Heavenly Ten Stems

Bollywood Houlevard

"China Town"/"Jan Pehechan Ho" 7"- Amarillo 1994
Rating = 8

Heavenly Ten Stems (named for an ancient Chinese cyclic numeral system that is now used in Chinese astrology) was a San Francisco underground supergroup of the mid-'90s that featured vocalist Laura Allen (Caroliner), keyboardist/bassist Alexandra Behr (Caroliner, The Double U, Job's Daughters), vocalist/banjoer/trombonist Mark Davies (Caroliner, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, The White Shark, Zip Code Revue), Phil Franklin (Caroliner, Secret Chiefs 3, Faxed Head, Sunburned Hand Of The Man), guitarist Brandan Kearney (Caroliner, Faxed Head, Three Doctors, Archipelago Brewing Company, World Of Pooh, Job's Daughters, Horse-Cow, Totem Pole Of Losers), violinist Roshani Khan (Caroliner), and rhythm guitarist Brently Pusser (Three Day Stubble, S.F. Seals, possibly Caroliner). The band, in the words of Kearney, "was devoted to cover versions of Asian pop music and Indian film music, partially because it was more challenging to play, and also because we had a spillover of Asian material from Job's Daughters. And of course, it was also a vehicle for promoting our white supremacist worldview." This latter statement was intended as irony, for reasons to be discussed later.

Side one of the single is a boisterous Asian hoedown pulled from Shakti Samanta's 1962 action/thriller China Town. But don't be fooled by its title; China Town was in fact an Indian (or "Bollywood") film, and the song (written by Majrooh Saltanpuri and Ravi) was originally brought to life by world-famous multilingual female vocalist Asha Bhosle of Boy George fame. This is a fantastic little song featuring a banjo, a delightfully Oriental recurring keyboard riff, and a singer/violin note-duet performed expertly, tightly and LIVE! LIVE! LIVE! on stage at some hellhole. I give it two thumbs up on a scale of 10.

Side two, on the other side, is "Jan Pehechan Ho," a minor-key semi-spy-surfy piece yanked heartily from Raja Nawathe's 1965 mystery/thriller Gumnaam, in which, after dancing together in a night club, seven young people (five men and two women) are told they have won the night's dance contest and are instructed to board a small plane that will take them to their prize holiday. Instead, they end up stranded on a small island with one of the plane's co-pilots. In search of shelter, the eight go to a mansion where they meet a sinister-looking butler who announces that he knows all of them and has been expecting their arrival. After a few musical numbers, castaways begin dropping dead one by one. Who could the killer be, and will any of them escape his grasp? The song was written by Shankar Jaikishan and Shailendra, and originally sung by Mohammed Rafi, who performed 26,000 songs in his five-decade career, according to a web site that's heard of him. Heavenly Ten Stems' version is driven by a trombone, a fuzzy rockin' lead guitar, and male/female vocals that sound pissed-off and only sing a few different notes. I personally miss the exuberant bounciness of side one, but this uptempo track is still very well-played and decent enough, I suppose, if you're into angry bitter songs that want to murder you. I'd give it a 2.5 out of 5, bringing the single's grade up to a 7.5 out of 10, which mathematicians would round up to 8. So I give it a 3.

Seeking additional information on the band and single, I first emailed Mr. Brandan Kearney, who unfortunately did not reply. I haven't heard from him in quite some time, due to one or more of the following factors: (a) he's a gazillion times more learned and intelligent than I am, and finds my conversation dull and timewasting, (b) he got tired of me quoting him on my web site all the time without permission, (c) I bored the daylights out of him that time we drove around downtown Manhattan waiting for our wives to get finished at their damn dance club, (d) he has a new email address, and/or (e) he has his own life to live and doesn't think about Mark Prindle 20 times a day like most people should. As such, the only information I can provide is from an interview I conducted with him in 2002, wherein the following exchange took place:

Hey, dig this Jack. What was up with that crazy thing that happened at that Heavenly Ten Stems show? What happened and what were your feelings about it? Was it "overly PC," or do you think that their perception of the band was understandable, considering that they didn't know you from Adam?

Their perception was understandable. It was willfully ignorant, emotionally crippled, and more than a little unfair...but still understandable. I honestly don't think that they were wrong to be concerned, but I think their way of expressing it wasn't too constructive, for them or for us. What happened is that we were playing covers of pop songs from India, Japan, and China. The singer, Lara, was wearing Peking opera make-up. She also had a dress on that was supposedly a Korean wedding gown. I say "supposedly" because we were told this by the people who attacked us, who were fountains of misinformation in other areas. But for the sake of argument, let's say it WAS a Korean wedding dress.

