When Alejandro Escovedo fell critically ill from advanced hepatitis C in 2003, he couldn’t afford treatment—and was told death was imminent. But the Austin, Texas-based rock ’n’ roll musician fought back with the help of his doctors and fellow artists. As a result, Escovedo has enjoyed a wildly successful wave in his music career and has lived to tell the tale.

Alejandro Escovedo has proved himself a true rock ’n’ roll survivor: In the eight years since his onstage collapse in Arizona, he has produced three hit solo records—The Boxing Mirror, Real Animal and Street Songs of Love—and critics have applauded his post-illness career as a new creative pinnacle. Some fan-favorites are songs dealing with his illness—but Escovedo’s recovery itself was a musical affair. When Escovedo found himself uninsured and unable to work after being hospitalized, an eclectic group of his musician friends—Lucinda Williams, John Cale, Ian Hunter, Benny K and Nick Tremulis, to name a few—put on a concert series and made a record (Por Vida [For Life]) to help him afford the steep price tag of treatment.

Last year Escovedo and his band, The Sensitive Boys, performed 285 shows, many of them sold-out. “That’s a lot of shows,” he says in a gentle voice that conveys both pride in the accomplishment and a measure of exhaustion. Now, reaching new career heights and having just celebrated his 60th birthday on a recent tour, he talks openly about his past, present and future.

In the late 1990s you started feeling your first symptoms of hepatitis C, all the while not knowing you were infected with the virus. You were struck by what you described as a “death flu” while touring near Vancouver, British Columbia. Your bandmates finally convinced you to see a doctor. What did the doctor tell you?

He recommended for me to drink a lot of Gatorade, because I was dehydrated. He couldn’t find anything.

[Editor’s note: In the United States, more than 3 million people have chronic hepatitis C, but half to three quarters of these cases go undiagnosed.]

What happened after that?

By the time I finally got back to Texas, I went to this old Mexican doctor on the east side of Austin. He told me that I was just getting old and was working too hard. But he did blood work anyway. I got a call back two days later, and it was serious: “You have to come down to the office, right now.” So I went down, and he told me that I had [viral hepatitis].

What was his advice?

He told me just to take it easy.

Did you listen to him?

I had to go to France for a two-week [touring] engagement in Paris. I looked and felt pretty bad. The band was making bets on if I’d even make it across. The French love to smoke and drink, and I couldn’t do either of those things—so you can imagine it was pretty torturous.

Sounds pretty tough. When you finally made it back, did you seek treatment?

When I made it back, I went to another doctor. She said, “I’m going to tell you what I tell my AIDS patients: Go out and live the best life that you can.” At that time I think that interferon had a very low success rate, especially for my age and my [genotype] of hepatitis C.

That’s not a very uplifting message. What was your reaction to that advice?

I was very depressed for quite a while. Eventually I began to tell myself that I had to get up off the couch. I had to go work and make music again. I told myself: Everything in moderation. So I could let myself have a glass of wine—but a glass of wine turned into the same old habits.

So “everything in moderation” continued until 2003 in Arizona, when you collapsed onstage and were taken to the emergency room with advanced cirrhosis and severe internal bleeding?

I spent about a month and a half in Arizona, in the desert, just meditating on what I needed to do. I knew I needed to change my life, and I knew that I had a very serious battle ahead of me. That’s when I was first introduced to Tibetan medicine and the Medicine Buddha practice. But also at the same time, I was just waiting for interferon. I couldn’t afford it at the time, and that’s when people started doing benefits for me.

Had you stopped drinking at that point?

I haven’t had a drink since that night in Arizona. I quit immediately. I drank the night that I got sick, and I haven’t touched a drop since.

Did you use a substance abuse program to quit?

I [stopped drinking] on my own, but my motivation was pretty intense. I know for most people it’s difficult, but for me, doctors were telling me: “You can quit drinking, or you can die.” So the choice—with children and wanting to live and create music—it was a really easy choice to make. When someone asks me, “What should I do?” The first thing I tell them is that they need to quit drinking immediately.

So did you finally connect with a doctor who could introduce you to treatment?

A good friend of mine, Nick Tremulis, a musician out of Chicago, found one of the top doctors in the country at Dallas’s [Southern Methodist University]. They have a really serious program there, and he was very compassionate.

So what treatment did you start, and what was it like?

I was on the interferon and ribavirin combination, and it was brutal. I was supposed to be on it for a year, and I only lasted six months. I was taking [an interferon] shot once a week. The drag of it was that I would always dread that shot, because when you take it you start to feel bad. By the second day after you take it, you start to feel really bad. And after a few days, when you start to feel somewhat normal again, it’s time to take another shot. It was a really confusing and difficult time, and I was afraid because my children were frightened.

How did the treatment affect you psychologically?

Psychologically it was really having a go at me. I was a very different person as a result of taking that medicine—a person that I did not like. I was extremely depressed. Hopeless. I had suicidal tendencies. Anger. A lot of frustration. A lack of sleep because of the medicine—my skin [felt like it] was on fire. It felt like I didn’t sleep for six months. That doesn’t lend itself to a balanced mental attitude.

I have other friends who’ve gone through the interferon—I know one guy who toured while taking the interferon. It affects everybody differently.

Do you think that it worked for you?

As much as I think that there are alternatives right now, I will say that at the end of those six months I did not have a sign of the disease. It came back. But I think it bought me the time I needed in order for the Tibetan medicine to really take hold and start [the healing] process, which is ultimately, I feel, what got me in the balanced situation I’m in now.

Seeing that your first round of treatment didn’t cure your infection, have you been better at monitoring your health? Are you in a good place now?

My Tibetan doctor was the one that really made me feel like I was going to get better, and that in the end I would be a better person as a result. It’s really important to totally reassess your whole life: what you’re putting into your body, how you’re eating, how you’re sleeping, how you’re relating to people. But I also have a great Western doctor. I’m due to go for another endoscopy next month.

I’m a survivor of hepatitis C—that’s the way I look at myself. It’s been years now since people told me I wasn’t going to be around, and I’m still around. I feel stronger than ever. I’m more focused about my music. I think I’ve made better records. It’s a lot of faith, and it’s a lot of belief that you can get better.