kinds of hats — canvas, billed, straw. The man next to me shows off his pruners, which, like a good schoolboy, he cleaned for the occasion: a pruning demonstration with rose curator, author and eminent rosarian Clair Martin. We’ll practice our pruning on the Huntington’s roses. There’s some low-grade amusement at paying $25 to prune. “After today,” says one woman, “I’m going to hold my own class and have friends pay $25 to prune the roses in my back yard.”

A few minutes after 9, we’re led to the rose garden, where a vast bed of David Austin roses stands clipped and devoid of leaves; beside it, another bed stoically awaits the same fate. We stand beside a silk tree by a round bed of blushing pink First Kiss hybrid tea roses still boisterously blooming.

Clair Martin, white-haired, tanned and as easygoing as he is erudite, is in a white canvas hat; his polar-fleece sleeves are pushed up to his elbows to reveal arms already crosshatched with scratches.

“Does anybody know why pruners have red handles?” he asks, hurling his pair to the ground.

“So you can find ’em,” yells the class.

Martin takes us through the types of pruners — we want secateurs or bypass pruners, he says, not the anvil pruners, which can chew up canes. He shows us how to clean, oil and sharpen our tools.

As for gloves, Martin eschews the elbow-length gauntlet gloves. “They’re too hard to take on and off,” he says. “Which I think about because I’ll be pruning three to four thousand roses in the next week.”

The time to prune roses in Southern California starts in January and runs through the middle of February. Roses need to be pruned, says Martin, because they evolved in northern climates where they went dormant during the winter. “Here, we prune to make them take a full dormant rest, because this will give us better flowers, with better fragrance and maximum health.” Defoliating — stripping the plants of all leaves — helps rid the plant of disease.

There are many ways to prune a rose, he explains, depending on what you want from the rosebush. At L.A.’s Exposition Park, the bushes are pruned 8 to 10 inches high: “The English approach,” says Martin. “The English punish the rose for living and growing.” Rose Hills gardeners prune 12 to 18 inches high. “They have a big Mother’s Day event, and they prune with that in mind.” The harder the pruning, the fewer and bigger the flowers. The Huntington’s approach, which is to prune one-third to one-half of growth, is considered quite light; the plants flower earlier and yield more blooms of somewhat smaller size. One year, Martin says, a rosebush at Exposition Park had six big, lovely flowers. The same kind of rose at Rose Hills had 12 blooms. The same bush at the Huntington had 150 blooms, with several as big and lovely as on more heavily pruned bushes.

“At the Huntington,” says Martin, “we treat our roses not as exhibition flowers but as garden shrubs.”

He shrugs. “Basically, a harder or lighter prune is your decision.”

Martin’s modest approach to roses is reassuring, practical and environmentally friendly. “We don’t spray, we don’t use any insecticide or fungicide, we only spot spray when necessary, and give basic care. You hear that roses are difficult and temperamental, but that’s baloney. Roses are the easiest plant; they grow in all 50 states, under all conditions, from desert to high mountains, in gardens with virtually no care. I’ve seen roses that were 100 to 150 years old in cemeteries, where I guarantee they don’t get any care.”

Martin peels off his polar fleece to reveal a bright-purple Huntington-issue polo shirt, then lops off a cane of First Kiss. He shows us how to find a bud eye, a swelling of new growth, which faces outward from the center of the bush, and how to cut above it. “You want to cut a quarter-inch to as-close-as-possible down behind the bud eye.”

Basic pruning consists of taking out old and dead canes and canes that cross over each other, plus removing all the leaves. It is not always clear which canes to remove, says Martin, because each rose has its own personality.

“Okay, let’s prune.” Martin crouches before Sheila’s Perfume, a smallish hybrid tea. Rapidly, he snips off twiggy growth, then explains how short (or long) one needs to go. He points to a cluster of stems. “Here you have the candelabra effect. These tops won’t bloom.” Off with them.

