What a long,
strange trip it’s been
Brushes with fame, death and debauchery aside,
musician Daniel Antopolsky is ready for the spotlight.
Townes Van Zandt was turning blue.
The alt-country music pioneer and his friend, Daniel Antopolsky, had been driving around the country playing gigs and writing songs that spring of 1972 when they stopped in Houston at Townes’ mother’s apartment. They weren’t there long before Townes, a heroin addict, injected an opioid solution into a vein.
Within seconds, he began gasping for breath.
Horrified, Daniel performed CPR.
The 24-year-old Georgia native was in way over his head. He was no angel, but he’d never been in trouble before. He just wanted to have a good time, travel around, write some songs. Now he was facing a life-or-death situation with nothing in his arsenal but his wits and a prayer. It wouldn’t be the last time either.
Townes survived the overdose, but something shifted in Daniel that day. He’d seen the dark side of chasing the spotlight and decided it wasn’t for him. And truth be told, he didn’t have the confidence to pursue a career on his own. He’d keep playing and writing music, but for himself, not the public.
That his music is attracting attention now, as he approaches his 70s, is just one more crazy twist in Daniel Antopolsky’s topsy-turvy life. And he has a friendship with a devoted fan to thank for it.
A motherless child
Hurricane Irma was days away from hitting the South Carolina coast in September, and Daniel was worried.
Baggy blue shorts and a gray T-shirt, both softened with age, hung loose on his slender frame. Wisps of gray hair curled out from underneath a faded ball cap sporting the South Carolina state flag.
With a cellphone to his ear, he paced in front of a large flat-screen TV that mapped the storm’s path, speaking with the property manager for his modest vacation home on Edisto Island, where he and his family were staying.
“I guess we’ll pull all the porch furniture inside,” he told the real estate agent.
Daniel is prone to fret. The more agitated he got, the more his wife, Sylvia, and daughter, Hannah, downplayed his concerns. The storm was still days away, they said.
Frustrated and fearful, Daniel retreated to a back bedroom, where the floral comforter was covered with sheets of paper scribbled with lyrics and chord changes. He picked up a cheap, worn guitar, the untrimmed strings twisting wildly from the headstock, put on a pair of blue plastic readers and, after a few minutes of studying his options, plucked a sheet from the bed and launched into his song, “Cascade of Colors,” about the beauty of the North Carolina mountains in the fall.
Daniel’s songs are his comfort and his refuge. He’s written 486 of them, at last count, although few outside of close friends and family have heard them. But that’s about to change, if filmmaker Jason Ressler has anything to say about it. He calls Daniel the Southern Sugar Man, a reference to musician Rodriguez, who achieved success in the U.S. after the documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” came out in 2012.
Only time will tell if Daniel, 69, achieves the fame and fortune Jason believes he deserves. And it’s hard to say who among the two men wants it most, and why. But the quest alone raises the question: What defines success? The fact that Daniel has survived his crazy-quilt life is something of an accomplishment. That he recorded his first album at age 64 and is starring in a documentary film about his life qualifies as a triumph of sorts.
Daniel was born the last of three sons to Harry and Mary Antopolsky in 1948. Harry worked at the family hardware store on Broad Street in Augusta. Mary suffered from Parkinson’s disease, becoming bedridden when Daniel was 6. One of his last memories of her is of finding a smooth, white stone that was so pretty, he ran home to give it to her. No longer able to speak, she mouthed the words, “I love you.” She died when he was 10.
To care for his young son, Harry hired Frances “Franny” Norman, a relation of opera singer Jessye Norman. Mention of Franny’s name turns Daniel’s voice thick with emotion. He gets emotional easily these days.
“She was a remarkable person,” he said. “A straight-shooter, a deacon in her church. She listened to gospel music on the radio and watched ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy.’ She’d tell me stories about an aunt who could beat any man.”
Harry would remarry, but he’d struggle with depression. He died of a heart attack when Daniel was 16.
Daniel had already written his first song by then. He’d taught himself to play his brother’s hand-me-down guitar, a Giannia, made in Brazil. Asked about that first song, he doesn’t remember much about it except its inspiration.
“I think it had to do with a lot of the sadness I had at home,” he said.
Like a rolling stone
The year was 1969, the Vietnam War was raging, and Daniel’s days were numbered.
His draft lottery number was 200, and the Selective Service had already taken eligible men up to number 190. It was just a matter of time before he was called up.
Unlike some of his friends, Daniel was not anti-military, and he didn’t know enough about the Vietnam War to be for or against it. But he was a little guy and not very strong, and he wasn’t sure he could survive it.
