How Dokken Made It Safe For Me To Sleep Again
Musician discusses career and "Dream Warriors" song.
Posted Oct 03, 2018
“I lie awake and dread the lonely nights
I’m not alone
I wonder if these heavy eyes
Can face the unknown”
—From “Dream Warriors” by Dokken
As a child of the 80’s, I found that horror movies made certain aspects of my life more difficult. Friday the 13th (1980) ruined lakes for me. Poltergeist (1982) kept me from looking under my bed at night. And Children of the Corn (1984) made me wary of, well, both children and corn. Of course, I could avoid lakes, wait to look under my bed until morning, and stay away from kids who carried torches into cornfields.
But then something wonderful happened. Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3 (1987) introduced the Dream Warriors – the brave young kids who learned to control their dreams and fight back against Freddy Krueger. And the inspirational soundtrack of the insomniac resistance was the song “Dream Warriors” by Dokken.
It was safe to sleep again (sort of).
When I talked with Don Dokken – founding member and creative force behind Dokken – it became unsurprising that he was able to hit the emotional nail on the head with “Dream Warriors.” Dokken was raised in foster care and was none-too-impressed with the mental health professionals he encountered to help him cope with difficulties he had with his foster family. He found them to lack empathy, and ultimately they did more harm than good.
“When I was growing up I thought maybe I’d get into psychology. I wanted to be a social worker, because … my opinion was they were full of shit. My experience as a child was being sent to a psychiatrist at 8 years old to tell him about some horrible story I had about a foster family that was punishing us. And they came out and said, ‘Boy that Donny’s really got a wild imagination,’” Dokken told me. “You know what, f*ck you. I’ll be a psychologist or social worker someday. And when a child tells me some horrific, almost not-believable story, I would see it from a different slant. And I’d give them some validity and believe what they say, instead of saying he’s acting out, he’s making this sh*t up because he wants attention.”
Perhaps as a result, Dokken’s approach to songwriting focuses on being able to more freely express his own emotions, and fostering an empathic connection with the listener.
“I am driven as an artist to write what’s going on around me. Be it love lost, love found, politics, death, murder, or sitting on the beach at peace watching the sunset … It’s just how I see the world,” he explained. “Of course, you want to write a song, you want to construct something – you want to write lyrics that touches somebody, that touches their mind, that provokes thought, that provokes emotion. And you want that validity that I wrote a ballad – say a love song – and people say, ‘I love that ballad, it really touched me.’”
In particular, Dokken found that he tended to explore themes of negative emotions and low self-esteem. “I’m not ashamed to say that some of my best songs were self-deprecating. They came out of self-loathing … I was in therapy for years. So they’d say, ‘You have low self-esteem, you have anxiety, low self-worth. You told me yesterday you played L.A. Coliseum in front of ninety thousand people. How much affirmation do you want?’” Dokken described. “And I said, ‘That’s the problem. That’s why I’m here. I’m asking you! Why can I go onstage in front of ninety thousand people and own it, and walk off the stage and feel like I didn’t deserve it? I feel like I didn’t deserve all that love.
“What’s wrong with me?”
And Dokken was pleased to find that his fans often felt the connection to him and his music, even to the point of reconsidering suicide. “Back before the internet, people sent us letters through our fan club. And they’d be in a mental hospital and say 'I was going to commit suicide – I was going to take an overdose,'” Dokken recalled. “'But I thought, Dokken wrote a song about sadness and wanting and longing and missing somebody. So they decided not to kill himself or take an overdose because this guy’s got his problems too.”
It was that type of empathic connection that motivated Dokken throughout his over forty-year musical career. “We were willing to make those sacrifices to get our music to the fans,” Dokken said. “I think that would give me validity that I spent most of my life instead of building a family and a home in a typical societal way you’re supposed to live your life, I spent my life on a tour bus going through hell. You know there’s always been a saying in my band – it’s 22 hours of hell for 2 hours of glory onstage.’”
So it was with this mindset that Dokken approached the writing of “Dream Warriors.” Interestingly, whereas all of Dokken’s other work sprang from his own organic experience, “Dream Warriors” was the only song he’s ever written in which the title, chorus, and theme were dictated to him – by Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3 director Chuck Russell.
“The director gave me a guideline. Nobody in my career had ever given me a guideline. He said, ‘Look, this movie is called 'Dream Warriors’ … It has to be about the darkness. It has to be about dreams. It has to be about Freddy Krueger. You have to put the word Dream Warriors in the chorus … Everything was just dictated and I had no wiggle room.” Dokken explained. “And then I had to ask the director – I hadn’t seen any of the Nightmare movies – what’s the movie about? So he sent me the script. And I went, ‘OK, OK, this guy lives in people’s dreams. I wasn’t into the whole monster thing by then. I wasn’t into horror flicks.”
And yet, despite not being into horror movies, Dokken soon recognized the universal nature of nightmares. Moreover, he appreciated that many people try to sweep their fear of nightmares under the rug, just as his experience of foster care had been ignored and invalidated by others.
“There were a million monster movies. But this was the first one about an imaginary demon that only lives in your dreams. I don’t think there’s a movie that’s ever been done like that before. People could have seen Freddy as campy and corny. But people actually went – he’s frightening,” he said. “Everyone has nightmares. What do we try to do about nightmares? Forget about them. That song – all the lyrics were about, you go to sleep and you believe you’re not alone. And like the lyric says, ‘I wonder if these heavy eyes … can face the unknown.’”
“Because no one likes nightmares.”
As someone who did not like the nightmares brought on by the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, I wholeheartedly agree. And I was glad to get the opportunity to convey to Dokken how one of his songs helped me, such that the fondness for the music endured 30 years later. He appreciated the sentiment, and how many of his fans have stuck with him over the years in part because of the feelings the music still evokes.
“Music is associated with instant memories. The kid in school the first time he heard a Dokken song, and it takes him back to those fonder memories of high school, or when they were still living at home, didn’t have the stress of house payments or feeding their kids.” Dokken said. “It evokes a better time when they first went to a Dokken concert when they were kids. So they want to live that feeling, that emotion again. I’m gonna go see Dokken 30 years later and relive that feeling when I saw him the first time.”
And the feelings he can evoke with his own music has made it such that Dokken doesn’t need to rely on mental health professionals anymore -- his writing to be much more valuable to him than any therapy has been.
“It’s some kind of spiritual purging when you sit down with a pen and paper. You’re purging your thoughts, your frustration, your regrets,” Dokken said. “My whole therapy is f*ck the psychiatrists I’m just going to write lyrics and go through my own Buddhist lifestyle of self-revelation through performing. I just try to do my own counseling.”
Sweet dreams everyone.