Ever in the shadow of Townes Van Zandt, with whom he toured briefly in 1972, Daniel Antopolsky tried with all his might not to become a star. His work is blessedly minimal, acoustic guitar only accompanies him and allows the 69-year-old to flex his rough-hewn gallantry. When Zandt overdosed one fateful day, resulting in Antopolsky performing CPR and saving his life, he bolted from the industry without hesitation, probably against his better judgement. He then galavanted across the world with a friend named Albert Lowe, enveloping themselves in the cultures of Burma, Crete and Koh Samui in Thailand, among other magnificent, sweeping sceneries, and writing songs along the way. More than 40 years later, those songs have finally manifested on Antopolskys just-released new album, Old Timey, Soulful, Hippy-Dippy, Flower Child Songs from the Cosmos… Wow! (Unheard Songs of the Early 1970s, Pt. 1).
Each song bursts at the seams of a particular time and place, magically conjuring the sweeping orange plantations of Crete, sparkling and ethereal, and transporting the listener to a bygone era, simpler, grainy and more honest. The dreamy fascination with a man whom he calls the “Butterfly Man” culminates in one of his more visceral, penetrating performances. “Butterfly man, doing what he can / Flying till he lands, lightning on your hand / Making every day a flower stage’s play,” he observes of a young man he met at the University of Georgia. “Kisses as he pleases, dashing ’bout the trees / Setting in his room, dark and old cocoon, just waiting for the spring / To give his wings a fling.”
“People might think the Butterfly Man is me, but it’s not,” he tells B-Sides & Badlands. “People weren’t a hippie one day but sort was the next day ⎯⎯ whatever hippie was. I had lost my parents, and I think I was looking for friendship or something. I got into that change. This one kid, maybe 19 or 20, was just so nice. Some people had to try to be hippies, but he was such a sweet person and friends with a girl I liked. Every now and then, you meet somebody like that. One day, they told me, ‘Randy, he’s dead.’ There was so much of that. I remember in Houston, there was a band, and the bass player was so skinny. I asked, ‘What’s the matter with Dennis?’ They said, ‘Well, we don’t know. He just started getting skinnier and skinnier.’ Well, this was before people knew to call it AIDS. It was happening to so many people. At the club, they kept drug needles in the dart board. It was so filthy, but people thought it was cool. It was killing people left and right.”
Old Timey reads as a timeless and weathered storybook of characters, as plainspoken as it is poetic. “I haven’t paid my dues. I didn’t have the confidence or this or that. The only way I did pay my dues was by not succeeding,” he says. The 12 songs were all produced in his home, a makeshift studio. “We put a carpet on the floor, mattresses around some of the windows and curtains. And that was it. Anybody can do it. It’s so fun for me. The rooster was crowing. I said ‘if the rooster gets in the song, leave him in, please!’”
Now living on a farm just outside Bordeaux, France with his obstetrician wife, he speaks at length about his writing style, if he has ever found what he’s been searching for, the “Rickshaw Driver” and his upcoming documentary.
Did you have any demos recorded when you set about putting this album together or did you simply go off the lyrics?
Luckily, I have most of them written down. I kept notebooks. I’m a very disorganized person. Of course, I typed them or wrote them or scribbled them. I knew I had to get them recorded. I’ve got the chords over the lyrics, hundreds no one’s ever heard. It’s in my mind. You have to know the melody, and some, I’ve forgotten. I hadn’t played some of the songs maybe two or three times in 30 years. I said if I could memorize five songs, I think I wouldn’t have written but about 20. I write a song, and then I’m up here and don’t have anybody to sing it to. A few times, I tried with this or that, but it’s never gelled. I’m out here in the country, and it’s no fun to go into town, for me. That might be a little extreme. [laughs] Towns have a lot of nice people. More and more people have to work in towns and cities for jobs. That’s cool.
I know the melodies to most of the songs. I hope I can continue to remember them. I’ve got this GarageBand, and it’s good. My old computer with the old version finally became so old, it wouldn’t print anything but on one printer. Then, the printer broke. I really knew how to do that GarageBand. Now, the new one is so sophisticated. In the 1960s, it would have taken 10 rooms. I know that’s great, but it’s a little hard for me.
You’ve talked about why you left Nashville and the industry, stating you wanted something “more spiritual.” Were you able to find what you wanted?
No. [laughs] But I was always looking. You can rarely find anything. You can never have everything you want. I really found lots of great things. But I finally found some of the wrong things. I went too extreme the other way for a good many years. I had to find my center. Everything gelled fine for me when I met my wife. Out of the first 180 songs, I think I found 15 or 20 that were not appropriate or not me. I think I was trying to be someone I wasn’t. Fortunately, I started writing much better in the mid-80s. For someone my age, that’s late to do that. But it’s never too late to do anything, really.
What did you end up finding?
