The Changeling A Q&A with Tony Fernandez Of Peace Frog
By Geoff Gehman
Tony Fernandez was 11 when the Doors began opening his doors to a life without domestic violence. The freedom march began when he first heard “The End,” the psychedelic tone poem that turns apocalyptic when Jim Morrison says, with spooky serenity, “Father … I want to kill you.” That one Oedipal line, coupled with the song’s hypnotically cleansing sweep, led Fernandez to begin putting on his headphones, tuning into Doors tunes, and tuning out his abusive dad, a Cuban exile angered by the Castro government taking away his homeland. Within three years the elder Fernandez had disappeared from his son’s life forever and for good, which made Tony believe that he had mentally murdered his dad by ignoring him.
Thirty-eight years later, Fernandez still insists that Jim Morrison helped him ignore his father to death. For nearly 20 years he’s honored the singing, chanting, rock ’n’ rolling poet/shaman by playing Morrison in Peace Frog, a band he founded to perform nothing but Doors numbers. Named after one of the Doors’ revolutionary songs, Peace Frog has opened big doors for Fernandez, who teaches political science and Chicano studies at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Calif. He’s performed in 14 countries, played with Doors founders Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek, and helped turn his hometown of Venice into a Doors destination with weekly gigs at the bar that helped birth the Doors.
Impersonating Morrison also aggravated a drinking problem that nearly shut the doors on Fernandez’s life. Sober for nearly five years, he began recovering after he dreamed that he was digging his own grave, waking up on the day he visited Morrison’s tomb in Paris.
Fernandez will front Peace Frog on March 18 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. He and his band mates will perform hits (“LA Woman”), non-hits (“When the Music’s Over”) and originals (“Heart of Darkness”) written to simulate Doors tunes rescued from the vault. Expect a genuinely creative version of Morrison from Fernandez, who siphons the latter’s changeling spirit with long wild hair, shades, black leather pants, a conch-shell belt, antic movements, a prismatic voice and an open-door aura.
Below, in a conversation from Venice, where he lives near a Morrison mural, Fernandez discusses meeting his wife through a Peace Frog fan; using Morrison’s daring theatrics to teach the First Amendment, and communing with Morrison’s prankster spirit during some weird scenes inside the goldmine.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely flayed and slayed you?
A: My cousin Peter exposed me to a lot of great rock from the ‘60s and ‘70s. While my sisters were listening to Air Supply, I’d be listening to Rod Stewart’s “Atlantic Crossing” and “Maggie May” in my cousin’s car. Peter was the one who turned me onto the Beatles’ “Revolution,” the first song that really mattered to me. I was nine when I first heard it on a vinyl record; when I heard the beginning, with that guitar blasting, well, it was all over for me. When my cousin wasn’t around I got to fart around with his record player by myself, without him being in charge, and I just needed to hear that opening part 20 times in a row. Back then they gave you the lyrics with the record and I loved the song’s message. It was a message of revolution and it was also a message of love, a revolution of turning hate into love. That’s all it took to make me a rock and roll fan; that was it.
My older brother and cousins made me listen carefully to vinyl records. They made me realize that the artist put these songs in a particular order to take you on a journey. So I would come home from school, when I was in the fifth grade, the sixth grade, and listen to records on this little phonograph my great aunt bought me with her Social Security check. She lived with us and had nothing else to spend her money on; she also bought me my first guitar and my first amp. From ’78 to ’82 I listened to all the ’60s and ’70s music that was new to me; I had to catch up. When I got turned onto the Doors, it was never the same; it turned everything around for good.
Q: And how did the Doors turn you around for good?
A: I was 11 and I was watching “Apocalypse Now” with my cousin Peter. It wasn’t a movie for an 11-year-old but, then, my cousin Peter exposed me to a lot of sights and sounds not meant for an 11-year-old. “The End” came on the soundtrack and when I heard that part where Jim Morrison says, “Father … I want to kill you,” I thought: “Whoa, can we do that?” I grew up in a domestic-violence house and I thought: “Wow, killing your father–that sounds like a great idea.”
