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Behind the Curtain: Connecting with Guitar God George Lynch, Circa 1987

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For this month’s Behind the Curtain entry, Steve Rosen recounts his experience interviewing — and connecting with — George Lynch, then of Dokken, in 1987. 

In the early 1980s, glam rock was hatched.  From the eggs of metal, hard rock, pop, punk and shred guitar, these bands announced their presence by attacking airwaves like a plague of locusts. A pestilent swarm, they all looked the same and sounded the same. They were homogeneous, irritating and lacking in any real depth of expression.

These were their defining characteristics:

  • Good hair. No, great fucking hair. Tresses flowed like flaxen silk. If you didn’t have the richest, thickest locks to be pouffed up by suffocating amounts of Aqua Net, you weren’t getting in the band, dude.
  • Bad songs. Not necessarily bad just … maudlin. One-dimensional. When they stumbled on the power ballad, that was the beginning of the end. No, I take that back — they were bad songs.
  • Obnoxious singers. Cloying, annoying voices. Again, not bad voices, just not great voices. Let me retract that statement — these were bad singers.
  • Killer guitar players. This was their one saving grace. This is how we’ll hook back around with George Lynch in about two minutes.

The emergence of MTV in August 1981 provided a platform for these androgynous-looking cats, and on any given day you could turn on the television and see Brad Gillis and Jeff Watson trying to out-shred each other in guitar battle or Richie Sambora blazing with Bon Jovi or Adrian Vandenburg burning down the house with Whitesnake. These were very inventive and innovative players.

Unlike most of the punk players who came before and could barely fashion three chords, in hair metal playing your instrument well meant something, and there were a lot of guitar players around who really played well. But some of them played better than very well.

They were true virtuosos, masters of their craft and able to make their instruments sing in a way no one else could. Later, we’d bunch them all under one moniker and call them shredders, but back then all we knew was nobody played like these guys. They were creating a language all their own, and at the front of the class were a few pioneers truly blazing the way.

Edward Van Halen, of course, had written the ABCs of rock guitar when he unleashed tapping and flutter picking and made them a part of the vocabulary every guitarist had to learn. Every guitarist studied Van Halen’s technique, and while many of them were trapped in their own attempts to simply become Eddie clones, some players took what Ed had given to them and made it all their own.

These were the truly special players. They could bend strings, attack whammy bars and put together flurries of notes and trills and pull-offs in a way no one had ever heard before. It was as if they heard something in their heads no other guitarists were hearing and they were chasing after it. These were the true giants, masters of their craft, experimenting like mad scientists in studios and onstage. Whammy bards. Wizards of wood and wire.

Several of these mad cats stood out, but one player who heroically rose above virtually all of his peers was George Lynch. There were some guitarists who whispered that Lynch began the two-handed tapping thing before Edward. Even if that were true — and it might be — once Eddie recorded “Eruption” on the first Van Halen album, that technique was all his.

A contemporary of Van Halen, George’s band the Boyz was a late-‘70s Sunset Strip band playing the same clubs as Van Halen and Quiet Riot. The story goes that KISS bassist Gene Simmons had heard about Lynch and the Boyz and wanted to see them perform. A showcase was set up and Simmons attended. On this particular night, Van Halen were openers and Gene was so blown away that he didn’t even stay to hear George play.

That must have sucked. But Lynch licked his wounds, formed Xciter and finally joined Dokken in 1981. Along the way, the Spokane, Washington-born guitarist auditioned for Ozzy Osbourne — twice — but lost out both times. The first gig went to Randy Rhoads in 1979 and three years later when Ozzy wanted to replace Brad Gillis, Lynch missed the boat when Jake E. Lee scooped up the position.

Needless to say, George had a spectacular pedigree, and when I first met him on January 29, 1987, I was pumped to talk to him about his insane career. We met at some rehearsal studio somewhere — hard to remember where — and as I walked into the room and saw him standing in a corner drinking from a Corona Extra bottle, my first thought was, “Wow! He still has great hair.”

He had the requisite tresses for a full-blown guitar god. It was thick and lustrous and coiffed perfectly to frame a very handsome face. It was elegantly frosted, and the tips were a slightly lighter shade of brown than the rest. A true halo of hair; a mesmerizing corona.

When we first met, I sensed a bit of the prima donna about him. We said hello and shook hands but he seemed like he was somewhere else. Disengaged.  Adding to his aloofness was a discernible edginess in his personality and the combination of the two elements — detachment and irritability — mixed themselves together to create one toxic brew. I was confronted by an interviewee who:

  • Didn’t really want to be there.
  • Was pissed off that he was there.
  • Wondered how fucking quickly he could drain his beer and get out of there.

Not a good start, man.

I tried to ignore George’s aloofness and just forge ahead with the task at hand, but it was a difficult thing to do. Sitting across from me at this little table set up in the rehearsal studio, he watched me as I set up my Sony Pro Walkman, plugged in the mic, took out my notes and readied myself. I swear he could hear my heart beating.