“We’re simplifying,” he explains and starts clearing out the rose’s middle area, taking out grayish older canes at the base — especially when a healthy new green cane is growing nearby.

“How many canes do you leave?” asks a woman.

“There’s no rule. Six to eight, or more.”

“Oh. My book said four.”

Another shrug. “The more canes, the more flowers you’ll have.”

He knocks leaves off with the side of his pruners.

“Stripping all the leaves makes them go dormant?” asks a man.

“You’d be dormant too.”

Someone else asks when to feed the roses. Martin waves his arm at the thousands of roses nearby. “We fed once last year, in mid-March. We sometimes feed again in July, but this year it wasn’t necessary.” Most people overfeed, he adds, which makes roses more susceptible to disease.

After Martin finishes Sheila’s Perfume, he tells us each to pick a bush to prune. “And remember where it is, so you can come back and visit it throughout the year.”

Going to work on a rosebush at the Huntington is a little like being asked to perform in a museum. Some people can’t bring themselves to make the first cut. Luckily, volunteers have shown up to supervise. A young woman in an orange “Tennessee” T-shirt hovers around a Beautiful Britain. She points to a cluster of stems. “Is this what you consider a menorah kind of thing?” She snips it off, then draws back. “Actually, attacking a rose is a little nerve-racking.”

Volunteer Wesley Furukawa reassures her. “I like to remember that nature’s pruners are deer and other animals — they don’t worry about technique.”

Martin comes over to inspect one woman’s lightly pruned Yellow Simplicity. “You’ve got to open up the middle more,” he says. Snip. Snap.

“Oh!” gasps the pruner.

Snip. Snip. Snip.

“I have 20 to 30 years of experience,” Martin says, clipping away. “I have this simplification thing. Get rid of the clutter!”

At 11 a.m. sharp, Martin stands and looks at his watch. He gazes up and down the grass aisles between the rose beds, which are now strewn with thorny clippings. “Well, gang, I have to clean up your mess now,” he says, but when I leave a few minutes later, he’s still chatting, answering questions.

Martin had 4,000 roses to prune at 9 a.m. — only 3,980 to go.

—Michelle Huneven

Night of the Weasels

I approached the homey confines of Silver Lake’s Spaceland around 9 p.m. last week. I like the club. It’s comfy. And for regular Los Angeles clubgoers, going out to Spaceland is as routine as hanging out in your living room. By comparison, gigs at showcase venues on the Sunset Strip — the Viper Room, the Whisky — feel more like visits to your East Hollywood drug dealer, or the home of a pedophile uncle. Creepy. Well, that feeling was about to descend upon my living room.

I figured I was early. I had come for the opening act, Regina Spektor, and the headliner, Eleni Mandell, wasn’t scheduled to play until 11:30. About a year ago, a friend plugged into the industry had given me the lowdown on Spektor. She was born in Russia, and moved to the Bronx at age 9. Despite her parents’ lack of funds, she gained an education in classical piano due to the kind efforts of a couple who became her second family — the wife a professor at the Manhattan School of Music, the husband a violinist in the New York Philharmonic. For a long time I ignored my friend’s recommendation, but recently I began listening, rather obsessively, to the music on Spektor’s Web site.

How do I explain it? Well, when she opens her mouth, the universe comes out. The piano lines are dramatic yet undercut by a modest streak, and her lyrics strike a delicate balance between profundity and hilarity: “No thank you, no thank you, no thank you, no thank you/I ain’t about to pay for this shit. I can afford chemo like I can afford a limo/And on any given day I’d rather ride a lim-o-sine.”

Imagine Cat Power backed by Tori Amos, and imagine that as an understatement. Regina could join Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone in heaven.

Until recently, Spektor has been on the fringes of the East Village’s Antifolk scene, the same one that nurtured Ani DiFranco and, most recently, the Moldy Peaches. To give you an idea of the scene’s raw mood, I present to you the Moldy Peaches’ most famous lyric: “Who mistook the steak for chicken?/Who am I gonna stick my dick in?”