My father was a very angry man. He essentially never got over the fact that the Castro government took his homeland. He was a great patriot involved in the anti-Castro, anti-Communist movement here in California; I remember going with him to a lot of protests in LA when I was young. Unfortunately, he was a terrible father and he took his anger out on the family. A lot of people don’t understand that domestic violence is a two-way street, a tug of war where victims enable the violence by taking it and not reporting it. That began to change in the ’60s and ’70s, thanks partly to the women’s liberation movement. Things have changed for the better; now, abused children and adults can go to shelters.
I stopped talking to my father as soon as I heard the Doors. I’d come home from school and put on the headphones and ignore him. By the time I was 14 I was big enough to stare him down and he got bored. It took three years until he left the family, moved to Florida, and remarried. No one has heard from him since then. I’m eternally grateful to Jim Morrison for giving me the inspiration and courage to ignore him and, essentially, kill him.
Q: What was going on in your life in 1998 that compelled you to form a Doors tribute band and start channeling Morrison’s vocals and vibes?
A: The story actually began in 1989 when I was 21 and I became a professional hotel lounge singer. In 1994 I moved to Hawaii and formed a band. At the time it was either play in a band or work for Domino’s. I needed money, so I was motivated not to deliver pizza. We were in the middle of the grunge movement so I had to change my vocals to imitate Kurt Cobain’s voice. The first show I sang too hard and lost my voice; eventually I learned to punch the vocals without knocking out my voice.
I’d always been a Doors fan, so we did a few of their tunes. In 1996 I moved back to LA and formed a Top 40 band that also played grunge and reggae. Every time we did Doors songs, people would go crazy. A friend of mine, a security guy, also did security for another Doors band called Wild Child and he told me “You could do that” [i.e., play Morrison]. I was a bit reluctant at first but he helped me overcome my fear and I figured it was worth a try. Things started to snowball in in 1998 after we performed “Light My Fire” on this Dick Clark show, “Your Big Break.” At the time I had the Top 40 band and Peace Frog. Within the year there was only Peace Frog and I didn’t have to sing “Brown Eyed Girl” again [laughs].
Q: What was the toughest part about getting under Morrison’s skin? He was one slippery, tricky character, a true changeling.
A: In the beginning of Peace Frog I didn’t have any acting experience. I found that getting drunk and playing Morrison didn’t work, and that if you go up there sober that didn’t feel right, either. I was six months into this whole thing and doing a residency at this place called Scruffy O’Shea’s [in Marina del Rey, Calif.] and I just wasn’t feeling it. At the time I was dating a theater major at Loyola Marymount and one night I told her: I feel like I did a great job but I don’t feel like I’m acting. And she said: That’s what you’re searching for, when it’s no longer contrived. Look at Al Pacino, she said: he brings a little bit of the character and a little bit of himself to every role he plays. So I decided to mix a little bit of Val Kilmer [who played Morrison in the 1991 film “The Doors,” directed by Oliver Stone] and a little bit of Jim Morrison and a little bit of myself and I felt more comfortable.
When you try too hard to act like Jim Morrison, it looks like you’re faking it. When you relax and let it flow, it’s a whole lot better. It’s gotten to the point that when I do creative, colorful things onstage people will ask me: “Did Jim Morrison actually do that?” I tell them: Jim Morrison could do anything, including flipping out his penis. So it’s an open door; whatever you want to do, you can.
Q: You’re quite the world traveler. How did Peace Frog start you hopping around the globe?
A: It all began when a friend created a Web site for Peace Frog and somebody saw it in Australia and invited us to play there. I hired a backup band and we were doing “The End” and we got to the part where I say “Mother, I want to fuck you,” and this young Australian drummer said: “What did you say, mate? You want to fuck his mother? This is too weird for me, mate,” and he walked out. The guitarist said: “Mate, mate, it could have been worse. He could have fucked his father.” [laughs]
I tried to calm down the drummer by telling him: You should see the Oliver Stone movie and you should read up on the Oedipus myth and the Oedipus complex. Yes, Oedipus wanted to kill his father but, no, he was not just some sick bastard. Even Freud thought the Oedipus myth is a serious thing, that it’s not about a sick guy wanting to sleep with his mother. Freud said that as children we all want to sleep with our mothers, which naturally creates a rivalry with our fathers. Of course, Freud was also a cocaine addict so he was little sick himself [laughs]. The bottom line is, I convinced the drummer to come back and play with us.
