IN 1982, AFTER I’D LEFT a band called Rank and File, I called my brother Javier and told him to come to Austin and start the True Believers with me. In those days, the first thing you did when you formed a band was buy a van and hit the road, so we played a couple skateboarder parties in Austin and Dallas and then got our first real gig in Oklahoma City. We had told the guy who booked us that we had three hours’ worth of material when we really had maybe four or five songs. So we had this marathon learning session in the van on the way up there, everything from Bo Diddley to old punk-rock songs and Bob Marley. And we made it. People liked us.
When Jon Dee Graham joined the band as a third guitarist, we really hit it hard. We were a three-guitar rock and roll attack, on the road ten months of the year. Our only philosophy was to make enough money for gas to get to the next town. If we had to buy a loaf of bread and a pack of bologna, that’d be fine. And some beer.
A lot of other Austin bands didn’t tour. Why should they, when they had weekly gigs at all the great clubs? You could go to Barton Springs during the day and play a gig that night. Why would you want to go out in a van with five guys? But once you went out there, you’d get this completely different perspective on the world, on your music and how it related to all these different people.
We toured with some great bands. Los Lobos were like our older brothers. They were using the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ old bus, and there was no working bathroom on it, so to take a leak you’d have to get somebody to hold you by the belt as you went out the door. You’d be high on mushrooms and leaning out the bus while somebody was holding on to you at ninety miles an hour.
There is a code of the road: Everything that happens out there stays out there. It’s a boys’ club, and the code is a macho, misogynistic thing. You look out for each other. There were a lot of wild nights, people taking us in and offering us whatever they had. There were a lot of those “offerings.” Then, in 1987, there was this famous piece about us in Spin magazine, by a guy who had gone out with us as our roadie and then decided to write an article about life on the road with a fledgling band. It was an absolute violation of the code. About that time, Guns n’ Roses had brought back the whole “bad boy rock star” thing, so some people who read it said that’s just rock and roll. My wife at the time, Bobbi, even said that if it hadn’t been about my life she’d have thought it was a great rock and roll article. But it ticked a lot of bands off.
After the Believers broke up, in 1988, I started playing with a band I called my Orchestra—horns, percussion, strings, the whole thing, up to fifteen pieces. When we made our first record, I needed something I could tour with, an album I could tear down and play acoustically with three or four pieces or play it with a rock band if I wanted to or whatever.
Eventually we toured with the whole Orchestra, and it changed everything for me. Before, it was all about the lifestyle, the party. But the music became the turn-on, seeing how it affected people. Those first two Orchestra records, Gravity and Thirteen Years, were me dealing with the fact that Bobbi had committed suicide in 1991, and I began to see that those songs were good medicine for other people, not just me.
And so I’ve kept at it. In November 2002 my wife, Kim, and I took our baby girl, Amala, to Europe; she was three weeks old. While we were there my father got really ill, and we flew back to see him in this convalescent home in San Diego. I walked in carrying Amala, and my dad saw me and was still able to recognize me. Right away my daughter started singing to my father. It was magical. There was something powerful about this newborn connecting with this older man who was about to leave his physical state.
Then we headed back out. In early April we were going to perform in Tempe on a Saturday, come home to Austin on Sunday, and then hop on a plane for Norway on Monday. I felt like I had a very intense flu and barely crawled through the dress rehearsal. Then about ten minutes before show time I started to vomit blood. But I went ahead with the performance. Afterward I was rushed to the hospital, where we found out I had advanced cirrhosis of the liver on top of my hepatitis C. I spent about a month more in Arizona with Kim and the baby, everyone telling me I wasn’t going to make it.
There is no touring after those diagnoses. I started looking at life differently. The road had taken a toll. A lot of long-term relationships had failed because of the road. I’d become quite a good drinker because of the road. It was hard to be there for your kids. But it’s a special kind of guilt when it’s based on a choice you made, when it’s because you’re doing what you love. When I was a kid, all we did was move. We left Texas when I was seven under the guise of going on vacation, and we never came back. That’s how my life started. I