Added to his anxiety was the prospect of the physical exam. Daniel doesn’t know whether it’s from witnessing his mother’s medical ordeal or getting a rusty nail embedded in his foot as a child, but he was “petrified beyond words” of needles, and still is today.
Wrapping up a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia, Daniel walked out of a classroom on his last day of school and spotted a newspaper headline that changed his future: President Richard M. Nixon had halted the draft at number 195.
Daniel celebrated by buying a VW camper van for $800 and hitting the road with his boyhood friend, “crazy” Albert Low, now a respiratory therapist in Monterey, Calif. They went to Miami, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York. They went to the Atlanta International Pop Festival in Byron to see Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers and Johnny Winter.
“We’d never get on an interstate, and we’d camp along the way,” Daniel said.
But life on the road eventually became “too much, too fast.” Daniel was doing a lot of recreational drugs and they were taking a toll.
One March day they drove into New York City unaware it was St. Patrick’s Day. The city was more crowded and chaotic than usual. Tripping on acid, Daniel went into a public restroom and couldn’t find his way out, triggering his first panic attack. He had another one in Chicago.
By the time he quit the road to live in a trailer near Athens, he had developed an irrational fear of crowds, heights and speed to go along with his fear of needles.
But it wouldn’t be long before his wanderlust would grow restless again.
Pancho and Lefty
Daniel first met Townes Van Zandt at a coffee shop in Athens. The two bonded over their shared love of music. Although he would never achieve commercial success, the Texas troubadour was developing a cult following with his sad, soulful songs. At the time, he’d signed a publishing deal with United Artists, released five studio albums, appeared on “The David Frost Show” and was playing clubs like the Bitter End in New York.
One day Townes asked Daniel to drive him to Nashville in his van. Daniel was game. There they visited the home of musician Guy Clark and his wife, Susanna. Al Clayton, a notable photographer of the era who’d made his name chronicling the poverty of Appalachia with the book “Still Hungry in America,” captured images of the foursome playing some tunes on the front porch.
From there Townes and Daniel struck out for Texas and Colorado. Occasionally Townes would call Daniel on stage to sing with him or perform “Cascade of Colors.” In Dallas, they got stuck in a traffic jam. Daniel suggested they pass the time by splitting up and each writing a song they would perform for one another.
Daniel wrote “Sweet Lovin’ Music.” Townes liked it and told Daniel that if he ever recorded an album, he should give it the same name.
Townes wrote “Pancho and Lefty,” considered to be his biggest hit. Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Steve Earle would go on to record it.
“I was the first person in the world to hear that song,” Daniel said. “Everybody tells me I was Lefty, and I tell them I have no idea about that.”
One night, the pair ended up in Houston at a bar where Townes was performing. Daniel was shocked to see patrons throwing darts with hypodermic needles.
“These guys weren’t like me,” said Daniel. “They weren’t afraid.”
Once again, his hard living ways were getting the best of him.
When Townes overdosed, Daniel’s survival skills kicked in.
“I was scared to death,” he said. “I didn’t want Townes to die. I didn’t want to go to jail.”
Daniel performed CPR and took Townes to the hospital. With Townes safely in the care of medical personnel, Daniel drove straight back to Georgia.
Townes would recover that day, but his best songwriting years would soon be behind him. He would go on to live a troubled life of drug addiction and mental illness until his death at age 52 from a heart attack in 1997.
The two men would never see each other again. Although a few years after the incident, when Townes was passing through Georgia on tour, he sent word for Daniel to meet him at the gig. But Daniel didn’t go.
“I didn’t want to start that up again,” he said.
He regrets that decision today and credits Townes for greatly influencing his music.
Magical mystery tour
Witnessing Townes nearly die that day gave Daniel pause, but he had one more epic odyssey in him.
Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Laos, Burma, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Greece, Turkey. That was the route Daniel and Albert traveled over the next couple of years on a $600 round-the-world airline ticket.
It didn’t matter that they couldn’t speak the languages. Daniel’s guitar was their entrée. That was all they needed to meet girls, find a place to stay and score some drugs. Along the way, Daniel taught history at a school in Laos, became very ill in Bangkok, played soccer on camel-back in Afghanistan and had a bad acid trip in the Himalayas.
About the latter, he recalled thinking: “How close am I to jumping off a cliff?”
Daniel’s vagabond lifestyle and appetite for drugs were so rapacious, it raises the question why.
When asked about it, he shrugged and said he wanted to experience everything, to experiment.
But one wonders if the grief from losing his parents so young played a role.