Q: How about some of your other weird scenes inside the goldmine while playing Jim Morrison for foreigners?
A: Well, we did two weeks in Tahiti at the Morrison Cafe. In El Salvador we had a bodyguard because there was a shotgun on every corner; there was even a guy with a shotgun guarding the liquor store where we got beer. I was doing interviews to promote the show on every TV and radio station around, including one owned by the president of the country at the time. I did eight interviews in two hours and I thought: Oh my god, who wears leather pants at 8 in the morning and is asked to say: “Hi, I’m Jim Morrison, your new neighbor?”
One show was sponsored by a local beer company on a farm. It was raining and we were afraid of getting electrocuted. In the middle of a break one guy does a swan dive from a tower–he was trying to replicate a scene from the Doors movie—and he slams into the cement and the medics came.
During one concert in India it was pouring rain and both me and the keyboardist slipped on the stage, which was made of bamboo. People were staying but it wasn’t safe, so we ended early with “Riders on the Storm”; every time I sing “Riders” I think of that gig. We ended up playing 16 cities in 26 days in India, with 19 different flights; our tour was sponsored by Seagram’s.
Q: It sounds like booze really fueled those overseas tours. That leads me to ask you: What were your drinking rituals before, after and during shows?
A: I was a beer drinker. I didn’t drink every day but I did do a lot of binge drinking. I was getting paid and people were saying “Wow, great, he’s so real, he’s such a good actor, he looks like he’s drunk.” Well, I was drunk. The more I drank, the more I paralleled Jim Morrison’s life and the more success I had. I have proof; I can show you footage of the crowd going wild at my antics.
And then the act got so real, it stopped working. The body just stops being able to handle all that stress; it can only take so much abuse and then it starts to back up and back down. My health was failing; I was having digestive problems from alcohol. I was in denial; it was apparent that I was on my way out. I was drinking 20 to 30 beers three days in a row. I got them for free at the Venice Bistro [now the Venice Beach Bar]. I was their cash cow; I could buy anyone a drink there. But my compass was dirty; it was the alcohol that was measuring the response of the audience. So I had to recalibrate my compass.
Q: How did you stop drinking and start saving yourself?
A: It was July 2, 2011 and I was in Paris, getting ready to visit Jim Morrison’s crypt a day before the 40th anniversary of his death. I figured I’d go a day early to avoid the mobs on July 3. I dreamed I was digging my own grave while my sister was watching. I asked her “Am I really dead?” and she said “Yeah, Tony, you’re really dead.” I woke up and I said to myself: Hey, that was a sign that you don’t want to play around with death; this is what death looks like.
I went back to LA and tried controlled drinking, which didn’t work. So I entered a program sponsored by MusiCares, the charitable arm of the Grammys. A lot of us with drug and alcohol problems meet every week through a progress group. Our sponsor is Gary, who was a promoter for Marvin Gaye and ELO. He helped Steven Tyler get sober; he helps me get my head back on.
After four months I had a measure of clarity. I asked Gary: “What was I thinking when I was drinking so much?” He said: “You weren’t thinking.” I told him that when I was drinking I was okay with dying, that, hey, at least I wouldn’t have to pay back my student loans. He said “You know what that’s called? That’s called alcoholism.”
I had been sober for six months when one night in Pennsylvania I just killed it; it was 10 to the max. Now, without alcohol in my system, I sing better, I think better, I feel better. Now, I’ll go to the doctor even when I stub my toe.
I’ve reintroduced myself to my fans, some of whom didn’t really know me when I was drunk. Some of them have become good friends, another gift of sobriety. There’s this guy from Canada who came with his wife every summer to see our shows in Venice. He turned out to be a cool guy and when his wife passed away from cancer, I was able to be there for him because I was sober, because my compass was clean. He spent the Thanksgiving holiday with us the first time he was alone. When we went on our honeymoon he looked after our German shepherd and our apartment, which is on the beach. “Hey, you don’t have to twist my arm,” he said. “I’m in Edmonton and it’s 30 below.”
