Don Dokken of Dokken
Interview by Andrew Daly
Golden-voiced and as distinct as they come, in the ’80s, Don Dokken proved to be a worthy foil to his enigmatic partner in crime, George Lynch.
Standout records such as Breaking the Chains (1983), Tooth and Nail (1984), Under Lock and Key (1985), and Back for the Attack (1987) are retrospectively looked at as some of the ’80s best. And it’s with good reason considering Dokken, with his vibrato-laden voice, complimented Lynch’s exalted heroes to perfection.
What’s more, Dokken’s classic rhythm section featuring Jeff Pilson on bass and ‘Wild’ Mick Brown on drums was as hard-hitting as it comes. But while Dokken’s original lineup produced a ton of memorable music, infighting, drugs, and creative differences saw to it that the band met its end when they should have been reaching their peak.
In the ensuing years, Don Dokken has forged on. Be it through his solo career or the twists and turns that have seen his namesake band rise again, Dokken’s determination to succeed on his own terms is what’s most defined him.
These days, Don Dokken lives a quiet life. He’s gotten away from the hustle and bustle of L.A., settling in as a peaceful dweller of the mountains of New Mexico. But it hasn’t been easy since the release of Dokken’s last record, Broken Bones (2012). In the eleven years since the members of Dokken have faced a myriad of physical maladies leading to the band nearly meeting yet another untimely end.
Somehow, though, Don Dokken has once again come out the other side. He’s a little worse for the wear, and sadly, due to a botched surgery, he can no longer play guitar or piano, making songwriting nothing short of difficult. Still, he’s managed to craft another Dokken record when most thought the band to be dead.
And while Dokken’s next record, which is due out in September of 2023, might be the veteran band’s last, it also couldn’t be Dokken hardest fought to date. Considering the band’s history, that’s certainly saying something.
As he prepared for what appears to be his final run, a battered and bruised Don Dokken dialed in with Classic Rock History to talk Dokken’s first studio record in eleven years, the departure of Mick Brown, making peace with George Lynch, and more.
Are you at liberty to talk about the new Dokken record?
Don Dokken: Yes, I can. I was on the phone with my record company today, approving the artwork and all that shit. The official release date is September 15, 2023.
It’s been eleven years since Broken Bones. Why the long lag between albums?
Dokken: So, Broken Bones was an appropriate title because this band had been through hell since. Our bassist Chris [McCarville], loves BMX riding, and he took a bad fall. He completely shattered his should in thirteen places. It was so bad that they wanted to cut off his arm, to which he said, “Fu*k that.” They ended up putting in thirteen massive screws in his arm to screw the bones back together and said, “Well, it might work. And it might not. It gets infected; the arm is done.”
And then our guitarist, John [Levin], had numbness in his left hand. He went to the doctor and found out he had an extra rib that pushed against his carotid nerve, cutting off the bloodstream. So, he had surgery and was out of commission for months. And then there are my problems, which are totally fu*ked up. I had surgery, and the fu*king doctor paralyzed me. And now my entire right arm is paralyzed from the shoulder down. So that’s why it’s been eleven years; shit hit the fan from all angles.
How did that affect your mindset while writing Dokken’s new record?
Dokken: Well, I’ve given up on the idea that I’ll ever play piano or guitar again, which sucks because I’m the main writer. So, how do we write songs? It’s taken us years of going through all my old hard drives and looking for pieces of music that might be cool to get to this point. We didn’t want to put a shitty record out, so it was a lot of stitching things together.
The lyrics weren’t a problem; it was the music. The way I used to do it was if I had an idea in my head, I’d work it out on guitar or the piano. But I can’t do that anymore, so it was very slow. John was great, but when you’ve been something one way for your whole life, it can be tough to translate that to somebody else because they have a different feel and voice the chords differently.
Do you feel pressure to make a “classic sounding” record?
Dokken: When you get paralyzed, you go through three phases: the first one is depression. And then you become suicidal, and then you move on to revenge. So, that’s what I was going through, and by the time I got to the end, I very much wanted to make the best record I could. I wanted to make a record that sounds like a straight-up classic Dokken. And that means big choruses, harmonies, guitars, and all that shit. But one of the hardest things about doing that was we didn’t have Mick [Brown].
