Singer/Songwriter/Soldier: An Exclusive Interview with Don Dokken

By Charlie Steffens aka Gnarly Charlie, Writer/Photographer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008 @ 1:43 PM

All this shit is baggage you drag through life, and then you purge it in art, journalism, music, your job, or you drag it with you all through tour life. But I purged it. I purged it in my songs.

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The '80's were unequivocally the greatest years in the history of hard rock. There were no limits to the artistic expression, and it seemed unfair that these high-haired rock and rollers were getting dirty-rotten-filthy-stinking rich while having the time of their lives.

Maybe you remembered the soaring, powerful guitar solos and those gooshy ballads that bled with emotion. Maybe it was the big budget MTV videos that moved you. Maybe you were envious of the pouty-lipped, over-coiffed, spandex-wearing sissies who got more ass than a proctologist. If you were a lady of the ‘80’s, maybe you had the teased-up Lita Ford hairdo going and fantasized about having Sebastian Bach’s lovechild.

Needless to say, much of the music from that time rendered me horny and delusional.

One of the bands that fell between the cusp of pretty and gritty in sound and physical features was a four-piece outfit from Los Angeles known as Dokken. From 1984 to 1988, singer Don Dokken, guitarist George Lynch, bassist Jeff Pilson, and drummer “Wild” Mick Brown tasted lavish success, but personality disorders, egos, and drugs caused irreparable damage, which ultimately split them apart. Not a real unique story in rock, by any means. Dokken’s music was indescribable, however. George’s sacred guitar solos and the mystifying harmonies of Don, Jeff, and Mick are not forgotten.

Fast forward to July 2008:

Dokken has recently released its best album in over a decade, Lightning Strikes Again. They are out playing arenas with Poison, and word has it that these days they’re not beating the crap out of each other.

I recently had a conversation with Don Dokken that was candid, funny, evergreen, and at times a bit lynching.

KNAC.COM: There are two original members in the current lineup, yet this record, Lightning Strikes Again, sounds like a true to form Dokken record.

DOKKEN: Mick wrote two songs on the record. He said “Let’s just pretend like it’s 1985 and see if we can put ourselves back in that mentality.” Jon [Levin] kept pushing me to let him write classic Dokken riffs. Obviously it was the right direction, because it’s our most successful record in the last decade, as far as reviews and all that. I haven’t heard anybody say that it’s a bad record.

KNAC.COM: It charted really well, didn’t it?

DOKKEN: Yeah, shockingly. 125 on Billboard and Number 1 on Amazon.com.

KNAC.COM: Jon Levin’s guitar playing on the record is great.

DOKKEN: Pretty good for an attorney. From lawyer to guitar player in Dokken. What a strange journey that’s been. He quit Doro Pesch and Warlock back in ’91. We get along and everyone knows what their gig is. I’m the guitar player and I’ll write some riffs. You’re the singer and you write the melodies and everyone knows their role.

KNAC.COM: You seem to be in better shape physically and vocally than you’ve looked and sounded in years. What’s up with you?

DOKKEN: I’m drug free, alcohol free. I’m in good shape. I had surgery on my voice. I put it off for ten years I should have got it done sooner. I had sinus disease and all kinds of problems. I was fighting it. I feel pretty good.

KNAC.COM: Was the sinus problem from doing blow?

DOKKEN: I never did blow. Everybody in the band—that was their drug of choice. It wasn’t my thing.

KNAC.COM: Over time you got hooked on pills, right?

DOKKEN: Yeah, I was on opiates. I got hooked on pills from a back injury and it just escalated over the years till it was up to morphine levels. Enough was enough, so I went to rehab.

KNAC.COM: How is it living life without any insulation, so to speak?

DOKKEN: Well, you’re obviously more energetic and you see the world through clearer eyes. I think you make better decisions. When you’re high or in an altered state of consciousness on anything –in this business--everybody swoops and takes advantage of you.

KNAC.COM: It takes a while to adjust to being sober for some people because booze and drugs were their means for coping. Has it been difficult for you?

DOKKEN: I can’t pop a Xanax every time I have stress. If I get anxiety, go for a walk. If I’m upset about something and I need to work it out, instead of brooding on it, I’ll go out in my garden and get in the ground and dig in the dirt and plant some flowers and sort it all out. An idle mind is awful. I found other alternatives to deal with my back pain. It wasn’t like I was a drug seeker. You know, I just did what the doctors told me and it escalated.

