Tehee: Fresno's legendary 'Black Orckid' psych-rock album re-released

The Fresno BeeJune 11, 2014 

In the world of '60s psychedelic rock, Stephen David Heitkotter's lone release has long been a white whale; a record so rare that collectors felt lucky to even hear a copy, much less own one.

Recorded in 1971 in a bedroom studio in Heitkotter's home on Kerckhoff Avenue in Fresno, only 25 copies were ever made. Over the years, bootlegged versions of the LP popped up online, but always as copies of a copy. The master tapes were likely destroyed by neglect or time. If they exist, no one's found them.

For years, no one quite knew who made the album, or how. There was a rumor it was recorded in a mental facility.

"It's kind of a legendary record," says Eothen Alapatt, owner of Now-Again Records in Los Angeles, which re-released the album as "Heitkotter-Black Orckid" in May.

Alapatt spent four years researching the record and tracking down Heitkotter's older brother to license the songs. He also uncovered stories, photos and additional demo tapes that were recorded during the same sessions, which are all included on the release.

It's the first time Heitkotter's story has really been told.

Heitkotter was a well-known local musician who played drums for The Roadrunners, one of the most popular (and promising) local bands of the late '60s. But by the early '70s the band had broken up (the Vietnam War and the draft did that to a lot of bands) and Heitkotter took up guitar and painting.

"He didn't want to be a drummer anymore. He wanted to be a rock star and an artist," says Ross Dwelle, a friend who Heitkotter called to play drums for the impromptu band that recorded the album.

Heitkotter sang and played guitar, and another friend, Greg Youngman, played bass.

If Heitkotter had plans for the songs at the time, he didn't let on. In fact, neither Dwelle nor Youngman knew the album existed until Youngman stumbled on one of the songs online.

"It was just jam sessions," Dwelle says. There were ideas of songs, and some rough lyrics Heitkotter had scribbled out, but nothing concrete. Dwelle set up his own reel-to-reel and got the songs on tape, but he never thought they were worth anything, so they sat in a closet for 40 years.

Those recording are included on the CD.

Listening to it now, there's still some mystery.

There's an odd tambourine that Dwelle doesn't remember playing, and a second guitar that neither he nor Youngman remember being recorded. The whole thing seems to be edited together from various takes of each song.

What happened to Heitkotter after those recordings is still somewhat of a mystery, too. He started painting more abstract art under the moniker Black Orckid — hence the added title on the CD. There were drugs and mental health issues and eventually, Heitkotter did become a ward of the state (probably where rumors of the inmate recordings started).

This is is not an easy listen, Alapatt says. It's raw and visceral, meandering between straight-out howling garage rock and pure psychedelia. One song runs 11 minutes.

But it's real, Alapatt says.

"You don't really find that in a lot of records."

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6479, jtehee@fresnobee.com or @joshuatehee on Instagram and Twitter. Read his blog at www.fresnobeehive.com.

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