So, for a couple of years, we didn’t have a drummer. I was in a dark fu*king place; I just didn’t want to talk about it in public. People kept asking, “Where’s the new record?” And it’s like, “Well, guess what? I’m fu*king paralyzed, and my band is falling apart.” People would see me on the road with bent-up fingers and ask, “What’s up with your hand?” But it’s not just my hand; it’s my whole fu*king arm. And that’s tough, but losing Mick the way I did was brutal. I haven’t heard from him since he walked away.
What exactly happened with Mick?
Dokken: He completely blindsided me. He literally did it as we were walking off the airplane. We were waking off, and Mick goes, “Hey, I gotta talk to you.” I said, “Okay… what’s up?” And Mick says, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m quitting. I’m too beat up.” So, I said, “Okay, well, let’s just finish up the show tomorrow night.” And Mick goes, “No, I’m done. Good luck.” And I’ve not seen or heard from him since.
Why do you feel Mick handled it that way?
Dokken: That’s just Mick. I knew he was going downhill, but I didn’t expect him to leave the way he did after forty fu*king years. But I’ve always said that being a drummer is the hardest job in a band. And you have to remember that Mick was a hard hitter, man. He refused to ease up, and he used to say, “I can’t keep time or play any other way. I’ve either got to smash the fu*k out of the drums or not play at all. That’s how I play.”
And the day that Mick quit, I remember asking, “Where is Mick?” And I looked over, and he literally couldn’t get out of his chair. I had to give him my arm and pull him up. That’s how bad his knees had gotten. But it’s not just his knees; his feet and toes are gone. And all of his fingers are arthritic, and his knuckles are swollen and huge. All that is from pounding on the drums like he did for like fifty years.
How close were you to ending Dokken then and there?
Dokken: Well, we did stop for a couple of years. The big turning point was being offered a deal with Silver Lining Music to record this record. But I told them it was going to take time. But the bummer is that they only gave me ten songs. I’ve never heard of a record company that wanted less music. We had over thirty songs going in, so we had to cut a lot out.
Maybe the only reason this album is even happening is because we got this deal. I mean… it’s no secret that all the bands like Dokken are on Frontiers Records. And let me tell you this: there was no fu*king way I would ever make a record for Frontiers. There’s no point. Sorry, but it’s true. The deal with them is they give you an advance up front, you bust your ass, and then you make nothing after, and the record dies in a week.
While Mick is gone, things seem to have thawed with George Lynch…
Dokken: Truthfully, we did that with George to increase our attendance. And it was only supposed to be for three or four shows, but it got way out of hand. And then George went and put Lynch Mob back together after he tried calling his band the Electric Freedom, which didn’t work. He was worried that the old name sounded racist, but I said, “George, it’s your name. You’ve had it since 1990. Why change it now?” But Black Lives Matter and all that made him nervous that people were taking it wrong, so he changed it. But it ended up really hurting him in the end.
So, after that, we had this reformed Lynch Mob opening for George and us coming out and doing songs at the end of the set. And honestly, I wasn’t down with that. I thought it was insulting to John, who is a great guitarist and has been with the band for twenty years. It’s like, “Oh, sorry, John, George is coming out now.” That ain’t cool, man. So, I told John, “If you don’t want to do this, we won’t do it.” And John said, “Fu*k it, we’ll do it.” So, that worked out for a time, but I put an end to it. George is not in Dokken; we’re done with that. He will come out for a few shows this year, but every night. And Lynch Mob is not opening for Dokken anymore.
Does it frustrate you that people seem to focus on the George Lynch era of Dokken?
Dokken: Yep, it does. I don’t get it, man. I get that he was there for the MTV era of Dokken, but that era doesn’t even have my favorite album. My favorite Dokken album is Dysfunctional. But even that was supposed to be a solo album. I wrote the whole album myself, but Columbia forced me to get the original lineup back together. I told them, “I don’t think this is going to work,” but they really wanted George back, so I did it.
But bad blood is bad blood. You wouldn’t want to get back with an ex-wife, even if it seems good at the time, you know? Eventually, you’ll remember why you couldn’t stand each other, and she’s going to be playing with your head again. We never got along from the moment George joined the band, so it was no surprise that it fell apart again. But George and I have come to peace. We text and chat, but he’ll never be in Dokken again.
Considering you didn’t get along, why were you able to create so much great music with George?