All along, when I wrote a few songs at the beginning, I thought they were good. I think I’ve always been afraid to fail. I might be a little afraid to succeed, too. I’m happy. Of course, you want to share your music. I can jump off the tractor and write a verse. I’m a person with all kinds of shortcomings like everybody else. I do love to write songs, and that’s introverted. But to have to do it and go somewhere and sing and have the guitar tuned up, it’s scary. Even in my own house, when people would ask me, I’d get a little nervous. I just haven’t done that that much. “Sweet Lovin’ Music” was geared toward competition. In ‘68 or ‘69, when I was at the University of Georgia, I’d go to concerts like everybody else. The first band is the first band and not as important as the second band.
Back in those days, the first band could have been the Allman Brothers or anybody that became super great. When I was walking out of the colosseum, I heard someone say “man, the first band blew the others off the stage.” I thought about it, and I said “well, I’m going to make some songs.” I don’t want to be blown off the stage or blow anyone else off the stage. That impressed me. So, I made the song “Sweet Lovin’ Music” that says people all over the world try to make nice songs. How about around the campfire? There’s no recording. We don’t know how good some people were. I’d love to hear some music from the Caribbean or somewhere. Of course, we have a lot of chaos in music now. There wasn’t chaos with Mozart or Beethoven. Today, we can’t duplicate those kinds of melodies.
You have to realize your own self. Most of the mistakes we see in others, we don’t see in ourselves. I know I made my share. You have to accept that and be patient. With songwriting, I was patient. If I can share something nice with people, they give to me just as much.
What led you to start recording music in 2013, leading to your debut album, 2015’s Sweet Lovin’ Music?
I met Jason [Ressler], and we had become friends. He sat down and said, “Let’s hear some of your songs.” Not that he’s a musician or critic. He’s experienced and knows a lot of people and a lot of things. He’s a very intelligent person and has a lot of energy. He thought my songs were good and said, “Well, I have a friend in Nashville and why don’t you go for two days?” He had to drag me. Of course, when you start meeting talented people, that’s all there is to it. Gary Gold said, “Let’s pick out some songs and you’ll make an album.”
I sent him about 25 songs, and we all decided on 12. There were some great studio musicians to play behind when I wasn’t playing anything. I had never done that before. Then, when it came to two or three days to record the album, I had to put these headphones on and sing. It changed the keys and everything. I was just uncomfortable. I had never played without a guitar or except when I knew I could sing with myself. Some songs turned out to be good. Some of the melodies weren’t exactly like what I would have done them. I can play them, but I can’t play with other people. [laughs] Other good musicians can play with me, and maybe it’ll come to that. I just haven’t played much with people. I’m a weirdo.
A standout on the album is “Rickshaw Driver,” which you wrote in India. What’s the story there?
I was just a blooming hippie at that time. I wanted the world. You are seeing things wrong, and you try to see the glass half-full instead of half-empty. You hope you don’t run into any really bad people. When you go to India, especially then, it was like America turned upside down. It had everything good and everything bad and incredible people. It’s ancient. There are still some places in the world where rickshaw drivers run. That’s what they all used to do. Now, of course, with bicycles, that’s better and easier for them. It can still be hard if there are hills, you know. This song is a reality. I was with a friend, and we were in Agra. They had the caste system for a very long time. It was not a good thing, especially for those at the bottom. There was a wealthy Indian person right beside us going up a hill. He was very heavy, so I guess he was very wealthy, of the higher caste. He saw us, and we were westerners, so he wanted to show that he could make his rickshaw driver go faster up the hill. You’d say “come on, boy.” I can’t forget that. That was tough on the guy. The person I was with, we got out of our rickshaw and said, “We’ll walk up the hill together and fly down together.” Of course, this rickshaw driver was educated but he was in a tough situation. Every job is noble.
We spent days with this guy and even ate together some. He’d take us around, and you could see that he was interested. He wasn’t ripping you off. Some can do that. He was just a nice person. Period. We were at this big place where a lot of westerners stay. It was government housing. I said to my friend, “I saw somebody coming with a big, straw basket, and you know what, I have a feeling we’re about to see a snake charmer.” Lo and behold, the guy sat down with the basket, and he started playing on a flute. All of a sudden, he opened the top, and a black cobra came out and was dancing right in front of the guy’s face. A crowd was watching. Then, another black cobra came out. He put them back in, and I was sure that was the end. He kept playing, and suddenly, a golden cobra, as big as both the black cobras put together, came out.
The other person in the song is selling peanuts. Everybody’s trying to do whatever to make a little money. Some beggars have clay bowls or copper and some might be wealthy on their own. It’s not the person to judge. We don’t know what they’re doing. We used to give milk to children in Nepal. The milk wagon would come, and they would just want to come drink milk. I got out of the system, and back then, you were really out of the system.