Mark Davies painted his face with gold paint, which seemed to bug these people, but I didn't understand that. He didn't want to look like himself, but he wasn't trying to look specifically Asian, or even specifically human. I think Mark, like me, looked at shows-- any shows--as a chance to take on a completely new appearance. I saw what he was wearing as pretty abstract. Asians don't have metallic gold skin. No one does.

Alex, the keyboardist, had on a sari. Well, she was white, and she was wearing Indian clothing. Guilty as charged. Roshani, our violinist, was wearing traditional Pakistani clothing. But she's Pakistani, so she's allowed, it seems to me.

The other three members--me, Phil Franklin, and Brently Pusser-weren't wearing anything remotely Asian. In fact, I was wearing the same clothes I'd worn at a Steeple Snakes show not long before.

So in the middle of one song, there was a lot of shouting. Then this woman jumped on stage, said something like "They forgot one thing," and threw a container of yellow paint on us. There was a bit of a scuffle...I remember one of the women who attacked us tearing at poor Roshani's Pakistani scarf and screaming, "What IS this shit? What are you wearing? What do you think you're doing?"

Who WERE these women? Did you ever find out?

Yeah, one of them was actually someone whom Lara had previously considered a friend. And somewhere she had gotten these other two demented women to join forces with her. That's the thing that really got to Lara, was that this woman knew about the show--she'd been invited, in fact--and she could have called Lara and made her feelings known at any point. And Lara wouldn't have worn the clothes or the make-up and that would have been that. But they were going way beyond the clothes...they were saying that we were just making up faux-Asian lyrics, just making nonsense sounds. The fact is, we worked hard to get the lyrics down, and when Mark's Cantonese co-worker heard them, he could understand them. And both Lara and I were studying Cantonese at City College.

So they were pissed because they thought you were MAKING FUN of Chinese culture? That was their point?

Well, to some extent. I mean, we explained that we weren't doing that. But the thing is, even if we could have been exonerated from that one alleged act of wrongdoing, they could still have come up with a thousand more. What it came down to, I think, is that we made them uncomfortable. That's why I don't want to come down on these people too much. You figure there's legitimate pain involved, and when someone else is acting out pain on that level, you want to step back and give them some room. I'm not them and I don't know what it's like to be them. I know that racism exists, and I'm sure they've had to deal with it. But at the same time, you strip away the revolutionary rhetoric and these were very assimilated young ladies. They listened to indie rock and French pop and they hung around with white people. And I don't know to what extent we were breaking some sort of magic spell. I do know that we were an easy, easy target. No one had to worry about getting beaten up for protesting us, unlike at a Klan rally. Or a Dwarves show. I suspect we were a convenient lightning-rod for people who had some tremendous-and probably legitimate--pent-up resentments. Which would have been fine, if they'd treated us like reasonable people who were capable of dialogue, instead of using us as an opportunity to strike self-mythologizing poses.

Did you guys continue performing in makeup and costumes after that incident?

Yeah, for the one show we played after that. But no one wore anything that was in any way "ethnic." For instance, Lara dressed as a Midwestern farm girl, and I dressed in drag...a black velvet gown and high heels. I always felt that gay transvestism displayed a certain level of hostility towards women, yet it was kind of a sacred cow in the Bay Area- -especially among women--so that seemed to be the way to go.

There are a couple of things that sum the whole situation up for me. There was one woman who wrote a letter criticizing what we were doing, and passed it out at our show...the same show where we were attacked. I thought she was kind of loopy, and I was very angry about the whole thing, but I nonetheless ended up talking to her for a while a few weeks after the show...not least because she'd told me that she thought the woman who'd physically attacked us had some emotional problems that went beyond the racial issue. Besides that, she was at least willing to debate the issue face to face, unlike these people who'd thrown paint at us and then vanished down the rabbit hole.

One thing I told her about was the support we'd gotten from people who weren't white. Lara had spoken to a touring Chinese opera singer who was excited about the band, and gave her make-up tips. Mark's Chinese co-worker translated the songs into English for us, and helped him with certain phonetic things. An Indian family in Nashville helped us find the soundtracks we needed, and they were really happy that we were doing those songs. I told this woman all these things, and she said, "Well, some people are more assimilationist than I am."

