INTERVJU: Don Dokken

Don Dokken har fortfarande stora problem med sin högerarm efter en nackoperation förra året, men ser ändå ljust på framtiden. Här berättar han bland annat om kommande albumet “The lost songs: 1978-1981”, en liten guldklimp för Dokken-fans, men även om tidiga dagar med Van Halen, hur han byggde upp sin fanskara och hans vänskap med Y&T.


Tell me about ”The lost songs : 1978-1981”!

I was nervous about it. It´s very hard to make songs that old sonically acceptable. It´s a lot of work mastering them and remixing them… oh boy! The tapes were worn out and they were sitting in a garage for 40 years.

Had you forgotten that you had those tapes?

Completely. I had no clue. I have a house in LA and a house in Mexico and I was taking some stuff out of my storage locker. I have all this shit in storage and I hadn´t been in that storage locker in five years and I didn´t know what was in there. I went in there and started throwing shit away and then I found this box, like a plastic tub and I opened it up and I saw all these reel to reel tapes. I opened them and some of them weren´t marked and didn´t have any writing on them, so I went to a studio that has a reel to reel machine, because nobody uses them anymore and I said “Holy shit! These are all the songs that didn´t make it onto the records.” Some of them I didn´t have the master for so all I could do was remaster them and make them sound as good as possible. Put some more bottom on, some more top. I couldn´t do it in hifi because they were too old, so I did the best I could. I thought it would be an easy record to make, the songs are already done and I just had to put some new drums on there and a guitar solo, but it took me four months. I didn´t want my shit to sound like shit. The Covid thing hit. Nobody´s touring, nobody´s playing, the whole tour was cancelled and I was bored. I just said “I´m gonna go fuck around with these songs just for fun. People don´t realize that when you write a record of 11 songs, you don´t write 11 songs, you write 15 songs and you pick the 11 best. A lot of these songs just didn´t make it to the record. On every Dokken record we always write 15-16 songs. You write a song and you´re excited about it and think “This is great!” and when you get done you think “Nah, not so great.”


It must´ve been like being in a time machine, listening to those tapes for the first time?

Oh yeah! The record company said “So, where was this recorded at?” and I just went “I don´t know. I don´t remember. I´ve been to a hundred studios in my life.” I had to call my friends and ask “Do you remember where I did Step into the light or the one with Robin Trower´s rhythm section?” and they´d go “Yeah, that was in Media Arts Studio.” They´re now long gone, out of business. So, I couldn´t remember where I did them, but I knew all the songs were done long before the George Lynch/Jeff Pilson era.

Were these songs supposed to be on “Breaking the chains”?

Yeah, mostly “Breaking the chains” stuff. We wrote like 15 songs for that album. They didn´t make it and all these years later I listen to them and go “I don´t know, that song´s pretty cool.”

I picked four of the songs and thought you could comment on them. First one is “Step into the light”

That song I wrote in ´78 or ´79 and all I had was a little drum machine and me playing guitar and singing and that´s as far as it got. I had my drummer put real drums on it and Jon put a guitar solo on it. It was really a cheap little eight-track demo and I just tried to spruce it up.

“Day after day” then?

I recorded that one in Hamburg, Germany in 1979 when I first met Michael Wagener, who went on to become a famous producer. Michael was just an engineer working at his studio across from the club I was playing. He said “Hey, you should come into the studio after the show!” We went into the studio at 1 o´clock in the morning and we did “We´re going wrong”, “Day after day”, “Felony” and a whole bunch of songs.

Going to Germany back then, was that just for a tour?

Yeah, I did a tour. I met somebody while playing at a club in LA and he owned a club in Hamburg, a famous club and pretty big, and rock was kind of dying out here. It was new wave and punk was coming in and Van Halen had already taken off by 78 and all of a sudden all these clubs were just booking new wave and punk like X and Black Flag and all this shit and I´m like “Well, sounds great, but it´s not what I do.” And he said “Well, in Germany we have Saxon, Accept and Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. You should come to Germany, because you´re more like a European band.” I said that I´d love to come to Germany and I hadn´t been out of the country. His name was Michael and he said I could stay at his house, “I have drums and amps and just buy plane tickets and I know all the club owners all over Germany and I´ll book you a tour.”

Third song I picked is “No answer”

Oh yeah! That was a newer song, like 1980. Probably the last song that we didn´t put on “Breaking the chains” Good song though. A little song where you could kind of tell where my head was at. Kind of gives you my mindset where I was when I was 27 years old.

Last song is “Hit and run”

I wrote that song with Juan Croucier (Ratt). My first tour in Germany, Juan was my bass player. We wrote that one together in the studio and that was it. I think Juan wrote most of that song. I´m singing it, but I think it´s more of a Juan song.

When he left to join Ratt, were you pissed off?

I wasn´t pissed off. I totally understood. He couldn´t stand George (Lynch) like me. He couldn´t handle George. We went back to Germany in 1981 and we did this tv-show The Beat. “Breaking the chains” came out and Juan was in the band and when we came back to America he said “I just can´t handle George.” and I said “I don´t blame you.” He was playing with Ratt and they got a record deal and the rest is history.