Dokken: That’s where people get it wrong. That whole idea is fantasy because I never wrote with the other three guys. Those three guys wrote songs out in Orange County, and I wrote my songs by myself in my apartment. There was no collaboration. People think that the sound of Dokken was George’s guitar and my lyrics, but that’s not true. The real Dokken was arguing about whose song got on the record. But the way I looked at it was the best songs should be there; nothing else mattered.
Is that what caused Dokken to implode at its peak?
Dokken: My deal with Dokken was simple: it was a four-way split. That means if I make a dollar, you make a dollar. That made it simple. So, if George writes a hit, I get money; if I write a hit, he gets money. The same went for Jeff [Pilson] and Mick. But things changed around the time of our last show in Denver, Colorado. This meeting is essentially what ended Dokken the first time.
So, we had a big meeting with the record company and the management, and the three other guys came up with this cockamamie idea that everybody in the band gets to write four songs for each record. And I said, “But shouldn’t the best songs get on the record? What if these guys write four crappy songs?” Plus, the other guys had very different tastes, so it would never work. So, I said, “No, I can’t do it. The band is done. I guess it’s over.” I don’t think I’ve ever told that story until now.
Do you regret that decision?
Dokken: I regret the timing of it, but not making it. Because our manager said, “Look, hang in there; you’re one more record and world tour away from breaking this wide open.” I mean… at that point, we had Metallica opening for us. And four years later, Metallica is the biggest band in the world. We could have been right there had we stayed together. I firmly believe that. But I just couldn’t go on anymore. The damage being inflicted was too much.
What sort of damage were you taking on?
Dokken: The same old shit you hear about when watching The Dirt or whatever. It was too many drugs and a ton of fighting and ego-driven bullshit. And there was a massive amount of cocaine abuse and some intense alcoholism. It was just ridiculous. And it wasn’t me; I never did coke. Coke was never my drug of choice. I was more of a wine drinker, and then I’d take a Valium to sleep. I never got into coke. But when those guys started getting money, they jumped headlong down the rabbit hole. They’d be in the back of the bus for three days, going wild, while I was alone in my bunk doing my thing.
Does taking the stage with George re-open those wounds?
Dokken: No, I’m totally at peace with it. We get along, we talk, and we shoot the shit. But it depends on what show we’re doing. Anyone who knows George knows that sometimes he’s in a good mood, and other times he’s in a bad mood. Sometimes he’s in a bad mood. It’s kind of like, “Who am I talking to today?” But I’m not gonna pass judgment on anyone, as I’ve got my own shit. George and I are cool now; he’s just moody.
But it makes it hard sometimes because you never know which George you’re gonna get. I have to wonder, “Is he going to come on stage, shred, and play awesome? Or is he just going to stand there, look cool, and ignore everyone?” I never knew, but I didn’t think it was a good look for us to end the show with George when I never knew if he’d be playing great or not. But that’s just George. It doesn’t matter what he does; he’ll always be known as a great guitar player. That’s his legacy.
Given all you’ve been through, do you expect this upcoming album to be the final Dokken record?
Dokken: What’s on the horizon for me is probably retirement. If I can’t hold a guitar, I can’t write music. It’s over. When this doctor did this to my arm, I was deeply depressed. And honestly, I was close to fu*king decking him in the face. It’s taken me years of fighting to get to this point, as I was working to get past the fact that this fu*king surgeon butchered me. But I haven’t gotten further than getting this album done and talking to you right now.
I’m trying to build up strength, and I removed the noise from my life. I’ve told the band that we’ll probably do twenty shows a year, and we’ll see what happens. I’ll be 70 years old in June and do these shows for the fans. But I’m not very stable, and I don’t want to be like Jack Russell, where I’m going out there with a cane, barely holding it together. So, if it gets to that stage, I’m going home.
So, what lies ahead?
Dokken: Beyond that, Netflix called me; they want to do a movie on Dokken. But they want it to be kind of like The Dirt. So, we’re gonna do it. But I haven’t seen the script yet, so I don’t know the details, but it’s happening. My only rule was that I needed to be the executive producer. Because I don’t want to make a movie like The Dirt. I don’t want to have a movie like Mötley did with Nikki Sixx having needles hanging out of his arm, you know? Even though Dokken had its problems, I don’t want it to be solely about the negative shit between me and George. But that’s it. This is probably the last run for Dokken. So, if fans wanna see us, they better get off their asses and do it.
Feature Photo: Weatherman90 at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Don Dokken Of Dokken: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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