Pancho’s Lefty: Townes Van Zandt, and the Story of Daniel Antopolsky

Guy-Clark-

Photo: Al Clayton

 

There’s all these iconic photos from country music’s Outlaw era that are great to look at and try to transport yourself back to that time to feel the magic that must have been in the air. Headstrong Texans reshaped the music and opened it up to one of the most creative eras in American music history, and what a thrill it would have been to be there. The above photo circa 1972 on Guy Clark’s porch in east Nashville has always been one of my favorites to ogle at and try to imagine being in the audience of this back porch session for the ages.

There’s Townes Van Zandt on the left in his white boots playing a fiddle. Who knew Townes even played fiddle? Then there’s Clark’s wife Susanna probably singing lead or harmonies, and Guy himself playing a guitar he probably made or customized himself. But who is the dude with the weird pants and pointy nose sitting to the far right? I’ve asked this question of folks who proclaim themselves experts on Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt before, but I’ve never received an answer. Is he just some random neighbor or friend who happened to be in the shot, or a lost icon of a by-gone era who could lead to a discovery of new music that just like a cool old photo, could re-connect you to the magic of a past time?

The answer is the latter.

As has been recently revealed, the man in the funny pants is named Daniel Antopolsky, and his placement in the photo is anything but random or accidental. He was a singer and songwriter himself, a dear friend of Townes Van Zandt’s who is even given credit for saving his life, and according to some, the left-handed guitar player was the inspiration for “Lefty” in Van Zandt’s signature song “Pancho & Lefty.”

That latter point is apparently up for debate, but what isn’t is that if Daniel Antopolosky wasn’t around, there’s a good chance Townes Van Zandt would have died of a heroin overdose way before he was able to pen many of his legendary songs. In the spring of 1972, Antopolosky and Townes Van Zant took off for Houston in Daniel’s white Dodge van. Two days into the trip, Daniel was carrying Van Zandt into the hospital where he was initially declared “dead on arrival” by the medical staff. Townes had slipped into a coma, and eventually they were able to revive him. But according to doctors, if Van Zandt had arrived to the hospital two minutes later than he did, he likely would have died.

“It was a crazy time,” Daniel Antopolosky recalls. “From the early 70’s, I remember I went out to Texas with Townes and it was just heroin everywhere. The needles were kept in a dart board, thrown into a dart board. And it was a big joke. And I was afraid of that. I just wanted to make nice songs.”

Daniel Antopolosky was born and raised in Augusta, GA, and attended the University of Georgia in Athens where he began playing music. This is where he met Townes Van Zandt, and accompanied Townes on a six month tour where he sang backup and occasionally performed a song or two himself. Daniel dedicated his life to songwriting, and was right there during one of Townes Van Zandt’s most prolific eras.

“What’s deep is, Daniel and Townes Van Zandt were in a shared hotel room 40 years ago, and they had two guitars. And they both were writing songs, and they both were young and creative and on fire,”  producer Gary Gold explains. “So Daniel said, ‘I’m going outside to the parking lot to write my song.’ Townes stayed in the hotel room and wrote his song. They came together after writing each song and they played each other’s song. So Townes’ song “Pancho & Lefty” turned out to be an iconic song. The song that Daniel played for Townes, ‘Sweet Lovin’ Music’ has only been heard by Townes, and Daniel’s family.”

Unlike Townes, Daniel never received significant recognition for his music, partly because he quickly became disenchanted with the business, eventually running away to France to escape the heavy drugs and the pressure of being a professional songwriter. “I saw the competition in Nashville, just when I was really yearning for something spiritual like so many people do,” Antopolosky explains. “And of course maybe I had this feeling like I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be a part of it. That’s why I left the country. Maybe I ran away.”

And ran away he did. After traveling the country and world for a while, Daniel found himself back in Georgia where he met his future wife Sylvia who was a medical student from France. Daniel eventually followed Sylvia back to France, and after all of Daniel’s instruments were stolen in the city, they decided to move to a 30-acre farm outside of Bordeaux. Sylvia’s occupation as a doctor allowed Daniel to stay at home to tend the organic farm, raise chickens, and write songs.

But Daniel only wrote songs for himself and his family until he was “discovered” recently, and the idea was hatched to fly Daniel to Nashville to have him cut his first record with big-named producers and a full band, and chronicle it all in a documentary film. Of course coaxing a somewhat reclusive and shy songwriter to cut music in a big studio with a band behind him was not going to be easy, and overriding all of these concerns was the same self doubt that had stimulated Daniel to leave the songwriting scene of the 70’s in the first place. The first attempt to fly Daniel to Nashville to record was delayed because one of Daniel’s beloved chickens had fallen ill—illustrating the set of priorities Daniel has in his simple life on a French farm, well away from the thirst for stardom present in Nashville.

However Daniel Antopolsky persevered through the recording process, and is now set to release his debut album at 66-years-old called Sweet Lovin’ Music soon. A documentary of the project called The Sheriff of Mars is also set to be released sometime next year. It’s all reminiscent of Doug Seegers from 2014, who was another previously-known songwriter that disappeared for many years, and then re-emerged to modern acclaim.

So the mystery of the man in the funny pants is solved, which is sort of sad because the enigma of the unknown figure in the photograph was something interesting to speculate on. But the story of Daniel Antopolsky remains an interesting case study into fate, and how thin the margins are between fame and being forgotten.