It´s not uncommon for the singer and the guitar player not getting along, like Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth. Do you think you kind of need that because it creates something out of that friction in a way?

I don´t think so. Everybody said that because George and I not getting along it made us play better music. I totally disagree. It´s bullshit. Why? Because David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen were fighting, I don´t think it makes it better. I think it makes more stress. On every album we fought about which songs should be on the album. It was endless. “Write and album and we´ll all be happy!” No, it was just constant stress.

What are you´re memories of yourself back in 78-81?

Well, I was young and naïve. I didn´t know shit and that´s the truth. I didn´t know anything. I´d go to the studio and everything was brand and I didn´t know what was going on. I just wrote songs as best I could. I was naïve.

What was LA like back then? That´s when the whole Sunset Strip era was starting to take off.

It was. Even late 70´s. Van Halen came out in the 70´s and that´s when I was playing. I played with Van Halen, Quiet Riot, Ratt and we were all just trying to do the same thing, trying to get our career going.

Later on when it really took off and Dokken started selling a lot of records, was there a big camaraderie between bands or just a lot of competition?

A lot of competition. Everybody was fighting to get the gig. Everybody wanted to play on a Friday night. It all came down to who had the biggest draw of all the bands around. Back in those days they had this crazy thing they used to do. I remember that in a lot of the clubs you had to pay to get in, but they gave all the bands unlimited guestlists. I remember going down to the beach with a clipboard going “Hey, I´m in a band called Dokken and we´re playing the Starwood. You wanna go? I´ll put you on the guestlist. It´s free.” and these people would go “Ok!” Then I would show up at the club with a very organized, typed out guestlist with like a 150 people. I figured that if 50 people show up, I´m good. I´d put everybody and their mother on the guestlist. If they don´t show up, they don´t show up, but after a while I remember the club owners going “Man, you´ve got a big fanbase!” and I said “I don´t know these people.” (laughs) But they didn´t care. If they get in for free and they all buy a drink, the club made money. That´s how I built my fanbase, so by 1978 we were drawing our own 200 people to our shows. But that´s honestly how I did it, by going to the beach saying “You wanna be on the guestlist?”

A band like Van Halen, was that a band you could sense were going to go places?

It was obvious. The first show I ever did with them was at a club and it was Van Halen, Dokken and some other band and I remember the first time I saw Eddie Van Halen I just stood there with my mouth open, like “Holy shit!” I´m a guitar player and I had never seen that before. I´d never seen someone use two hands on the neck and the tapping and all that shit. Honestly, in my opinion, Eddie changed the whole face of rock and roll. Ten years later I´m playing with him on the Monsters of Rock tour (1988). We used to play in front of 500 people and now we were playing in front of 100.000 people. Me and Eddie used to spend time talking about the Whisky days and who would´ve thought we´d end up playing stadiums. It just happened and it happened very quickly. When Van Halen took off it was on. They went from the Whisky to arenas in like one year. For Dokken it was slower. We went on tour with Blue Öyster Cult, Sammy Hagar, Y&T and it was a very, very slow climb. We were always at the bottom of the bill, 30 minute show yada, yada, yada… It was interesting that I had played with them at the Whisky and now we were playing stadiums.

When was the first time you realized Dokken was taking off?

I think about the Aerosmith tour and we had just released “Under lock and key” (1987). The album went platinum in three weeks and we realized we were going somewhere. That tour was great because they were such nice guys and just a really great memory.

“Under lock and key” turns 35 this year. Still my favorite Dokken album.

Yeah, all songs are really good and there is no what I would call fillers. We worked hard on it and spent like nine months making it and it paid off. I´ve still got like eight or nine songs left over in my vault from those days.

Will those songs see the light of day?

I´d rather not. I wanna look forward. It´s kind of like saying “Oh yeah, I love my first girlfriend and I´m going back to her.” It´s over. You´ve got to move on

What can you tell me about the new studio album then?

We´re half done and this whole “The lost songs” album is kind of a band aid, because of what happened with my surgery. It was like “Well, now I´m fucked and I can´t play the guitar anymore!” I can only sing and it´s been six months. All the doctors said “You´ll be fine in six months.”, but now it´s been seven months and I´m still fucked.

I thought it was all better?

No. Oh no! It´s still paralyzed completely. The whole arm. I have to drive with my left hand, wipe my ass with my left hand. I can´t sign my name and I can´t eat with a fork, I have to use my left hand. My hand just moves about an inch. So everybody said I had to be patient and it was gonna get better and I´m like “Well, it´s been seven fucking months and it ain´t much going on!” I´m trying to think positive, but I just have to be honest with myself. Look, if this is the way of the world… I played guitar for 50 years and now it´s over. But it is a pain and I can´t even pick up a hammer and put a nail in the wall to hang up a picture.

Was this something that was a part of the risks of doing the surgery?