I was rather thrilled at the intimate prospects of an empty room.

When I walked in, however, the club was half-full. And the crowd was somehow . . . different. I didn’t notice the buzz of anticipation I felt when I saw Hot Hot Heat there on a stormy night last spring. No one mouthed the words to the songs like the time Magnetic Fields sold out the joint four years ago, lead singer Stephin Merritt holding a chihuahua in the crook of his arm. Tonight, the room felt half-empty, soulless and lacking that scruffy underground je ne sais quoi. Everyone seemed to know one another. Their conversations were shallow.

Then I figured it out. A&R people.

I ran into a friend from Warner Bros. “Let me give you the breakdown,” she said. “There are 30 people from Warner here, 10 from Capitol, the older fellow sitting at the table is Seymour Stein, and we have one John Kalodner.” Normal humans? Zero.

I should have been excited about the prospect of my favorite new artist playing to a room of star makers. Soon she would get the recognition she deserved! Problem is, many in the crowd were less renowned for their signing power than their own celebrity. The last big “get” of Stein’s career was in 1982, when he signed Madonna from a hospital bed while recovering from open-heart surgery. While I have undying respect for a man with the evenhanded vision to sign both the Ramones and Fleetwood Mac, rumor has it he is, at this point, less interested in music than in antiquing. Then there is the scary Kalodner — best known for his work with Foreigner, Bon Jovi and Wang Chung — whose affectations include all-white suits, an 8-inch beard and a standard liner-note credit that reads “John Kalodner: John Kalodner.” (For more, visit his self-maintained shrine at www.johnkalodner.com. Sample content from the “Fun Facts” section: “#38. JDK uses Trojan blue condoms.” “#81. JDK’s favorite restaurants are Toscana & Prego.”)

At 9:30, Spektor, a slight, bemused young woman wearing antique stockings and a vintage dress, took the stage. The only visible instruments were an electric piano, a microphone, and a drum stick balanced on an overturned milk crate. Her hair grew wild in rich red curls; her big eyes had an off-kilter look. She was pretty but not in a traditional way (i.e., I did not feel the urge to force-feed her carbohydrates).

Will she be coming soon to a record store near you? Well, she collaborated with the Strokes on the B-side of their upcoming British single, and the band demanded the initial run be destroyed because a typesetting error didn’t give her top billing. But do today’s A&R people really care? I’m not sure. Take the evening’s headliner. A few years back, The New Yorker referred to Mandell as “perhaps the best unsigned artist in the business.” But she still can’t get a record deal, despite a loyal local following and support among the press. (She was voted “Best Songwriter” in this year’s L.A. Weekly Music Awards, alongside Elliott Smith.)

None of this mattered when Spektor opened her mouth. And then she sang a song presciently titled “Ghosts of Corporate Future.” It summed up my impression of the typical A&R man’s priorities: “A man walks out of his apartment/It is raining he’s got no umbrella/He starts running beneath the awnings/Trying to save his suit.”

—Alec Hanley Bemis

Baby's First Casting Call

No Hollywood myth is as deeply ingrained in the terrified psyche as that of the messed-up child actor, the indulged, pampered brat who peaks too soon in life and is condemned to a miserable existence trying to relive his or her glory days. And woe to the moms and dads who would steer their precious offspring down that road, for they too are heading into dangerous stereotype territory, that of the dreaded “stage parent,” manipulative, overbearing, and vicariously living through their pride and joys.

On the other hand, if you’ve got a beautiful baby, why not try to earn him some extra dough college-wise, simply by having him mug in a commercial? “Maximizing your profitability” is a mantra for adults, why not for a pretty little-bitty one? And so we signed up our bundle with a manager from Lang Talent, even got him legal with the city and state, which includes setting up a “Coogan Account” (named for the late Jackie Coogan, the famous child star who was ripped off by his parents).