Despite their hedonistic ways, the pair spent a lot of time in Buddhist temples. According to Albert, Daniel was always reading complex texts on the spiritual philosophies of the countries they visited. Something more than the pursuit of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll seemed to be at play.
For whatever reason, maturity perhaps, the lifestyle eventually lost its allure once and for all.
“To know yourself, you have to dig deeper,” said Daniel. “I lost interest in it. I quit everything.”
He returned to Augusta in the mid-‘70s and joined his family’s hardware business. He found simple pleasure in the characters who came into the store — World War II veterans, moonshiners and farmers — and bought a farm in Oglethorpe County.
Looking at Daniel today, it’s hard to imagine the torment his body has endured. He’s a vegetarian who eats kosher and allows himself just one beer or one whiskey a day. He takes long daily walks and before every meal he says a prayer. He’s the picture of moderation and good health, except for the long white scar down the center of his chest. But more on that later.
Daniel didn’t know it at the time, but his life was about to take an unexpected turn in 1985. He was at a friend’s house party when he met petite, dark-eyed Sylvia Kirsch.
A French citizen studying to be an obstetrician, Sylvia had just started a yearlong internship with a doctor at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta.
Sylvia was attracted to Daniel’s “old hippie style,” and she loved his songs.
“After we started dating, he left sweet notes on my windshield while I was at work,” she said. “The girls who worked with me got very excited every time they spotted a note on my car.”
After the year was up, Sylvia returned to France, leaving a lovesick Daniel behind.
“I would go to the payphone with a sock full of quarters and nickels and call her twice a week,” he said.
A year later she returned for a visit and Daniel offered to take her on a trip to either New York City or the Okefenokee Swamp, her choice. She picked the big city, but they went to the swamp instead. She didn’t mind; she was in love. When she returned to France to finish her doctorate, she asked Daniel to join her in the city of Bordeaux.
He was miserable at first. He’d lived in the country for so long, he couldn’t adjust to city life.
“I needed earplugs it was so loud, and there was dog poop everywhere,” he said. “You had to parallel park…”
He’d brought several instruments: a Gibson banjo, a Martin guitar, a Dobro, a dulcimer and a mandolin. Within the first few weeks, they were all stolen.
“I drove Sylvia crazy. I just wanted to be in the country,” he said.
So they bought a 500-year-old ruin on 30 acres and began restoring it, fixing the roof, adding heat and running water, installing a swimming pool.
The couple married in 1989 and a few years later, twin daughters Liza and Hannah, now 24, were born.
While Sylvia delivered babies, Daniel spent his days gardening and raising chickens for the eggs to feed his family. And every summer, they would return to the South to visit friends and relatives in Augusta, and relax at their beach house on Edisto Island.
Daniel continued to write and even perform occasionally — at the girls’ school, at the American Consulate, small occasions here and there. But mostly he would seclude himself in an upstairs room far away from the family to write and play his songs.
Then he met Jason Ressler.
Waiting on a friend
Daniel’s music is hard to categorize. He’s a little country, a little blues, a little folk. If you had to choose a genre, Americana fits best. His songs tend to be upbeat and energetic; they tell stories about love and nature, and they’re punctuated with percussive playing, loud whoops and a lot of humor.
He was so accustomed to keeping his music private that Jason knew him for more than a year before he heard Daniel’s songs.
“At first I didn’t want to hear his music because I didn’t want to have to pretend to like it,” said Jason, who grew up in an affluent family, dividing his time between New York and Texas after his parents split.
But once he heard it, he was astonished.
“These songs were soulful, they were funny and they were storytelling. It was like cool folk,” he said.
The two met through mutual friends while visiting Tel Aviv and discovered they had a lot in common.
“He has the same bouncing around character that I have,” said Jason, 47, speaking from his temporary home with a friend in Bordeaux. “I spent years traveling around after my brother died.”
And they both share the gift of gab, although Daniel is gentle and soft-spoken while Jason is emphatic.
Jason became enamored with Daniel’s songs. He couldn’t believe they had never been recorded, so he set out to change that. He convinced Daniel to see a music producer he knew in Nashville while the family was visiting Edisto Island the summer of 2012.
It wasn’t easy. Daniel is a humble man, shy about his talents.
I don’t belong here, he said as they drove into Nashville.
Gary Gold, a Grammy winner who had worked with Smokey Robinson, Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Wonder, agreed to produce Daniel’s album the following year, but he had a piece of advice for Jason.
Make a documentary, Gold said. It was a way to create some buzz. A 64-year-old man recording his first album in Nashville needed all the assistance he could get to capture the attention of the music industry. A good backstory would help.
