Daniel Antopolsky is a storyteller. He weaves narratives in and out of his songs and, when you watch him perform, the stories and songs merge. Antopolsky was a contemporary of the likes of Guy Clarke and Townes Van Zandt, one of the original outlaws, often referred to as the ‘missing outlaw’ thanks to the famous photograph taken on the porch at Guy Clark’s house. Legend has it that the character of ‘Lefty’ in Van Zandt’s much loved ‘Pancho and Lefty’ is based on Antopolsky; indeed, Antopolsky was present when the classic song was written and was the first person ever to hear it.
He turned his back on the music industry after saving Van Zandt’s life in 1972, then travelled the world before settling on a farm in France. Despite writing and composing constantly, it would be more than forty years before Antopolsky actually recorded and released any music. His mission is simple: to tell tales of everyday people and to spread positivity and joy through his music. Daniel Antopolsky’s life is a story. Andrew Frolish of Americana UK caught up with him after his performance at the Black Deer Festival.
I loved watching you play just then; your talk really merges with your songs and you’re a real storyteller. So, where do all the stories come from?
All the stories emerge out of the songs and the songs come from people. They come from how I grow up. My family had an old-fashioned hardware business. People came in: bootleggers, people making moonshine, people who worked with wood. We had guns, fishing tackle, every kind of thing. A lot of them were World War II veterans. There were real country people, really funny people: a guy came in and he had six suits on, six coats and five or six pairs of pants. It was so hot but he said, “I tell you what son, what keeps out the cold keeps out the heat.” I just remember these people. They were so vivid and they were so alive with humour and they been through so much. It was still a time of segregation and there were people who’d been through the Second World War and the Korean War. My father was born in New York but moved down south and fell in love with nature and the countryside; he was the expert with farmers who still ploughed with mules. I love that he was developing a new kind of amaryllis flower when he passed away. He was growing beans and roses in his garden 1936. He loved history and those kinds of people and I did too. I still do! I love the farmers, who are such honest people; it’s so hard the work they do. They’re not asking anything but to do a good job. I love all kinds of people. I have some songs that are more universal and bring out something more beautiful. But I have these memories of the blues. The blues to me are people who have something to complain about and all reasons to be unhappy but, most of the time, they’ve turned it into an aspect of happiness and joy and that’s wonderful. They’re not complaining; you’re alive when you’re alive and if you can’t change everything you can change yourself and bring some sunshine. I grew up in Augusta, Georgia, and was surrounded by the blues and rock ‘n’ roll and gospel music. I was raised by my dad because my mother died young. I had a nanny, who was a deacon in the church. She was the most wonderful person and we would listen to her gospel music all the time. I made a eulogy for her funeral and her mother’s funeral; that was a really touching time. She told so many tales and stories, like the one about her uncle’s funeral when he jumped up out of the casket and sat straight up, everyone run out of the church His hair had gone completely white. I mean she told great stories and I was raised right in it. I’m already 71, so I’ve known lots of older people. I put them in songs just to honour these sorts of people; people who have suffered a lot but are great people. In every generation, human struggles are a part of it but you find the good parts.
You mentioned humour and finding the good parts. There is a lot of that in your songs: joy and humour. How important is that to you when you’re writing your songs?
Well you know they called me an outlaw, the missing outlaw, and I was with people like Townes, my dear friend, for a short while. He did so great but a lot of the people we were with had this Hank Williams type of feeling that there was almost no way out. I had to get away from that. I had to find a way out. I’m maybe not being realistic but I wanted to put something optimistic in every song. I can think of two songs out of about 500 I did that are serious or sad. I try to find a little brightness in every song. That’s what I feel – I feel we have to look for that.
You mentioned Townes and that time in the early 70s when you were an outlaw and the ‘missing outlaw’. What were those times like?
I was the missing outlaw because they found this picture of me with Susanna and Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. I’m ‘missing’ because I wasn’t with Townes as long as a lot of people but we had a very real relationship of several years and we went on that journey together. We had a special time and thank God we all survived it. I had to play my part in saving his life. I was the only one there and he would’ve done the same thing for me. The drug scene, in that bar in Houston, they were keeping hypodermics. The dartboard was not for darts; it was for hypodermic syringes. As I lost my parents when I was a lot younger, I became a little wild and disconnected. I was afraid of needles but, if I hadn’t been afraid of needles, I’d have been like lots of friends who lost themselves. I smoked and snorted everything and I was a little flower child.
