Don Henley tells court he never gave away drafts of ‘Hotel California’ lyrics

Feb 26, 2024, 7:56 AM | Updated: 5:46 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — Don Henley never gave away handwritten pages of draft lyrics to “Hotel California” and other Eagles hits, he said Monday, calling them “very personal” in testimony that also delved into an unrelated piece of his past: his 1980 arrest.

Henley, the Grammy-winning co-founder of one of the most successful bands in rock history, is prosecutors’ star witness in an unusual criminal trial surrounding about 100 legal-pad pages from the birth of a blockbuster 1976 album.

Henley says the documents were stolen from his barn in Malibu, California. He testified Monday that he was appalled when the material began turning up at auctions in 2012.

“It just wasn’t something that was for public viewing. It was our process. It was something very personal, very private,” he said. “I still wouldn’t show that to anybody.”

At issue are about 100 sheets of paper inscribed with lyrics-in-the-making for multiple songs on the “Hotel California” album, including “Life in the Fast Lane,” “New Kid in Town” and the title track that turned into one of the most durable hits in rock. Famed for its lengthy guitar solo and puzzlingly poetic lyrics, the song still gets streamed hundreds of millions of times a year. The album is the third-biggest seller in U.S. history.

On trial are rare-book dealer Glenn Horowitz and rock memorabilia specialists Craig Inciardi and Edward Kosinski. They bought the pages through writer Ed Sanders, who worked with the Eagles on a never-published band biography and isn’t charged in the case.

The defendants have pleaded not guilty to charges including conspiracy to criminally possess stolen property. The men’s lawyers maintain that Henley willingly gave the pages to the scribe and that nothing criminal happened at any point.

Defense attorney Jonathan Bach played tapes Monday of 1980 phone calls between Sanders and Henley, including one in which Henley said he’d “try to dig through” his legal pads full of lyrics drafts. The attorney showed Henley a shipping label showing that his property caretaker, at some point, sent Sanders a box. Its contents weren’t listed.

Henley acknowledged that he didn’t remember the entirety of his conversations with Sanders.

But the singer and artists’ rights activist insisted he gave the writer only access to the lyrics pages, not possession of them. He said he told Sanders he could examine the documents, ideally in an attic apartment on the Malibu property, so the book could benefit from a firsthand view of “the time and effort that went into” writing Eagles songs.

Henley said he’d discussed sending music reviews and magazine clips to Sanders but didn’t recall offering to send handwritten lyrics.

“You know what? It doesn’t matter if I drove a U-Haul truck across country and dumped them at his front door,” Henley said, his raspy drawl quickening. “He had no right to keep them or to sell them.”

Sanders’ 1979 book contract said any material furnished by the Eagles was deemed their property, Henley noted.

The defense had signaled that it planned to question Henley, 76, about how clearly he remembers an era when he was living in his own fast lane. In an apparent attempt to defuse some of those questions, a prosecutor brought up Henley’s 1980 arrest.

Henley pleaded no contest in 1981 to a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, after authorities found drugs and a naked 16-year-old girl suffering from an overdose at his Los Angeles home the prior November. He was sentenced to probation and a $2,500 fine, and he requested a drug education program to get some possession charges dismissed.

Henley testified Monday that he’d been depressed about the Eagles 1980 breakup and had sought “an escape” by calling for a sex worker that night.

“I made a poor decision, which I regret to this day,” he said.

As for his memory, he said, “I can’t tell you what I had for breakfast last Friday morning, but I can tell you where we stayed when we played Wembley in 1975 and we opened for Elton John and the Beach Boys,” referring to London’s Wembley Stadium.

He also offered glimpses into the Eagles’ creative methods, as specific as where he bought his legal pads — a stationery store on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles’ Sherman Oaks neighborhood — and why he alternates between cursive script and block lettering. The first is for speed, the latter usually for ideas “I might actually use,” he explained.

When writing albums, he and late Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey rented a house and spent their days brainstorming song titles and concepts, each man with a guitar and a legal pad, Henley recalled.

“We had long talks about various ideas, sometimes philosophical discussions,” Henley said. He identified a bit of Frey’s writing on at least one of the disputed pages.

Sanders sold the documents in 2005 to Horowitz’ company, which sold them to Kosinski and Inciardi. Kosinski has a rock ‘n’ roll collectibles auction site; Inciardi was then a curator at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

In a 2005 email to Horowitz, Sanders said Henley’s assistant had sent him the documents for the biography project, according to the indictment.

Henley reported them stolen after Inciardi and Kosinski began in 2012 to offer them at various auctions.

Henley also bought four pages back for $8,500 in 2012. He testified that he resented “buying my own property back” but saw it as “the most practical and expedient way” to get the auction listing taken down.

Kosinski’s lawyers, however, have argued that the transaction implicitly recognized his ownership.

Meanwhile, Horowitz and Inciardi started ginning up alternate stories of how Sanders got hold of the manuscripts, Manhattan prosecutors say. At various points, the suggested sources included a backstage find, a gift from Frey and other explanations, according to the indictment.

Sanders contributed to or signed onto some versions, according to the emails. He hasn’t responded to messages seeking comment about the case.

Kosinski forwarded one of the various explanations to Henley’s lawyer and told an auction house that the rocker had “no claim” to the documents, according to the indictment.

Henley has been a fierce advocate for artists’ rights to their work. Since the late 1990s, he and a musician’ rights group that he co-founded have spoken out in venues from the Supreme Court to Congress about copyright law, online file-sharing and more.

Henley also sued over unauthorized use of some of his solo songs in a political ad and over some unrelated T-shirts emblazoned with a pun involving his name and an Eagles song. Both cases ended in settlements and apologies from the defendants.

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Don Henley tells court he never gave away drafts of ‘Hotel California’ lyrics