We stayed in Koh Samui, that’s an island in Thailand, eight degrees north of the Equator. We were in a tiny village, maybe 10 stores. You get off the boat. It’s all dirt. There were some motor scooters and mini bicycles. We had a place to stay with a family in a grass shack. The children would bring us mangoes and bananas for breakfast. The father said, “Well, I want you to come with me.” He’s got a wagon and a horse. So, we go into the forest, and he’s got a coconut plantation. He was sort of an important person. He said, “We’re going to harvest coconuts.” I asked, “How?” Another guy brought a chimpanzee, and it had a collar around its neck. He sent it up the tree. The guy said, “You better move away.” It would knock down all these coconuts. It filled the wagon. They might wind up at a Kroger, who knows. [laughs] When you’re young, that’s something you don’t notice. You’re looking for girlfriends and every kind of thing. There are very important things to see when you’re traveling.
One song that didn’t get on the album is “Dynamos and Tornados.” Everyone, even if you don’t ever leave your hometown, like the philosopher Immanuel Kant, the world is spinning. You see people. You have incidents. You have family. You have success and failures and sadness, all that. It’s not that you have to travel to have all that experience, but it was a time in my life. I’m not that crazy about traveling now. Back then, you could get on the plane with no customs. You could take your guitar and go into the cockpit with the captain and sing a song. [laughs] I was a little less nervous at that time, I think.
What led to “Artists and Actors”?
Everybody is an artist and an actor and a player under the deep blue skies. That story was written on the island of Crete, Greece. There were about six or seven travelers, foreigners there. We picked Crete out, as the biggest, most southern island in the Mediterranean. On the south side, there’s a town called Myrtos. There are no heaters in the room, so the first evening, the oldest man in the village brought us a bucket with coals in it. He said, “That should keep you.” It was still cold that winter. You could hear the ocean and the waves. It was stormy. I get all my inspiration from just people, but everything surrounds nature. I don’t know if I’ve ever written anything inside a big city. It doesn’t work for me. With the “tides turning soon,” I thought that things would get better in the world. That’s all I could do. I always hope for that.
All of the others that were living there, we’d sing at night. They would bake bread with wood and a big stone oven. They would eat the white bread fresh, but with the whole grain bread, they’d wait and slice it, put it back in the oven and make it crispy bread. So, we said, “Let’s get some of the whole bread and some wine and cheese.” At that place, you could pick all the oranges you wanted, but you couldn’t carry them away. You could go into the grove and eat eight or 10 a day. There were no fences around it.
What is your most favorite place you ever visited?
I loved Crete, Nepal, Laos, Hawaii. I remember going to Honolulu one day. I lived in valleys in tents and sleeping bags. I can’t do that now. Laos is just on the Macon River. It has friendly people, and it’s landlocked. It’s not booming like Thailand. The fruit is out of this world. I taught a little at a private academy. I was teaching history, and my friend was teaching mathematics. A lot of people have traveled a lot more than me. That was just one special trip at that time. Some of those people had been to all the continents. At that age, it was very sharp. Burma was really wonderful, too. It’s called Myanmar now, and at that time, you could only stay two weeks at a time because it was a military state. You could get your whole two weeks paid for. All the foreigners had to stay at the YMCA. They told you on going there that all you’ve got to do is bring a bottle of scotch and a carton of Benson & Hedges cigarettes and keep it with you. When someone knocks on your door the first time and asks, don’t say yes. The second time, say yes. Then, you sell it, and you can’t possibly spend all the money you have for two weeks.
There is a documentary about your life and career, called The Sheriff of Mars, coming in 2018. How did it come about?
It’s been a rather odd thing, because who am I? I’m still, thank God, alive. Gary Gold got the idea. With the first album, he said, “Well, you won’t ever sell these songs unless you make some kind of documentary.” It’s just beyond me. I’m humbled by it all. I promise you, I’m not that interesting of a guy. [laughs] I have another one, too. I also thought about making an album about the Battleship of Love from a new song I wrote, which seems appropriate considering North Korea. Everybody has a part. I’m not a farmer, but I like to live in the country. The only thing I can really do is just be me and write things down. My songs are scattered all over the place, and I’m very lucky and blessed if I can keep it together. My wife is always yelling at me. She’s wonderful, I’m telling you. I would not be here without her.
How is retirement?
I try to stay active now. You should be interested in something. Whether it’s your grandkids or you like to play bridge or you can take walks. I love baseball. Anybody can just be interested. When you think about it, life is a miracle. We are here on the planet. We take it for granted. It’s a big surprise to me to be singing these songs. I’m happy growing vegetables. This year was good. I planted corn before I left to go to America to visit my family. Got back, it was timed perfectly. Gardening is great. You bend down a thousand times just to get a few weeds out. I’m also reading a book now called ‘Two Years Before the Mast,’ a famous book by [Richard Henry Dana]. He was a Harvard man, and he left Boston to be a sailor. It took about a year to get to California. It’s so interesting.
Antopolsky is set to play a concert March 6 at Bush Hall in London. Tickets now on-sale.