There’s a real big music scene in Athens, Georgia; it’s a crazy university and I started to write songs there. I did graduate in journalism but I didn’t want to do that afterwards. I remember they played big concerts at the Coliseum back in 1965-66. You know, the first band is always an introductory band and the second band is the main band but I remember people walking away from concerts saying the first band blew them away. The main band might have been the Allman brothers; these bands were unbelievable in what they were or what they became. Listening to guys saying such things walking out of that Coliseum, it jolted me and I thought about it all the time. When I wrote that song, ‘Sweet Loving Music’, with Townes, I said to myself, “You got to make it and it can’t be a competition.” I went to Nashville while Townes was doing his thing and I was trying to go to places, sharing my songs with my patched-up notebook. 99% of the songs you’ve never heard were written by me! In the end, I skipped out because I don’t think I’m that talented and because of the business side – I can’t stand the competition. I’m just trying to write songs but the scene got to be too dangerous for me. So many of them passed way; we didn’t even know what age these boys were. I was in that first lottery to go to Vietnam; my number was 200 and it got up to 196. I just finished my last day at University and I was going to graduate. I walked out to buy a newspaper and the headline was: “Nixon stops lottery at 196!” So, we got a Volkswagen van for $800 and hit the road. We travelled round north America several times without going to big cities. That was fun, with my buddy. Then, we went to Asia, so I was removed from everything back here. I didn’t even know a lot of new music roots or anything.
So, you travelled the world?
Well, I did. Back in those days, it really was the world. We went through Afghanistan over land. I went places you couldn’t go now. We were in Nepal and I taught American history in Laos before the communists completely took over. In Thailand, on the island of Koh Samui, 8° north of the equator, we slept in a little bamboo hut and the children would bring us fresh fruit. The guy we stayed with had a horse and wagon and a chimpanzee. He harvested coconuts with that chimpanzee! When I went, it was a great time to go; it was different. It was two years intensively around Asia and Europe.
When I went back to Augusta, I was so far out on my way that I didn’t want any contact any more with my friends. I didn’t have a job and the ones who become doctors and lawyers I didn’t have much to say to them. The ones who were into music, I couldn’t do that anymore. So, finally, I met my wonderful French wife and move to France. Without my wonderful wife, I would never have written these songs. When we moved to France, my writing really blossomed more. After a year and a half, we found this property near Bordeaux and then the children were born. Once everyone was asleep at night, I would stay up late till four in the morning writing songs. I thought I could go without sleep.
Then, two years ago, I had wonderfully successful heart surgery. I feel better than ever and I’ve kept writing songs. You can be very introverted to write songs but, when you get up on the stage to sing and promote, you have to be extremely extroverted or else you have to be like a genius. I think the lyrics are one of my strong points; I’m not the greatest guitarist. I regret not spending more time with other guitarists and learning but we lived in France and I didn’t want to leave the children and my wife at night after she worked all day in Bordeaux. I did a lot of work in the garden so when the Sun went down, I was tired. I was very happy maybe twice a year to go back to America to see my family in Columbia and South Carolina but I’m just happy writing the songs.
You were still writing so many songs but there were no particular outlets for them. Were they just for you?
There were two Americans who passed by that I played with a little bit. We played at the embassy: Elvis songs and Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. We were having cocktails; it was background music and nobody was listening to a word of it. Sometimes my songs have helped me through. I remember watching a movie about the shootout at the OK Corral, which inspired me to write a song; I remember seeing it and thinking that there is no song better than this about the OK Corral and it’s not in the movie! I’m very content. You still don’t know how it’s going to be but it’s about love. I think of the years flying by and maybe I will make it, maybe I won’t. Maybe it’s just not meant to be but maybe it’s okay anyway. It is not my nature to make people like you. I just have faith it’s alright.
How did you got rediscovered and star recording music after so long?