KNAC.COM: Having gone through treatment for your drug problem is it okay for you to have a beer or a cocktail or two or five?

DOKKEN: I had a sake a couple weeks ago and Jon kinda looked at me and he goes “Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that. Your girlfriend’s gonna get pissed.” And I’m like, “I want a sake. Come on, man. Let’s take it easy. I’m not gonna go put the habit on and a collar, and I’m not going to check into a monastery.” And that was it. I had it and I’m glad I did, because it doesn’t taste as good as I remember. It didn’t really do it for me. It was kind of a test. It wasn’t like I was an alcoholic. It was a combination of drinking, opiates, sleeping pills, and anxiety medication. It was a combination that was taking me out. I knew what was going to happen. I was going to pull a Heath Ledger. That’s the bottom line. When Heath died he just took one of these and one of those and he couldn’t sleep. Kevin DuBrow did coke his whole life and he got away with it, but just up to that one time too many.

KNAC.COM: You hear about all these guys who’ve been clean for years, then all of a sudden you hear they’re off the wagon.

DOKKEN: Steven Tyler was in Las Encinas. I was in Las Encinas. I’m leaving, out of rehab, he’s checking in. I’m like “You’ve been clean fifteen years…”

KNAC.COM: Twenty years, I think.

DOKKEN: Twenty. It should be a cakewalk by now.

KNAC.COM: I’ve watched the Unchain the Night video a few times, and I remember the parts where Mick, Jeff, and George were getting fucked up, having a good time, and then the scene changes over to your hotel room and here’s Don, in his bathrobe, by himself.

DOKKEN: In the 80’s I didn’t do any drugs, because I was so obsessed with my career. I just couldn’t jump in with them, which is one of the reasons I think broke the band up. When you get high and people don’t, people look at you like the enemy. It’s kind of a strange mentality. You got guys in the back of the bus chopping coke, and I’m sitting in a bunk reading a book. I could’ve jumped in with them really easily, but it just wasn’t my thing.

KNAC.COM: You got back together in ‘94 and released Dysfunctional, then shortly after you recorded an acoustic show at The Strand in Redondo Beach, California.

DOKKEN: Yeah, One Live Night was an acoustic warm-up show.

KNAC.COM: That was a great show. It seemed like you guys were really having a good time and had dumped the old baggage.

DOKKEN: It was a sad show, because it showed the band still had the magic. I thought, “Okay, we’re off to a good roll here. Jeff, Mick, and I wrote that album Dysfunctional without George. He came in at the last second when it was done and put some solos on it. It was our project. We did One Live Night to break it in slow and then we did the tour and some shows with Bon Jovi. Then the whole thing just imploded again for the same fuckin’ reasons. George just doesn’t know how to be a team player. It’s not in his nature.

KNAC.COM: Around that time I saw you guys play in a club in San Diego, the Bacchanal, and it seemed like you were already splitting apart again.

DOKKEN: Yep. Over petty stuff, too. George had his own drug. He went through his steroid phase and that was really bizarre, because it makes you angry and hostile. I remember toward the end of that tour I literally went out and bought a can of mace (laughs). “You come over here and start smacking that guitar and I’m gonna mace you.” That’s when I said, “I can’t live like this. I gotta go. I’m out.” Jeff and Mick went with me because they finally realized that it wasn’t just Don. It was always Don, Don, Don, but when Jeff got clean off a really bad drug and alcohol problem they realized it’s not me and I didn’t have to defend myself anymore. It wasn’t like it was just George and me. It was a personality conflict. It just couldn’t go on. George and I didn’t get along from the day he joined the band. It wasn’t like we got along and then it fell apart. He never wanted to be in Dokken from the get go. But you gotta remember where he came from, even though he’s a great guitar player.

KNAC.COM: Where did you find George?

DOKKEN: He was driving a Gallo wine truck. He was working for Gallo, driving Gallo wine, delivering it to liquor stores and I was in Germany making the demos. He and Mick were driving Gallo wine trucks, delivering Gallo to the ‘hood. I thought they’d be grateful. It wasn’t like they got the record deal. It was my deal, my songs. Maybe that’s what the problem was. We never started as a band. They came in after the fact.

KNAC.COM: Tooth and Nail was the album that made the world know who Dokken was.