It wasn’t such a far-fetched idea. Jason had some experience in that arena. He’d made a documentary about his boyhood friend’s father, Sid Bernstein, a music producer and promoter credited with bringing the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Kinks to the United States. But the film was never released because Jason couldn’t get the rights to the music. The episode is still a source of bitter disappointment for him.
But undeterred, he called on another friend, Matthew Woolf, a cinematographer and producer who had worked on the Sid Bernstein film. He came to Nashville to shoot footage of Daniel recording his first album, called “Sweet Lovin’ Music,” as Townes had recommended.
It turned out to be a “rough, rough process for everyone,” said Jason.
Daniel wasn’t accustomed to playing with other musicians, especially expert session players who weren’t always in the same room with him when they recorded. The production team wanted to shorten the songs, reinterpret them, change the tempo. Daniel ended up just providing the vocals. The album was made, but it was a challenging experience.
The following year Daniel got a showcase at South by Southwest in Austin, and the enthusiastic reception he received from an audience of strangers exceeded everyone’s expectations. Energized by the experience, Daniel and Jason returned to the farm and recorded a double album, “Acoustic Outlaw 1 & 2,” also produced by Gary Gold, and released it on iTunes. They got some press in France and Israel. “CBS Sunday Morning” came out and recorded a segment, although it never aired.
Then, earlier this summer, Daniel began to experience severe exhaustion. He spent 10 days in the hospital undergoing tests before it was discovered he had a faulty mitral valve in his heart. The men in his family had a history of heart problems.
During the operation to fix it, his sternum was cut open and his heart was shocked three times to get it pumping again, but the procedure was a success. He spent a month at a recuperation center, and two weeks later he was at Edisto Island with his family, fretting over Hurricane Irma.
It was a humbling experience that helped crystallize what mattered most in his life, he said — family, friends, songs, animals and nature.
And he started to notice some changes in himself. For one, he had become more emotional, more easily moved to tears, often over something of beauty rather than sorrow.
“If you don’t feel like you see things different after something like this,” he said, “you’re a fool.”
Post-production should be completed on the film soon. It’s called “The Sheriff of Mars” after a character Daniel created as a child and has doodled throughout his life. Jason hopes to get it in some festivals next year. But now that Daniel’s music is receiving attention without it, Jason would rather talk about the UK tour next March, the new album they’ve begun recording and the BBC story that recently came out.
Asked what’s in it for him, Jason said simply, “I believe in him. The guy’s, like, beautiful, and his music should be out in the world. There’s got to be a place for the artist. And the artists are not always the guys with their chests out and the industry behind them.”
Back in 2012, when this venture first began, Jason tried to get someone to manage Daniel but couldn’t find anyone willing to take a chance. So Jason took it on himself, learning the music business along the way.
“Look at U2,” he said. “They met the right guy who took a bunch of 17-year-olds from Ireland out into the world. Daniel just never met that guy.”
That’s who Jason wants to be — the guy who introduced Daniel to the world.
“His music is as beautiful as any made in the last 40 years,” he said. “People say, ‘You’re crazy. He’d be famous if it were.’ Then they listen to him and they know.”
Albert Low, Daniel’s old traveling buddy, is happy to see his friend in the spotlight after all these years, but he wonders about the practicalities of launching a music career at this stage in his life.
“Daniel has never been one to push his music,” he said. “He’s only really played in public three or four times. He’s pretty shy, plus he’s almost 70 years old. But he does have quite a collection of work, that’s for sure, and it’s nice to get recognized for it. I don’t really know where it’s going and hopefully he’s not investing too much money into it.”
As for Daniel, he seems bemused by all the attention. What matters most to him is his songs. If he’s invested in anything, it’s the process, not the outcome.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” he said. “I know deep down I have some good songs. What becomes of them, who knows?”
ABOUT THE STORY
The artistic drive to create something from nothing has always fascinated me. Especially those who, despite their talent and efforts, do it without the rewards of fame or fortune. It takes a special person to continue honoring the creative spirit without recognition. Musician Daniel Antopolsky is one such soul. That could be about to change for him — or not. Fame is nothing if not fickle. Either way, Daniel will keep writing his songs. And ultimately, that’s what really matters.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Suzanne Van Atten is lead features content manager for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She edits Personal Journeys every week and manages the paper’s coverage of arts and books. Suzanne is also director of the Decatur Writers Studio, an award-winning travel writer, a Pushcart Prize-nominated essayist and author of the travel guide “Moon Puerto Rico,” now in its 4th edition.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Curtis Compton joined the AJC as a photo editor in 1993 before returning to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and won a World Hunger Award for his coverage of the famine in Sudan.