Has Don Dokken ever been happy? Glancing over the 38 years that the band Dokken has been in existence, one certainly starts to wonder.
In the 1980s, during the band’s heyday, Don and guitar maestro George Lynch were at each other’s throats, right up until 1988 when a fist fight in the back of a limo during a tour with AC/DC split up the band. There was a brief reformation in the mid-1990s, but Dokken and Lynch had to come to terms with the fact that they just don’t get on.
Don thinks Lynch is crazy. Lynch thinks Don is a control freak with a giant ego. They’re probably both right. Oil and water don’t mix but can result in some fascinating art — just ask Van Halen, Faith No More, Guns N’ Roses, etc.
Fast-forward to 2017, and a conversation with Don Dokken is much like an appointment at the DMV — there’s a sense that the forced courtesy is tinged with a little resentment. To the band’s credit, Dokken have been putting out studio albums relatively regularly — about every four years. That said, Dokken are a nostalgia band. The audience, for the most part, is the hair-metal crowd, wanting to hear the old hits.
Asking Don about the old days and bringing up Lynch still irks him, but he doesn’t quite come across as the total asshole that he has sometimes been portrayed to be. He’s grouchy and, more than likely, he’s over some of the oft-repeated questions. But there’s a biting wit about him, too.
Dokken have gone from playing arenas to theaters in the past 20 years or so. Don claims that, while he naturally looks back wistfully on the glory days, he enjoys his craft as much today as ever, even if that isn’t immediately apparent.
“Sometimes we play arenas to 30,000 people, sometimes 5,000 people, 1,000 people — honestly, there’s no difference,” Dokken says. “We always play the same show. It doesn’t matter how many people. We’re not playing stadiums anymore — that’s about all that’s changed. The fans are still kind and love our music. It’s not about money anymore. If you’re an artist, you paint paintings. You don’t stop. I keep singing.”
The musical tastes of the masses isn’t the only thing that has changed since the 1980s. It’s not even the most drastic change, as the digital revolution has irrevocably altered the structure of the record industry. Don has accepted the new reality, if not fully embraced it.
“In the old days, you made records to make money,” he says. “You toured to support it. Now, people don’t buy records like they used to. People aren’t selling millions of records. People download for free. As far as making a record, we do it because I want to write songs. I still have to continue my craft and my art. But it’s reversed. Now, you tour to make money and hope you sell records. … It’s flip-flopped.”
So that’s what Dokken do. The band, now completed by guitarist Jon Levin, bassist Chris McCarvill and longtime drummer Mick Brown, tour as often as possible, working their collective asses off. They even played a few dates in Japan with Lynch and classic lineup bassist Jeff Pilson (now of Foreigner), stirring cries for a more permanent reunion. Don’s not having any of it.
“We played in Japan with George, but that was a one-time thing,” he says. “Five shows. Never say never, but as far as right now, I’m not planning more shows with Jeff and George. There’s no point. They all have their various projects. It just happened to be a moment in time when the stars aligned. Plus Jon [Levin] is an underrated monster.”
“I said one little thing and the whole planet thinks I’m a prick. That’s OK. I’m famous for being a prick so I’m used to it.” -Don Dokken
Don may not like being asked about Lynch, but he likes questions about a gig in Detroit last October, where he allegedly insulted the local openers, even less. Cellphone footage captured at the Token Lounge show features the singer saying, during a rant about the poor sound, “The is what happens when you’ve got a bunch of fucking shit bands up here before you play.” Dokken claims he misspoke.
“I said one thing in Detroit and the whole planet is hating me. I had problems onstage, I had a lot of feedback, my microphone wasn’t working, the PA was feeding back for five songs, and what I meant to say was, ‘I apologize for the shitty sound from the other bands.’ I didn’t mean to insult the four bands.
“Anybody who was at the Token Lounge knows that it was a goddamned clusterfuck,” he continues. “I had feedback for five songs, I had to stop the show, I left the stage, and I said, ‘You fix it, I’ll come back. But I’m not coming back until you fix your problems.’ I can’t believe I said one little thing and the whole planet thinks I’m a prick. That’s OK. I’m famous for being a prick so I’m used to it.”
Rob Kay of Detroit band The Creeping Chaos, who performed that night, sees it slightly differently.
“If he thinks all the opening bands were shit, that's perfectly fine,” he writes via email. “He has a right to his opinion. But in my opinion, it is utterly classless (and in poor taste professionally) to talk down about the bands that opened/sold tickets/promoted for you, over a microphone to an audience. Especially when some of the audience are members of those bands.”
Don says that, while spending months of each year out on the road, he has seen many great young opening bands, and he’s always ready with some advice regarding record contracts in the modern age, even if it isn’t necessarily what budding would-be rock stars want to hear.
“I don’t want to be negative,” he says. “I don’t want to shoot them in the foot and say, ‘You’re wasting your time because the record business is over.’ It’s all indie labels now. My advice to the young bands is, don’t get a record deal. Make your own record with ProTools in your garage, put it out yourself on your website, and take all the money. It’s a different world. The days of the Dokken million-bucks-per-record are gone.”
Dokken plays a show at the Whisky on Saturday, March 11, a venue that means a great deal to Don and the band as it takes them right back to the very beginning, as it does for many Los Angeles groups. The show has been sold out for weeks, and Don is happy to play a smaller show as an homage to his roots.
“It’s going to be something very special,” he says. “We’re playing 17 songs, a two-hour show. It’ll be the first time I’ve sang for two hours in 20 years. My voice is very good right now and I can do it. We’re playing obscure, deep, deep tracks that nobody’s heard in years. It’ll be interesting.”
As he says this, it even sounds like he's smiling.
Dokken plays with The Hard Way, Evolution Eden, Divine Intervention, Lost Legacy, KC Mobley and Da Vang on Saturday, March 11, at the Whisky a Go-Go.