DOKKEN: It was a moment in time and it was magic. Breaking the Chains wasn’t a big hit. The label wanted to drop us, and I think everybody didn’t want to go back to their old life. So, it was like “This is it.” That’s why I called the album Tooth and Nail. “This is it. It’s tooth and nail. You guys either pull it together or we can go back to flipping burgers and playing in clubs and driving Gallo wine trucks. Or we can go out and tour arenas like we just did on the Breaking the Chains tour. Take your pick.” So, that was a little bit of a motivator.

KNAC.COM: Would you consider bringing George back into the band?

DOKKEN: He’s talking about it, but I don’t know why he talks about it. Jeff’s happy in Foreigner. He’s not interested. Mick’s not interested at all—for any price. I don’t see any point in it. Jon Levin, in my opinion, is just as good as George.

KNAC.COM: You guys were rich and were enjoying the fruits of success when the record business was hemorrhaging money.

DOKKEN: In the height of our success we were doing Monsters of Rock and we should have just been giddy with excitement and I’m giddy with excitement but I’m being brought down because we’re trying to drag one of the members out of the hotel room that’s locked himself in his room with a bag of cocaine. I didn’t get it. We’re doing stadiums. This is a dream come true. We’ve won the lottery and someone’s trying to tear the ticket up. We were making millions and everyone was complaining.

KNAC.COM: You guys had beautiful women at your beck and call every night back in the ‘80’s, didn’t you?

DOKKEN: Yeah. We did. And I had a lot of women because I was the baby-faced androgynous-looking-kind-of-singer guy and chicks would go “Oh, I’ll fuck you in a heartbeat.” I’d think “You don’t even know me. You know the guy in the video. You don’t know what I’m like, who I’m like, what kind of person I am.” It didn’t matter. At some point you think they’re all just sluts and whores and you wake up one day and you say, “No, I’m the slut. I’m the whore.” You wake up and you realize there’s more to life than that. It became tedious. First it was a game for your ego. My kids came along after the Monsters of Rock tour. I had a boy and a girl, and everything changed. The whole world looked different. They’re innocent, and you see through their eyes. It’s the normal story: do you want to go to The Rainbow Friday night when they’re seven or do you want to go to the Cub Scout meeting? It sounds corny, cheesy, and domestic, but that’s real life. My son’s coming out next week to spend a week with me on the road and I’m totally excited about it. Am I excited about meeting bimbos backstage? No. I’m excited about my son coming out and hanging out with me for a week. He just turned 20, and just got his pilot’s license yesterday. So we’re going to celebrate. After he goes home my daughter’s coming out for a week. That’s life.

KNAC.COM: It was devastating, to say the least, for you to watch your band go to pieces. How did you deal with it?

DOKKEN: I was angry when Dokken broke up. It’s the story of my life and I went to therapy. I go, “My whole life is fucked now.” Nirvana came out and I thought, “Well, I had a good run. Ten years. It’s over.” I kicked back for three years, got my head straight, and then said, “Well, I’m just going to continue on. I’m just going to keep fighting the fight and making records. That’s what I do. I’m not going to go through life angry, because it will make you old and haggard and tired and bitter. Nothing good comes out of it.”

KNAC.COM: What does the typical audience look like on your current tour with Poison?

DOKKEN: I’m laughing, because there are a lot of people I’ve noticed at the shows who don’t seem to know the Poison songs. They’re not really hardcore fans of the genre. A lot of them come because they want to see Brett Michaels from the reality show Rock of Love. All these MILFS. These forty-year old women, screaming “Brett Michaels, Brett Michaels!” And they’re wearing the cowboy hat. You can see they’re having a good time, enjoying watching the show, and liking Dokken. It’s been a very strange, interesting demographic of women. I’m used to going onstage and hearing the roar, and now I go onstage and hear this high-pitch screaming. It’s mind-boggling. It’s like I’m on tour with David Cassidy. God bless Brett. I’m glad Brett found all this success. I’m really happy for him, but you gotta chuckle at this point in our career and go, “You girls don’t get it, do you?” They just wanna see the David Cassidy up there. Brett’s reinvented himself as a reality star, and it’s paying off for him and Poison. It’s like curiosity…I don’t know what it is. That TV show turned a whole generation of people on to Poison, who had never heard of Poison.

KNAC.COM: Dokken toured with the real heavyweights and not so many so-called hair bands, right?

