A lot of lore surrounds the brief but colorful career of Townes Van Zandt, the gifted songwriter who died in 1997 from a heart attack at age 52, with much of it dedicated to his unbridled substance abuse. His biographies invariably note the heroin overdose he survived in the early 1970s, but the untold story is how Van Zandt’s life was saved that day – by musician Daniel Antopolsky.
A native of Augusta, Georgia, Antopolsky is a songwriter who, like Van Zandt, writes soulful, storytelling songs. But where Van Zandt’s songs leaned toward the melancholy, Antopolsky’s are upbeat and hopeful.
The two met at a coffee shop in Athens, Georgia, and toured together for several months in 1972 in Antopolsky’s Ford van. They visited Guy Clark in Nashville, checked on Van Zandt’s horse in Colorado and played gigs around Texas.
The pair were drinking and drugging pretty heavily, but Antopolsky’s fear of needles kept him from picking up the Texas troubadour’s heroin habit. One day they stopped at Van Zandt’s mother’s apartment in Houston where he proceeded to shoot up. Almost immediately, Van Zandt began to turn blue and gasp for breath.
“I was scared to death,” says Antopolsky, 24 at the time. “I didn’t want Townes to die. I didn’t want to go to jail.”
Antopolsky performed CPR on Van Zandt and drove him to the hospital before heading back to Georgia. The two would never see each other again. The experience put a fear in Antopolsky for the pitfalls of the touring musician’s lifestyle. And truth be told, he didn’t have the confidence to do it on his own. He would continue writing songs, but recording and performing would hold little interest for him.
That is, until now. The 69-year-old musician, who lives on a farm near Bordeaux, France, with his obstetrician wife, is finally ready for his moment in the spotlight. His debut album Sweet Lovin’ Music, recorded and produced in Nashville by Grammy winner Gary Gold in 2015, blends elements of outlaw and classic country on 11 songs ranging from a playful ode to pet chickens to the tender ballad of the title track.
“He’s a jewel in the rough,” says Gold. “He’s so unschooled, and sometimes that’s exactly what you want in the recording studio.”
Gold also produced Antopolsky’s sophomore release, Acoustic Outlaw 1 & 2, recorded in the musician’s home studio in France. The result is spare and intimate.
“Going into his comfort zone with pristine quality technology was a gas,” says Gold. “It reminded me of early Bob Dylan stuff.”
A third album is in the works, and a U.K. tour is planned for next March. Meanwhile, a documentary about Antopolsky called The Sheriff of Mars and directed by Jason Ressler (now Antopolsky’s manager) is expected to hit the film festival circuit sometime in 2018.
Antopolsky is philosophical about his late-in-life career move.
“I’m just a songwriter who’s written a lot of songs over a long period of time who had the benefit of not succeeding,” he says. “If I’d had success, I don’t think I’d have all these songs. I wouldn’t have the same perspective.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” he continues. “I know deep down I have some good songs. What becomes of them, who knows?”