Jason Ressler, a film producer, became interested in my music. He is a New York guy and he is more outgoing, more aggressive than me. He told me I’d got some great songs and I should use them. We recorded in Nashville where these guys could all play music really well and they put it down. I wasn’t sure of anything! They didn’t let me play anything because nobody had time and I wasn’t like a studio musician. It just wasn’t my speed. Three or four of the songs turned out quite good. It’s funny that in Nashville, the blues songs like ‘Fish Bait Blues’ turned out great but I wasn’t too happy the country songs. Anyway, that was alright and it was the first step. The other four albums we made have been on the farm in France. We did it right on my farm with the lowest budget you can possibly imagine because I didn’t want to go anywhere and I could still watch my chickens and check out the cat. So that’s what we did with this last one too. A good musician has added to it but we don’t know when it’s going to be released; it would be wonderful to find a label. If it’s meant to be, you can bring people some happiness. But I see that it’s a business now and that’s hard for me. I understand that everything is in a way because people have to be remunerated for what they do. At first when we recorded, I wasn’t sure but now I see that a lot of people are really nice in the business. Of course, in France they’re great technicians and great musicians but their real feeling is with French language. France is a great place for me but it’s not the same; America is just so very far away.
Perhaps you could end up recording over here?
Yes, that would be great because it’s not like a big trip to America and we could just take the Eurostar, which is pretty fast now. It would be great to go to America. It’d be so wonderful for people in Georgia, in the south, to hear my songs. I know great musicians and great people but the music business itself… I know Nashville is very geared towards certain structured kinds of music. You find what you find but the people are nice there!
I know Jason has been looking at trying to make a film about your life. How is that coming along?
He’s done a lot of it. I say, “Jason, I’m here but I haven’t done nothing so why are you making a film of my life?” I want to stay here for a little while and I’ve written lots and lots of songs. It’s nice to see the stories and people wishing me well. In a lot of respects, I feel good. It’s all fun to do but I see that it’s for young people! Here I am for four days but it bothers me a little to be away from my wonderful wife. I like to be back there for every real reason. There are things to do in the garden: it’s time to harvest my potatoes and get my garlic; it’s time to build it up for the winter. The songs and film are important to me but I can’t just go chasing lots of gigs in England, in London and Manchester. I can’t do it all the time because I’m 71. I’m a little example to all the people: go do it! Don’t give up and don’t just sit around and watch television when you retire. Go bowling, see the grandchildren, go fishing, do something you’re passionate about! I’m 71 and I feel good!
One of the things you’re known for is the idea of the Sheriff from Mars. What’s that all about?
Well, they’ve got that as a thing on the website. It’s like a hook line. Since I’ve been four or five years old, I’ve been drawing this picture of the Sheriff from Mars. I have no art talent! I draw this gangly looking thing; it’s just a cute little nothing. These days, he’s got candy canes and a guitar instead of guns. Then they called me the Sheriff from Mars!
You spoke on stage a little about the day when you and Townes Van Zandt were in a hotel writing songs. Can you tell us the story behind the song ‘Sweet Loving Music’?
We were in that little motel in Dallas we couldn’t get out because there was a big Christian revival. It was a shabby place. So, Townes and I, we had nothing to do and we started feeling crazy. “Townes,” I said, “let’s go and write songs and then get back together and each person will be the first to hear the others’ song.” We went away for about 45 minutes to an hour. I went outside to sit under the oak tree and then we came back and Townes had written ‘Pancho and Lefty’. I was the first person in the world to hear it! I wrote ‘Sweet Loving Music’. You heard that at the end of my set today. Townes said, “Hey Daniel, that’s a pretty good song you got there. If you ever make an album, why don’t you call it ‘Sweet Loving Music’?” So, I did 40 years later. That’s exactly how that happened.
What did it feel like recording that so many years later?
It felt good and it brought a little tear to my eye. Although it didn’t come out quite right, it was still nice, especially going to Nashville. It’s never too late; life is full of surprises.
Your story in music is a really interesting one, with your experiences when you were younger and then you were lost to the music industry, if not to music, for such a long time. Then you came back and started recording and performing…it’s quite a story! If your life in music were a message, what’s the message?
The message is: just don’t give up! Find something that you like and try to do the best you can. You should try to be happy with what you have but never give up dreaming. I put that idea in a song about the ballad of the stable boy. That song is about big changes in life but you still don’t know what can become; that’s the journey of life. Just keep trying to do the right thing. When something happens, it could be good or could be bad or something bad can become good. You never know. You could be heartbroken but then meet someone new who’s better for you so you just keep going. It’s wonderful to meet all these people and it would be nice to get about 400 songs recorded! You never know the message of your life and that’s a good thought to end on!
Porch photo – Townes Van Zandt, Susanna Clark, Guy Clark, Precious the cat and Daniel Antopolsky (courtesy of Al Clayton)