Why I Left Austin

Alejandro Escovedo’s PTSD diary

Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

Leaving Austin was bittersweet. My whole life is music, and Austin shaped me into a songwriter and musician. Austin was my experimental lab.

I was in Rank & File there, the True Believers. I had a solo career. I had an orchestra there. I had Buick MacKane there. I'd gotten to play with jazz musicians and blues musicians, and meet some of the greatest players on the planet there.

I felt the full support and love of the community.

Rank & File moved there [in 1981] to learn country music. What we found was this gold mine of songwriters. Suddenly, songwriting was something I was encouraged and afforded to do by the likes of Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Townes Van Zandt. These were the greatest songwriters in the world, in my eyes. These were people who had my back. They'd take me on tours. I'd watch them from such close proximity hoping their songwriting rubbed off on me.

So I became a songwriter in Austin. I grew as a musician in Austin. Those roots are very deep.

My children still live there. Initially, they thought Dallas was too far away. They were surprised and unsure what it meant. But I've had them up here, and they've fallen in love with the place. They understand why I'm here. I still play frequently in Austin, but I only feel comfortable in one small pocket of town. That's South Austin in general, especially around the Continental Club.

We left Austin in early October last year, under the impression we'd return. My wife Nancy found a job working on a TV series for the USA Network called Queen of the South, a six-month project that became eight months. We moved into a beautiful two-bedroom apartment at the Belmont Hotel, this gorgeous art deco building that reminds me of a smaller Chateau Marmont – with a Spanish/Italian vibe. It sits up on one of the highest spots in Dallas, so you have this gorgeous view of the city.

At one point, we went back to Austin, and it wasn't the same for us. We needed to cleanse ourselves of the old, find something fresh and new. It was good for us to immerse ourselves in someplace we were not familiar with. PTSD from the hurricane that interrupted our honeymoon had a lot to do with us leaving (see "Alejandro Escovedo's Hurricane Honeymoon," Sept. 23, 2014).

“But weird things started happening. All the color would leave my body. I looked very grayish. I was speaking in this weird Salvador Dalí-speak.”

We were to do a few days' songwriting with Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey in Portland. We'd begin a six-week tour in Seattle, then return to Portland to begin recording all the new songs we were working on. But weird things started happening.

All the color would leave my body. I looked very grayish. I was speaking in this weird Salvador Dalí-speak about these crazy things that weren't very much like me. Three days into writing, we went to breakfast and I was rude to the waitress. I poured salt on everyone's plates and in their water and the coffee. I was talking about space travel and all these odd things.

So Nancy ushers me to the emergency room. They do extensive tests. They talk a little about the hurricane, but not much. Then they say they don't know what it is, and to just get some rest. We canceled further songwriting.

I got in the van the next day for Seattle, to begin rehearsals for the next day's gig. The Seattle show was one of the best of my life! It was a transcendent night, and we got word the tour was doing really well, that we were selling tickets. Everyone went home that night with nothing but positive thoughts.

The next gig was Portland, and it was also sold-out. We had a great soundcheck, and we even played one of the new songs. When I returned to the venue from the hotel, I looked out to see this packed room as Peter's band was killing it. I got stage fright to such a degree that I couldn't play. Instead, I spent the night in the ER.

Peter decided to cancel the tour. My doctor in Austin advised it, saying he thought I had a neurological problem. I felt guilty. I don't cancel tours. We sent everyone home, and Nancy and I went to Sacramento to visit my sister Dolly. I saw a highly regarded neurologist in the Bay Area, who found nothing. As we were about to leave, I remembered the Tibetan doctor I saw for hepatitis C was in the Bay Area. She diagnosed it as adrenal depletion. The adrenal gland produces your life force, and I had depleted it to the point where I was in danger.

We came home. I lost Jon Landau's management. My road manager quit after 10 years. The band lost interest. We worked three months without getting paid to get ourselves back on our feet. It was a rough time. When I finally got back on my feet, all I had left was my booking agent.

Ultimately, I settled on an old friend of mine as manager, Gil Gastelum, who mostly manages Latin Grammy winners who sell out soccer stadiums in Mexico. I trusted him, which I needed. My trust in humanity was fading. It was a weird time.

I think the new album, Burn Something Beautiful, is really great. Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck produced it, and Peter's band plays on it: monster guitarist Kurt Bloch from the Fastbacks; John Moen of the Decemberists; Kelly Hogan, who sings with Neko Case and the Decemberists; Corin Tucker from Sleater-Kinney; and Steve Berlin plays baritone sax on a couple of things. It was all Portland people, that Portland vibe. I couldn't have made that record anywhere else, honestly.

Moving to Dallas helped in recuperating from the PTSD. It put us in a new place, and enabled us to see where we had been and where we wanted to go. Since I've been in Dallas, I've written a new album. I beat hepatitis C; I no longer have that. I found a wonderful place to live, and I still get to see all my family and friends, because we're only three hours away.

There were times when I felt like I went to summer camp and I couldn't wait to go home and see my friends, but quite honestly, I don't know that I can ever live in Austin again.

Catch Alejandro Escovedo at his onetime place of employ, Waterloo Records, Fri., Nov. 4, 5pm.

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Alejandro Escovedo, Rank & File, True Believers, R.E.M., Peter Buck, Minus Five, Scott McCaughey, Hurricane Odile, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Townes Van Zandt

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