Yes. I talked to three surgeons and nobody wanted to do it. They said “No, it´s too dangerous.” It´s five, six and seven which is like down at the base of the skull and they said “If something goes wrong, you´re gonna be paralyzed.” and I went “Oh, that´s good news…” They sent me to supposedly the best guy in LA and the guy fucked me up. He said “Well, at least you´re alive.” and I said “Fuck you!” I got so pissed at him. I said “If you would´ve done this to Yo Yo Ma, a world class musician who plays the cello, you would probably be disbarred.” I said “You fucked me up and you did a shitty job.” I´ve talked to many surgeons since then and they all said it´s a shit job. I have a scar that runs from the base of my skull all way down on my back. I have 13 screws and plates in my neck. I´m pissed. All I can do is think positive. It´s kind of a Catch 22. Usually when you´re having surgery they go to the front of your neck and if you still have your tonsils and you´re a singer you stand the risk of losing your voice. I said I can´t do that, so they said we could go through the back, but that´s much harder, so I did and I lost. It is what it is and I hope I get better in a year. Thank god, after we did “Broken bones” (2012) we still had seven or eight songs already written in the can, so we´re just working on some for the new album. Thank god I had put the guitar parts down before I lost my hand. I didn´t wanna have the surgery and I thought about it for a long time. There were some really strange things going on like riding my Harley and I couldn´t hold the clutch because my hand was too weak. My leg felt weak and I would trip all the time, so I had an MRI and they said “Your spinal cord is crushed.” I asked “What happens if I don´t have surgery?” and they said that eventually you will lose feeling in your hand permanently. Looking back I probably should´ve said “Fuck it!” (laughs) It is what it is and I have to accept it. I´ve got Jon Levin on guitar and he´s been in the band for 20 years. He´s a great guitar player. We were supposed to be on tour this summer and we didn´t have our studio album ready and I wasn´t getting better. I could barely walk and I was in a walker. That´s when we came up with the idea of “The lost tapes” For the hardcore Dokken fans, I think they´ll like it. It´s like you peek into a window of someone´s past.

Another old thing. The album you did with Herman Rarebell (ex Scorpions), the song “Destiny” is a favorite of mine. Was that your song?

Yep, that´s mine.

Love that one and “I´ll say goodbye”

Oh, “I´ll say goodbye”, thank you! Those two songs I wrote for him. Herman had written that one with somebody else originally and I redid it. Again, it was just a thing. I was hanging out with Herman in LA and we were friends and he wanted to do a record. Originally I sang on the whole record and then management said I couldn´t do that, like “You´re not allowed to sing with anybody else.” So that´s why we got Jack Russel (Great White) and he did half.

Back then I knew nothing about stuff like that, like being under contract prohibited musicians from playing on other records.

I didn´t know that. I was just singing on a record and thought I was just doing it for fun. All of a sudden it´s like “No, you can´t do it!” I called my management and said “Well, can I at least sing on three or four of them?” and they kind of negotiated and said I could sing on a couple of songs. Politics. They own you. We´re like slaves, you know.

Of all the other bands from the Sunset Strip era, is there any other musicians you´ve become good friends with over the years?

Yeah, Dave Maniketti (Y&T). We played a lot of shows with them back in the day. They were much more popular than us and then like two years later they´re opening for us. What happened? I love Dave and now Joey´s (Alves) dead and Phil (Kennemore) and Leonard (Haze). They´re all dead and they were all good friends of mine. The very first big show I did was with Journey. It was Journey, Y&T and Dokken and we had to share a dressing room with Y&T and we were like awestruck because they were my heroes. I was like “Oh my god, I´m in the dressing room hanging out with Leonard Haze and Dave Meniketti!” I loved Phil. Sweetest guy in the world and I miss him so much. We still play shows with Y&T so it´s been a 40 year friendship. We both came up the same route.

They never really took off.

It was weird. “Black tiger” is a fucking amazing album! I was listening to Y&T when I was 25 and they were still called Yesterday & Today. Me and Bobby Blotzer (ex Ratt) played in a band together and we used to play that fucking Y&T album over and over and over in my Nissan 340 Z and I had an 8-track in it and we just played that Y&T 8-track over and over. I miss them all. I was real happy that before Leonard and Joey passed away I played with Y&T, an acoustic show and I opened up for them. Just by myself, so I got to hang out with Leonard and I got to see Joey and we all hung out and talked about the good old days. Leonard was on oxygen and Joey had his brain tumor problems, but I got to hang out with everybody and I had seen Phil a year before he passed away. Phil loved my car. I had a 1962 Silver Cloud Roll Royce. That´s when they were real Rolls Royces. He said “Bring your Rolls Royce !” and I said “I don´t know if it will make it.” It was way down in Anaheim and he hopped in that car and I remember we went looking for a liquor store to get some Jack Daniel´s and we ended up in a really, really bad neighborhood, like gang bangers you know. Phil always dressed like a rock star and we´re all dressed like rock stars and we´re climbing out of this silver Rolls Royce and all these gang bangers were just looking at us going “What the fuck?” I said “Phil, we´re gonna get mugged!” and he just said “It´s cool, it´s cool!” Two long haired guys in leather pants and boots and jewelry and all these Crips and Bloods going “What the fuck?” I´ll never forget that with Phil. He thought that was funny as shit.


Text: Niclas Müller-Hansen