DOKKEN: People ask me, “How many times have you toured with Poison?” In the ‘80’s we never toured with the Poisons, or the Warrants, or the Wingers, or the Faster Pussycats, or the LA Guns, or even the Motleys...or the Bon Jovis. We toured with AC/DC, Priest, Van Halen, Scorpions, Sammy Hagar, Dio. The list goes on and on. Always the heavy bands. Krokus. We toured with all the Euro bands, the more heavy bands. We never toured with the MTV bands, and they still put Dokken in the hair band pile. I’m like, “Where have you guys been? We toured with Judas Priest Turbo, and Dio Last in Line, and we did stadiums with AC/DC on the Back in Black tour. We weren’t out there doing the Poison tours. But I get their success. I didn’t get them for many, many years—didn’t really understand it. But I get it. It’s about good times and fun. It’s a party…certain songs are light, not serious. I mean, you got a song like “Unskinny Bop” and songs like that…

KNAC.COM: I hate that song. When I hear it I want to do a drive-by shooting.

DOKKEN: Then I write a song like, You weave your spell. Your eyes they beckon me. Your eyes they speak lies and misery. “Into the Fire.” It’s a dark, brooding song. We’re just from two different worlds, as writers.

KNAC.COM: I’m going to guess that you had some pretty devastating breakups. “Walk Away,” for example. Talk about the depth of despair (laughs).

DOKKEN: Yeah, it was miserable. I’ve gone through bad relationships, and 90 percent of them failed because of me, not them. Of course, I always blame them, but my answer was always, “You don’t understand. You’re not getting it.” The truth was that I wasn’t getting it.

KNAC.COM: Did you have a pretty fucked up childhood?

DOKKEN: I was raised in foster homes my whole life. You have parents, but they’re not raising you, and you wonder why they don’t want you. I bounced from foster home to foster home, just a real fucked up childhood. All this shit is baggage you drag through life, and then you purge it in art, journalism, music, your job, or you drag it with you all through tour life. But I purged it. I purged it in my songs. Everybody thought my songs were about my love affairs that failed and abandonment —it’s just about my sadness sometimes. If I wouldn’t have had that I probably wouldn’t have gravitated to music. My escape was to go in the garage and plug in my guitar and play the drums and listen to music. That gave me my out.

KNAC.COM: “Sleepless Night” from Back for the Attack is one song I can think of that isn’t as dark and down as a lot of your other songs, yet you’re still obsessing about some chick, right?

DOKKEN: Right.

KNAC.COM: “Burning Like a Flame” is a happy, almost celebratory song of good loving gone good.

DOKKEN: “It’s Not Love,” “Just Got Lucky,” “Alone Again,” Into the Fire.” “In My Dreams” is kind of a closure song, like, “Okay, you’re gone, but I’ll never forget you.” But then there are songs like “Tooth and Nail” that talks about how you just barrel through life. There are a lot of different storyboards that I’ve used, and I’ve written songs about AIDS. “Kiss of Death” is about AIDS. She promised paradise but gave the kiss of death. You’re sleeping with girls on the road and you just don’t know if you sleep with somebody what you’re going to get.

KNAC.COM: It was just a “brief encounter.”

DOKKEN: A brief encounter and you could die. A half-hour of sex and you’re going to die from it? It scared the hell out of everybody in the ‘80’s.

KNAC.COM: You wrote that song at what was probably the apex of the world’s ignorance about the disease.

DOKKEN: People didn’t know where it came from. Whether it was getting coughed on, kissing somebody and getting it through saliva. Nobody knew, and I wrote that song right at the apex of when people weren’t sure where it came from. It wasn’t a gay disease— heterosexuals could get it, too. We were all sleeping with anything that moved. It seemed like all the bands between ’84 and ’87 were in a competition who could sleep with the most girls. If I slept with better looking women than you did then I’m cooler. That’s just ego. Most musicians that I’ve met in my life are inherently insecure.

KNAC.COM: Knocking them down like dominos. It’s a great drug, too, but you’ll pay up the line, sometime. If you’re a sociopath, though, you’re not gonna feel it.

DOKKEN: That’s the problem. If you have sociopathic tendencies you’ll go through life and you’ll go to your grave going, “It wasn’t my fault that my life turned out this way. Everybody screwed me over. That’s sociopathic behavior: unaccountable for your actions. I became accountable for my actions after the band broke up because I realized I could’ve stopped it. I could have said, “I don’t get along with George. We’ll get on separate tour buses.” I could have said, “Let’s get a counselor.” I could’ve said, “I’m leaving the band,” which I did. I said, “Either you guys get clean or I’m leaving.” And they said, “Hah. Funny.”