I wished I was anywhere but where I was. Every movement was magnified and distorted. When I went to plug in the mic to the cassette deck — something I’d done a thousand times before — I had to remind myself over and over, “Plug into the mic jack and not the phones jack. Plug into the mic jack and not the phones jack.” I told myself not to forget to put the cassette in the recorder and to push the play button before depressing the record button. This was muscle memory. This was what I did. But under George’s scrutinizing stare, I just wanted to make sure I didn’t fuck up. I think George actually wanted me to plug into the phones jack or not push the right buttons but I could have been wrong.

After checking, double-checking, and triple-checking everything and lowering my breathing to a measured pace, I opened the conversation and took a shot at asking him about Under Lock and Key, the most recent Dokken album that had been released a little over a year earlier in November 1985. I focused my eyes on the two little cassette sprockets as they turned round and round and the volume meter as it registered the telltale red bar. I held my breath and waited for George’s first response.

“It takes one kind of vision, or idea as far as the band is concerned and if you’ve got different ideas pushing and pulling, nobody is happy. I don’t get what I want and Don doesn’t get what he wants. I think it shows on the albums. For instance, AC/DC or Van Halen or just about any other band has a certain sound that they continue on from album to album. You can tell it’s them. In our case, that’s not prevalent. We don’t have that trademark sound or guitar sound.”

In that moment, I realized George Lynch wasn’t solely pissed off at me or the interview — he was pissed off with Don Dokken and the entire direction of the band. Having to talk about that stuff only focused his rage, and since I was on the other end of the barrel, I received the brunt of the blast. Still, I felt much better. I wasn’t exactly happy with the idea that he didn’t really want to be there, but knowing I wasn’t the reason for that lifted a heavy load.

George was angry and growing angrier. Every response he made about Don or the way the songs sounded was filled with vitriol and venom. Simply, he did not dig the music he was making with Dokken and would leave the band in less than two years.

Tired of the questions, he pushed back from the table and walked around the rehearsal room. I remained sitting and watched him as he paced back and forth, looking like a caged animal — a tiger comes to mind — in search of freedom.

George finally came back to the table and sat down. I turned the cassette machine back on — double-checking just to make sure — and carried on by asking him about his guitar playing, which seemed like a pretty safe bet. “I think my style is really an amalgamation of a lot of different styles. As far as pseudo-technical stuff, I fake it very well. Except for the most trained ear, I can pretty much fool everybody into thinking I’m fast and good. You have to be able to strike that balance between technique and the larger picture and composition is a huge aspect of that. All the great bands that we loved from the ‘60s and ‘70s and maybe even the ‘80s, the songs were important and it’s what I listen to. I don’t want to listen to a guitar record really. I don’t buy ‘em and I don’t listen to ‘em. They’re pretty boring.”

I was pretty blown away when I heard him talk about his own playing that way. He may have been an angry young man but he was an honest one. As impossible as it was for me or for anyone to imagine, George was insecure about his own playing. It seemed impossible but there it was in his own words. Maybe that lack of confidence was manifested in the aloof and angry nature of his character.

Who knows? I’m no psychiatrist, but I would bet there’s a kernel of truth in that.

From this point forward and for the next 30 minutes or so, George loosened up. Maybe something had been lifted from him, a burden removed. It was a barrier I always tried to get through in my interviews. I could feel when it happened. It was palpable. It was that moment where you go from sitting with a stranger in an interview to having a conversation with a friend. Not to wax poetic about it, but it fucking rocked when it transpired.

George put down the bottle of Corona and once again walked away from the table. He strutted around the rehearsal room but this time he wasn’t so much pacing as he was simply looking at the gear around him. There were some amps in the corner and sitting on one shelf was what looked like a modern version of a shamisen, a traditional three-string Japanese instrument. He looked at it lying there and probably thought — and so did I — “What the hell is this doing in a rock rehearsal room?”

He picked it up and gazed at it and turned it over and looked at the back. George looked at me looking at him and just smiled in a way that said, “I don’t know what to do with this.” I did. I walked over and stood to his left and put my left hand on the neck and with my right hand I pretended to turn the over-sized tuning pegs. George immediately fell into character and placed his left hand in a full barre chord on the neck and grasped the beer in his right hand as a mock slide. Slightly bending his knees and tilting his head sideways to the perfect angle, he fell into the Rock God Pose #824 about as effortlessly as putting on a pair of socks.

This was a small thing, and the moment was gone almost as quickly as it began. I had connected with George on some deeper level than simply rock journalist and rock guitarist. It wasn’t like we were going to be good friends or anything and George never called me to hang out or go have a beer. I talked with him three or four more times down the road, and he was always open and forthright, which suggested he remembered our first meeting as a positive.

Or at least I’d like to think so.

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