And I thought, "Here's someone who runs an underground record store, selling odious shit like Pavement and the Mountain Goats, and she considers herself less of an assimilationist than Indians running an Indian music store in Nashville? Or a Cantonese opera singer from Kowloon?" The Indians had never had a friendly conversation with a white person in their lives until we came in their store! And it burned me up that I was supposed to accept the opinions of two Asian women from the Bay Area as the last word on the subject, and simply dismiss any Asians or Indians who had different ideas as "assimilationist."

Anyway, like I said, we dropped the Asian or quasi-Asian costumes for our next show as a gesture of goodwill, but these folks ended up calling in threats to the club. When that didn't work, they sent observers from some sort of Asian-antidiscrimination group. They were smiling and applauding by the end of the show, so I guess they weren't too bothered by us. And we didn't do any more shows after that...it wasn't worth the trouble. I'm glad we did that last show, though.

Again, I don't really have a huge problem with what those people did. The people I think are unforgivable are the ones who made judgments about the show without being there. Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, for instance.

What did that talented chanteuse do?

Oh, there was an article in "Rollerderby" on the whole situation, and Kathleen Hanna wrote in a complaint about how it was biased. Lisa was giving aid and comfort to the enemy, I guess. The thing is, she had completely misread the article. She was complaining about how we'd compared the people attacking us to Hitler, when in fact it was they who'd compared US to Hitler. And she was holding forth about what happened on stage, basing her observations on an article by a San Francisco Bay Guardian columnist who also wasn't at the show. Lisa was actually at the show, and had a videotape of it, and that tape does not bear out the version of events these people were putting forth. I think that it was amoral at best to distort what happened, when a videotape was available...she could easily have gotten the tape from Lisa and watched it before writing that letter.

I guess you can become reactionary--as so many people have--and start saying that anyone who is vehemently opposed to racism or sexism is ipso facto as stupid and vindictive as Kathleen Hanna. But that's not true, to say the least. What you finally have to recognize is that there are people of good will and people of ill will...people who put finding common ground first, and people who prefer to exaggerate the moral distance between themselves and others.

There's one tiny thing I have to clarify about this incident. At one point in my blitherings on this subject just now, I said: "...these folks ended up calling in threats to the club." I want to make it clear that the woman who wrote the letter that was passed out at our show--the woman I discuss right before this quote--was NOT responsible for calling in these threats, or for purposefully misrepresenting the nature of the attack on us to the SF Bay Guardian. I want to make sure there is an absolutely clear distinction between this Asian woman--who did not condone the violence against us, and was willing to discuss her issues with us face to face--and the multiracial trio of women who attacked us physically, lied about us, and refused to be questioned by us, or by any non-allied journalist. Debates and even arguments are healthy, and I'm always up for them, with anybody. Trying to shut people up through intimidation or deceit is cowardly and weak-minded at best. This seems like an appropriate time, politically, to insist on a recognition of this elementary point of ethics.


So how's about THAT stinky?? Eh? Eh??

Since he didn't respond to my latest round of questioning, I instead went to the businessman behind the record, Amarillo Records owner Gregg Turkington, who had this to say:

"The record came out at least a year after the band broke up over the controversy. I felt that the band needed some sort of documentation, and pulled those 2 songs off of the live cassette of their last show. There's actually a third song that was released on the You Gan't Boar Like An Eabla compilation. It's off the same cassette tape. They were a great live band. Only played 3 shows. If you've seen Ghost World (for my money, the best movie of the last 10 years) you might have noticed that 'Jan Pehechan Ho' was used as the theme song to the movie! (The original version, not the Heavenly Ten Stems one.) Cream rises to the top!"