The heir apparent’s first stab at the world of commercials takes place at one of his part-time actor daddy’s favorite haunts, 200 S. La Brea, the big, new, clean casting emporium with eight-plus studios and a rabbits’ warren of offices in the back. Seems that every other commercial call I get these days leads me here, but this time it’s as chauffeur, not “talent.”

The babies waiting for their turn in the lobby are running their parents ragged, darting in and out of other studios, doing that terrifying “heading for the door” thing that newly empowered toddlers do, stealing each other’s toys, screaming at the top of their lungs unprovoked, being alternately completely uncooperative and then fawningly charming when praised in the least by the frazzled casting directors. If they weren’t smaller and cuter, you’d never be able to tell them apart from the average adult actor at all.

The product is one we’re more than completely familiar with, a “Baby Einstein” video. Considering that the young’un adores these simple vids and is rapt as they play in our house, his mom and I figure that this is some kind of divine sign that we’re on the right track.

A louder, older pair of twins from Texas precedes us into the studio. One of them is determined to snag our boy’s favorite “ayaya” (truck) from him, and so we get to strike up a conversation with their mom. She drives two and one-half hours each way from the high desert for every audition, which completely floors us — the 20 minutes from Echo Park to Hollywood in the heart of nap time was chore enough for us.

Finally, it’s our turn. The directors and clients are assembled in one end of the room, and after the most pressing question is asked — namely, when are his naps and is it possible to skip one of them if need be? — the bit is explained to us. All he has to do is sit on command. The director even goes so far as to say, “If he can do that, he’s got the job.”

Well, at 14 months, he can’t do that. He can sit, run, hop, whatever, but only when he feels like it (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in this instance). The missus and I try everything; he doesn’t budge. We get him to laugh and throw a ball and ride on Daddy’s back — that draws big smiles all about — but he is just too young for the bit. We aren’t nixed outright, but this old hand knows we’ve struck out. In fact, without even seeing the video, I can tell you that the kid who comes in after us is the likely winner — an 18-month-old who radiates charm and very much resembles a pintsize Jackie Gleason.

I know not to dwell on the rejection — it’s the actor’s credo. The moment an audition is over, forget about it, period. But his mom is determined to relive every second of what happened, what went wrong, why didn’t he sit, you think we still have a chance? The endless second-guessing. My son and I don’t play that game — me because of my experience, him out of exhaustion. After this tumultuous occasion, he sleeps all the way home.

—Johnny Angel

Morning in America

I don’t have a normal work schedule because I work at home, so I never know exactly when there’s a holiday going on. But I can usually sense it from the front stoop of my cottage. The air feels different and sounds different and I feel calmer. This is because people are not out and about hustling and filling up the atmosphere with their hustle vibes.

That’s why today feels like Sunday.

Today is a day we celebrate an outlaw. A national holiday for someone whose entire strategy was to break laws, all sorts of laws.

This is important. And let’s also remember that the tactics of the civil rights movement didn’t just work because they were smart — they were also used toward good. The pro-lifers tried to get all civil disobediency and they lost.

The morning-after pill is soon to be available over the counter, and the day this happens a very dark era for women (and men) will finally come to a close in this country. This moment will be bigger than the Pill, bigger in a sense than Roe v. Wade.

White people used to say that the black people (and women) weren’t ready to vote; they would fuck it all up and it would be a disaster.

People also used to say women couldn’t handle the freedom of birth control.

Then they said they couldn’t handle the freedom of abortion.

Now they say we can’t handle the freedom of the morning-after pill. I say, if that’s true then I really can’t handle a baby. So fuck you and your stupid tie.

I’m so over anybody trying to tell me what to do with my body and my future.

Good morning, Martin Luther King Jr.

—Kate Sullivan

(Taken from Kate Sullivan’s Rock Blog, 1/19/04.)


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