It was supposed to be the weekend the Peace Frog front man commemorated the 40th anniversary of his hero Jim Morrison’s July 3, 1971 death, by visiting his crypt in Paris, not his own. Yet, he found himself shoveling dirt into a grave, looking up to see his own name on the tombstone.
As his sister watched him dig. “Oh my God, am I really dead,” he asked. “Yeah, you really are dead,” she replied.
First generation Cuban-American Tony Fernandez is not dead, but he was well on the way until he woke up from his nightmare and knew he had to get his life in order. Fernandez was a highly functioning alcoholic with two master’s degrees, and is a professor in both Political Science and Chicano Studies at Pierce College.
On weekends Fernandez portrays Jim Morrison in the Doors cover band “Peace Frog”, which he founded 18 years ago. He has since performed as Morrison in 14 countries and 28 states. Now that Fernandez has nearly five years sober the question is what is next in life? Cuba in December.
Fernandez’s obsession with The Doors began when growing up in a home rife with domestic violence. When he was 11 years old he watched the film “Apocalypse Now” which includes a scene, in which The Doors song “The End” plays. For the first time in his life Fernandez came to the realization that authority could be questioned.
“When I heard Jim Morisson say ‘father, yes son, I want to kill you,’ my ears perked up,” Fernandez said. “Can you do that? Is that possible?”
Fernandez said he never looked at his father the same again and began to put his headphones on and ignore him. Then, when 14 years old, he had grown as tall as him.
“I got in his face one time in the kitchen and stood toe to toe,” Fernandez said. “He didn’t make a move, so I just stared at him”
Within a month his father left the family and moved to Florida where he remarried. Fernandez has not had contact with him since.
“I did kill him in a way. Yeah, he is dead. He is gone. He left,” Fernandez said. “The amazing power of music. I am eternally grateful to Jim Morrison and The Doors for giving me that courage to stand up to my father.”
Fernandez has been performing music professionally since 1989. Within six months of starting Peace Frog in 1998, the band was performing “Light My Fire” on Dick Clark’s nationally televised “Your Big Break” and then touring Australia. Peace Frog has since played in Japan, Tahiti, Europe, Central America, Mexico, Canada and throughout the United States. Shortly after, he regained sobriety Fernandez did a 17-city tour in India.
Peace Frog has been doing residency gigs in Los Angeles since 2004, and currently rotates three musicians each at keyboard, drums and guitar. The only constant is Professor Tony Fernandez as Jim Morrison.
Sunday, April 17 at Zanzibar in Santa Monica, a sober green-tea drinking Fernandez belted out two and a half hours straight of Doors classics. And that was only the first set.
Keyboardist and left handed bass player, ala Ray Manzarek, John Harjo said Fernandez never loses his voice, and is the best singer he works with. When it comes to Fernandez’ portrayal of Morrison, he is at the very top in the world, according to Harjo.
“He has got it down. He has all the nuances,” Harjo said. “He has it going on.”
On Christmas break Fernandez plans to fly to Cancun and take a propeller plane to Havana to visit and play Cuba for the first time. He also hopes to connect with fellow political scientists at the University of Havana to discuss and speak about relations between the two countries.
On March 20, 2016, Barack Obama became the first sitting president since Calvin Coolidge in 1928 to visit Cuba. The Rolling Stones arrived the same week and performed in front of an estimated 400,000 people, becoming the first major international rock band to play in the country where Fidel Castro banned rock and roll in 1961, according to the Guardian.
“I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” said Obama, addressing the Cuban people.
The United States lost 58,000 soldiers in the 20 year long Vietnam War.
“We have better relations with Vietnam than we have with Cuba,” Fernandez said. “That is due to the strong Cuban-American lobbyists who have been dictating the policy of Washington toward Cuba. When Watergate happened the robbers were Cubans.”
Fernandez is excited about Cuba beginning to open up to the world and believes music can play a significant role in connecting people. He thinks the two music worlds can collaborate to spawn a new genre of music.
“Just like the Spaniards when they came and crossed Afro-Cuban with Spaniard-European and created salsa, and the flip side of salsa is Latin Jazz,“ Fernandez said. “We could create rock-Afro-Cuban.”
Fernandez grew up in Los Angeles, distanced from his Cuban roots and other Cuban immigrants who largely reside in Florida. He is the youngest child of well-educated dentists, who attended USC and UCLA respectively.
“What I’m hoping is to sit down [in Cuba] and share experiences and say what was your experience,” Fernandez said. “Oh, well this was my experience, and somehow connect, and start a new experience.”
His father was politically involved in the anti-Castro movement, which opened his son’s eyes to political science. The philosophies of Jim Morrison led Fernandez to question authority, especially that of his own abusive father.
Fernandez began drinking when he was 14 or 15 years old. The problem grew with binge drinking while partying in the music scene.
He said he was emotionally stunted as a teenager, and unable to cope with life’s problems until he found sobriety in his 40s.
“On the outside, it looked like I had the perfect life,” Fernandez said. “I was a college professor, an international rock star, and I was dating playboy centerfold bunnies and it was all good. On the inside I was completely empty and spiritually bankrupt.”
Internally, Fernandez held a secret. Alcohol was killing him and he knew it, but he would not tell a doctor because he knew they would tell him to stop drinking.
“For over a year I would have these strange bowel movements and it was just pure blood that would come out,” Fernandez said. “I knew I was dying.”
His music career was taking off in 2011, but he had reached rock bottom by the time he dreamed his own death in France, and visited the grave of Jim Morrison who died in a Paris bathtub at 27.
“Alcohol leads to death, jail or mental institutions,” Fernandez said. “And none of them sounded good to me. For me it was death.”
When Fernandez returned stateside he attempted to quit drinking but relapsed backstage at shows a couple times. Then he turned to MusiCares, an organization that helps musicians during hard times.
“The problem was that when I realized ‘hey, I really want to stop,’ I couldn’t,” Fernandez said.
The vocalist did not envision a long future while in the depths of severe alcohol abuse.
“A while back Tony was saying we [Peace Frog] probably have a good ten years left,” said Peace Frog drummer Bobby Breton. “Now that he is healed, we have many more years left. That is the beauty about sobering up.”
In recovery, Fernandez had to apologize to those around him including his bandmates for his behavior. Once becoming sober and having more clarity on life, the hardest person to forgive, was himself.
At one point in life Fernandez was okay with digging his own grave, but it was not the end. He is now approaching five years sober and got married 1 ½ years ago. Fernandez now looks toward the future. He dreamed this death, but it sparked a new beginning, an opportunity Morrison never had.
Morrison inspired Fernandez to question the status quo and stand up to his own father. Now Fernandez hopes to inspire students to face their addictions, and realize their potential to achieve a bright future.
Fernandez preference was beer, but he notices when attending 12 step meetings that the younger generation is hooked on prescription pills, especially opiates.
”I want students to know that there is help and that silence equals death,” Fernandez said. “You can’t do it by yourself. I couldn’t do it by myself.”