Everybody talks about George. Jeff was one of the worst in the band. Jeff was out of his mind. He would go on these five and six day binges, locked in a house with a case of wine and an ounce of cocaine. It was just insanity. We all have demons and we have to deal with them. I’m out here on the road and I could fall way off into the whole lifestyle, but I just refuse.

Now I’m in the twilight of my career. I don’t know how many more arena tours I’m going to get. They’re far and few in between. Other bands are trying to make it go. They have to package up two or three bands. The money is one-tenth of what it used to be. In the old days it was “You wanna do Dio? How about Priest? Maybe Aerosmith, or do you wanna do AC/DC? I had four offers. Now it’s like, “This is what’s going out. This is your chance to go out with this band. And you jump at it and you go “It’ll be a blast. It’ll be fun.” My alter ego gets stroked for an hour a night onstage.

KNAC.COM: What do you think of yourself when you look at your old videos?

DOKKEN: I think they’re silly. I’m not an actor. I could never be an actor. I don’t know how to play to a camera. I look at “Breaking the Chains” and I think “Jesus. This is almost like Spinal Tap.” Some of those other bands came out who took command of the camera and it worked. But it was never me. I never felt good in front of the camera, lip-synching. It just didn’t fly for me, so our videos were mostly corny. There were some fun videos like “It’s Not Love” shot on Sunset Boulevard in the truck. That was fun. All in all most of our videos were just videos; something that was part of the thing to perpetuate your career, but I don’t look at one and go, “Wow, that’s a great artistic piece.” But they’re good benchmarks for the eras. Then you see “Walk Away,” which is more like a mini-movie with the snakes and the deer up at my friend’s house up in Topanga. It was kind of like this vignette of ethereal scenes and bonfires burning on the cliff. That was pretty cool.

KNAC.COM: Huge sound on “Walk Away.”

DOKKEN: Huge sound. We were posed to take over and be the world-touring band, and we were right on the precipice of being one of the hugest bands in the world. I was jumping for joy and crying at night, knowing it wasn’t going to happen, because there are members of this band that are absolutely obsessed with killing it. There was so much ego. Jeff was frustrated because he wasn’t lead singer. He was only the bass player. He got no respect. He was like the Rodney Dangerfield. You got George who wants to be in control, and he’s saying we should sound like Soundgarden. Then, you got Mick, who says, “I can’t deal with this shit. I’m just gonna do blow and drink a fifth of Jack Daniels. You guys work it out.”

KNAC.COM: What’s next for you after this tour, this chapter of your life?

DOKKEN: I don’t know what the future holds for the band Dokken. I’m in a quandary. It’s not up to me; it’s up to the fans. If the fans say they want to come to the show and they demand that we make more music and tour, then I will. If I don’t hear the cry from the fans then it’s going to be done.

KNAC.COM: So you don’t want to end up like John Kay and Steppenwolf playing Knott’s Berry Farm gigs?

DOKKEN: I’m not going there. I don’t want to end up like George Lynch, playing clinics at Guitar Center. I’d rather go out on a high note. I don’t want to end up at Joe’s Pizzeria…and I won’t. Will we ever be as big as Bon Jovi? No. Do we have our legacy? Yes. I’d like people to go out with a fond memory of us in the glory of our arena stage, or even a club, rather than headlining a puppet show.

Music was my escape. That is the bottom line. For all the sand kicked in my face in my childhood—it drove me more and more into music. That’s why I am where I am, so I can’t have any regrets about my upbringing.

KNAC.COM: You came up starving, right?

DOKKEN: Literally starving. After the Breaking the Chains tour we came home and we were in debt with the record company for half a million dollars. I remember, our manager at the time, Cliff Bernstein, gave us eight-hundred bucks a month to live on. So, we got two-hundred dollars a week. That’s what we lived on--to pay our rent. I had roommates. I was driving a ’72 Chevy van to haul my equipment. I had nothing. I had just done an arena tour with Blue Oyster Cult, and I came home to two-hundred dollars a week and a half-million dollars in debt. So I just disappeared into my bedroom with a four-track cassette recorder and wrote Tooth and Nail. I thought, “This is it. This is my last chance. If I’m going down I’m not going down because I didn’t give it one-thousand percent.” That record will stand the test of time, because everyone’s part shows in all of the playing. It was our way out and it worked. I’m grateful. I’ve had a great life. I’ve had a blessed life. I just wanna stay around as long as possible.

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