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‘Hotel California’ trial: Eagles’ Don Henley takes the stand

NEW YORK –

Don Henley took the stand Monday at the criminal trial surrounding what he says were stolen, handwritten draft lyrics to “Hotel California” and other Eagles hits.

The Eagles co-founder was expected to tell his version of how handwritten pages from the development of the band’s blockbuster 1976 album made their way from his Southern California barn to New York auctions decades later.

The Grammy-winning singer and drummer and vociferous artists’-rights activist is prosecutors’ star witness at the trial, where three collectibles professionals face charges including criminally possessing stolen property.

They’re accused of colluding to veil the documents’ questioned ownership in order to try to sell them and deflect Henley’s demands for their return.

The defendants — rare-book dealer Glenn Horowitz and rock memorabilia specialists Craig Inciardi and Edward Kosinski — have pleaded not guilty. Their lawyers say there was nothing illegal in what happened to the lyric sheets.

At issue are about 100 sheets of legal-pad 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 defendants acquired the pages through writer Ed Sanders, who began working with the Eagles in 1979 on a band biography that never made it into print.

He sold the documents to Horowitz, who 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.

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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, however, testified to a grand jury that he never gave the biographer the lyrics, according to court filings. He reported them stolen after Inciardi and Kosinski began in 2012 to offer them at various auctions.

Henley also bought four pages back for US$8,500 in 2012. Kosinski’s lawyers have argued that the transaction implicitly recognized his ownership. By contrast, Eagles manager Irving Azoff testified last week that Henley just wanted the material back and didn’t realize, at the time, that more pages were out there and would crop up at more auctions over the next four years.

Meanwhile, Horowitz and Inciardi started ginning up alternate stories of how Sanders got hold of the manuscripts, Manhattan prosecutors say.

Among the alternate stories were that they were left behind backstage at an Eagles concert, that Sanders received them from someone he couldn’t recall, and that he got them from Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey, according to emails recounted in the indictment. Frey had died by the time Horowitz broached that last option in 2017.

Sanders contributed to or signed onto some explanations, according to the emails. He hasn’t been charged with any crime and hasn’t responded to messages seeking comment about the case.

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

Henley has been a fierce advocate for artists’ rights to their work.

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He tangled with Congress over a 1999 copyright law change that affected musicians’ ability to reclaim ownership of their old recordings from record labels. After complaints from Henley and other musicians, Congress unwound the change the next year.

Meanwhile, Henley helped establish a musicians’ rights group that spoke out in venues from Congress to the Supreme Court against online file-sharing platforms. Some popular services at the time let users trade digital recordings for free. The music industry contended that the exchanges flouted copyright laws.

Henley and some other major artists applauded a 2005 high court ruling that cleared a path for record labels to sue file-swapping services.

Henley also sued a Senate candidate over unauthorized use of some of the musician’s solo songs in a campaign spot. Another Henley suit hit a clothing company that made t-shirts emblazoned with a pun on his name. Both cases ended in settlements and apologies from the defendants.

Henley also testified to Congress in 2020, urging copyright law updates to fight online piracy.  

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