Notwithstanding his unexpected Eric Clapton endorsement at the end there, Gregg is quite correct about the availability of a third Heavenly Ten Stems track on the MUST-OWN Amarillo sampler You Gan't Boar Like An Eabla When You Work With Turkrys. Entitled "Aaj Ki Raat," the track hails from Mohan Kumar's 1967 adventure/romance/drama Aman, features an arpeggiated minor-key guitar with shuffly percussion and horn, drags on for like 400 thousand years, and features the following lyrics:

aaj ki raat yeh kaisi raat ke humko neend nahin aati
meri jaan aao baitho paas ke humko neend nahin aati
aaj ki raat

aye yeh aaj tumhe kya ho gaya hai
ufff to apne dil ko samjaao na

machal utha yeh dil nadan bada ziddi badi mushkil (2)
khuda ko bhi manalu mein magar mane na rutha dil
tumhi dekho karo koi baat ke humko neend nahin aati
meri jaan aao baitho paas ke humko neend nahin aati
aaj ki raat

suno meri ek baat maanoge?
maanoge na!
tumhe andhere mein neend nahin aati to..
to main roshni kiye deti hoon

andhera hai to rehne do mujjasim chandni ho tum (2)
lajjaye roshni tumse ke aisi roshni ho tum
na seene se hataao haath ke humko neend nahin aati
meri jaan aao baitho paas ke humko neend nahin aati
aaj ki raat

he he he he he he he he
marungi ha!!

mile ho dil chhida ho jab koyi rangi afsaana (2)
sulane maut bhi aayeh to mein kehdunga phir aana
abhi to tum ho mere saath ke humko neend nahin aati
meri jaan aao baitho paas ke humko neend nahin aati
aaj ki raat yeh kaisi raat ke humko neend nahin aati
meri jaan aao baitho paas ke humko neend nahin aati
hmm hmm hmm

[English translation: "Say, for shits and grins I think I'll wipe this recently-sharpened carving knife on the back of my tongue. AATI!!!!/MERI JAAN AAO BAITHO PAAS KE HUMKO NEEND NAHIN AATI!!!!! (etc)"]


So you see, there's plenty to say about a band who only put out one single. Unfortunately, Kiss put out dozens of albums; thus, my Kiss review page is a complete piece of shit. No, it's not because each review is only like one sentence long and doesn't say a thing about how the record actually sounds -- it's because the band has so many albums! You see my point, right? Sure! We ALL do!

Reader Comments

All I have by these guys is an MP3 of "Aaj Ki Rat" (it's good but where to find more???) but I'm sure this 7" is great because it features the infamous Brandan Kearney of Caroliner! Man, what a great band. "Fanged Hymen Flee In Terror" "The Kin Quilt" and "Good Luck Shining Tongue" those are classic hits. And who could forget the Three Doctor's Band and their floor filling "Cyclops"?

If I may take this opportunity to ask you something - ever since I first read that Kearney interview, came across the quote "Steeple Snakes was a parody of noise groups" and thought "That sounds hilarious!" I've just been getting more and more curious about them. As far as I know, they are the only noise parody to exist in the world! Do you know anything more of them besides what's told in the interview? Even if they existed for only three days! I NEED TO KNOW!

Just read the Heavenly Ten Stems review - glad to see the truth is out there! One of your readers asked about the Steeple Snakes - they were Brandan, Grux (from Caroliner) and Seymour Glass of Bananafish magazine. I don't know about their live shows, but they did release a 7" single on Stomach Ache Records. You can still probably track it down on ebay. It really isn't that good, although the sleeve notes are hilarious and worth a look. The audio component is so good a parody as to be virtually indistinguishable from a lot of the half-assed noise cassette releases that were around at that time in the early 90's.

I should've asked this question a year ago and all, but if anybody out there has that Steeple Snakes tape I'd really like to read those liner notes. Trying to find releases by SS or any of Brandan Kearney's other projects (even Achipelago Brewing Company) is basically not an exciting pursuit even for the hardened collector. I have one Horse Cow track, one ABC track (a cover of some movie theme? It's on an old Bananafish comp) but no sign of Steeple Snakes stuff being available anywhere, even on eBay. Are there only like four copies in existence or something? Sounds like the guy above me has (or had) that tape though, so perhaps it's just a matter of knowing where to look. Also I've seen it spelt both Steeplesnakes and Steeple Snakes, making the whole situation even more annoying.

So to reiterate that tiny first sentence in a whole new paragraph, if anybody is in possession of this mythologically pointless relic, could they dedicate just one a moment of their time to type up the liner notes and send them in to this page? You'll have all the Steeple Snakes fans crawling out from under the woodworks in a jiffy.

Incidentally, I still haven't heard this single and it's kind of a shame that I'm hijacking the comments section to talk about another band.

You still haven't reviewed Transcontinental Pinecone Collector by the way Mark. Sounded like a well recorded trip back to their roots, if memory serves.

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For more world music as performed by the original artists, please see the Peter Gabriel section on www.markprindle.com