Being sober has made me more responsible, more accountable; it’s given me a better chance of being the best person I can be. While I don’t drink anymore, I don’t mind buying fans a drink. I have a tab at the Venice Beach Bar and I tell people there that if you saw me at another venue, I’ll buy you a drink. And, you know, I’ve bought drinks for people who have seen me everywhere from Vegas to Europe.
Q: The Peace Frog Web site has some juicy endorsements from Robby Krieger and the late Ray Manzarek, who founded the Doors with Morrison in Venice in 1965, cutting their teeth together at the same club you play. Tell me about some of your most memorable encounters with them.
A: Well, I met Ray at the premiere of [the 2009 Doors documentary] “When You’re Strange.” I had the beautiful experience of playing with Robby on the Sunset Strip in 2004 on Jim Morrison’s birthday. In 2006 I walked with him on the Venice boardwalk before a show at the Venice Bistro. During the gig he watched for a little while from the balcony and in between songs he would shout: “Hey, hey, there’s no pressure, guys!” And I would look at him and say: “Hey, he’s the guy who wrote these songs.”
I jammed with Robby during a charity event for St. Jude’s Hospital. In 2010 I played with Ray for about 6,000 people for a charity event up in the Napa Valley. We were doing “Riders on the Storm” when all the electricity went off. Nothing worked–not the lights, not the PA. We’re sitting there with the band and an orchestra and Ray says, “Well, what shall we do now?” And I say: “Well, I can always pull my pants down.” And Ray says: “No no, don’t do that.” And then the lights came on and we did “Light My Fire.” In my opinion it was Jim Morrison being up to his old tricks. Even in death he’s a supernatural spirit, a prankster from the other world.
You know, I live by the Jim Morrison mural in Venice; I have to pass that every day. That’s just cosmic. And I get to say “Jim, thank you, man. Thanks to you, I’ve been to 14 countries and 28 states. Your words are paying my bills.”
Q: You’re one of Venice’s true-blue civic citizens; you’ve helped turn the town into a sort of Doors shrine. Are you lobbying for a plaque for the loft where Morrison wrote “Moonlight Drive”?
A: Actually, the owner of the building and I want to get the next-door building, the Cadillac Hotel, designated an historic landmark; Charlie Chaplin used to live there in the 20s. If we get landmark status for the Cadillac, we’re going to cobblestone this nearby alley and erect a Morrison statue and call it Morrison Plaza.
You know, Morrison’s old loft is near the beach. In fact, it’s near the spot where Morrison and Manzarek met again in 1965, after attending film school at UCLA. What’s really strange is that it’s the same spot where the woman who would become my wife first learned about me and Peace Frog. Melanie was waiting for her sister to come out of the bathroom when a woman happened to ask her: “Do you like the Doors?” She said “Yeah” and the woman told her: “Well, then, you’ve got to see this band.” Melanie and her sister came over to the Venice Bistro and her sister, who is also a singer, persuaded Melanie to get up onstage with me and sing “Roadhouse Blues.” That was in June of 2014.
Q: So, Tony, what tops your Bucket List?
A: We have plans to produce a musical play about the smart, witty Jim Morrison, not the often drunk, often dangerous guy portrayed in the movie by Oliver Stone. We want to set the record straight that, yes, the guy obviously had problems with alcohol, but there also was a side of him who was a Southern gentleman, who was funny, who could have you in stitches for hours. It’s just payback for the gift, the blessing, of being able to play him and to perform this great music around the world for so long.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: I want to say “fuck you” to politics, which is strange because I’m a political scientist. I don’t like talking about it but I have to because of my students. I tell them that I’ve been around the block, that I’ve lived through Reagan and Clinton and the Bushes and Obama. I tell them about the differences between monarchy and oligarchy and democracy, that our system has checks and balance and that it will, at the very least, steer our course in the right direction. Our country has to go through this [upheaval] every 50 or 60 years. That’s what happened in the ’60s. when the Doors were early opponents of the Vietnam War.
The only thing I’ll say onstage that’s political is: “You’re all a bunch of slaves.” And then I’ll ad lib and say: “Maybe you like politicians lying to you. I don’t care if your politicians are Democrat or Republican, they’re all liars and mostly they’re lawyers. The one thing they say, in their Texas accent, is; ‘You call your liar and I’ll call my liar and I’ll see you in court.’”
Q: Do you encourage your students to watch you become Jim Morrison?
A: I did in the beginning. And then they started showing up to my shows and getting very drunk and not coming to class. They would a miss an exam and they’d say “But I was at your concert.” I got tired of their excuses, so I decided that I didn’t want my worlds colliding. To be honest, they’re 18, 19 years old and I ask them “Does anybody know the Doors?” and maybe three out of 40 to 50 will raise their hands. When I ask them “How many of you know ‘Light My Fire’?” I’ll get a few more hands. I do talk to them about Morrison as a big supporter of free speech and what happened in Miami [in 1969] when he allegedly whipped out his penis [during a Doors concert] and was arrested for lewd behavior, that an artist has the right to use anything when it comes to free expression. When he supposedly exposed himself he was obsessed with the Living Theatre; he had that kind of experimentation on his mind. It was okay maybe in northern states like New York and Pennsylvania but not in the South; that was the wrong place.
You know, I played a party in Florida when Morrison was pardoned [by the state of Florida in 2010]. I think it was too late; maybe an apology is more in order than a pardon. There’s no evidence that his [indecent exposure] actually happened. Members of the Doors have said he tried to expose himself but the police arrested him before he could do it. On appeal he was allowed to leave the country on a felony charge. He went to Paris and I don’t think he had any intention to return to the U.S. He didn’t want to be sentenced to six months in the penitentiary; he thought they were setting him up to be raped.
When I was young I was arrested and I spent one night in jail. As soon as I was handcuffed and couldn’t scratch my nose, that was enough for me to want to never give up my freedom again.
Q: Is there a Morrison lyric that illustrates your philosophy of life, that would be suitable on a bumper sticker, a T-shirt or even your tombstone?
A: Three come to mind: “This is the strangest life I’ve ever known.” “I’m a changeling/See me change.” And, obviously, “No one here gets out alive.” You’re asking about a guy who was a pure poet, not Garth Brooks. I have a T-shirt that says “We live, we die & death not ends it.” Morrison wrote that; it’s on the “An American Prayer” album that the Doors made with his poetry after his death. I believe there’s life after death, although I can’t explain it to you. We have no reference; it’s not in our vocabulary. It’s too grand a concept for us to comprehend; it’s beyond our puny minds.
Tony Fernandez: The Scoop
He named his band Peace Frog largely because the Doors song “Peace Frog” mentions Venice, his hometown and the Doors’ birthplace.
On January 4 he and Peace Frog celebrated the Day of the Doors in Venice, marking the 50th anniversary year of the Doors’ first album.
He’s proud that Venice is Southern California’s second most popular tourist attraction, trailing only Disneyland
He attributes the dramatic increase of the price to see Peace Frog perform in Venice partly to the dramatic increase of real-estate prices due to the emergence of Snapchat, which is headquartered in Venice.
In 2011 he was photographed placing his conch-shell belt against Jim Morrison’s crypt by a Peace Frog fan who just happened to be in Paris to honor the 40th anniversary of Morrison’s death. That night he watched a band led by Doors founders Robby Krieger and the late Ray Manzarek perform at the Bataclan, the same theater that terrorists attacked during a 2015 concert by the Eagles of Death.
Peace Frog’s new EP has original songs meant to sound like long-lost Doors tracks. Fernandez likes to joke in concert that “we couldn’t come up with anything new, so I dropped a little LSD in my guitarist’s coffee and all of a sudden these new songs just spewed out of him.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. His desert-island Doors tunes include “The Crystal Ship,” “LA Woman,” “Moonlight Drive,” “People Are Strange,” “Roadhouse Blues” and, yes, “The End.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.