Don Henley's attempt to reclaim stolen Eagles lyrics to "Hotel California" was thwarted by defendants, prosecutors say

Handwritten “Hotel California” lyrics at center of lawsuit

Handwritten “Hotel California” lyrics at center of lawsuit


A never-published biography of the Eagles delved deeply into the superstar classic rock band’s 1980 breakup, their longtime manager testified Wednesday, saying co-founders Glenn Frey and Don Henley were “very disappointed” with the manuscript.

The book never found a publisher. But four decades later, it’s part of another story: a criminal trial that opened Wednesday and involves roughly 100 pages of hand-drafted lyrics to “Hotel California” and other Eagles hits.

The defendants – rare-books dealer Glenn Horowitz, former Rock & Roll Hall of Fame curator Craig Inciardi and memorabilia seller Edward Kosinski – got the documents via Ed Sanders, a noted poet and nonfiction writer who also co-founded the avant-garde rock group the Fugs.

Sanders isn’t charged with anything, but a key question is whether he had the right to sell the lyrics pages he obtained while researching the biography.

Manhattan prosecutors say Horowitz, Inciardi and Kosinski peddled the pages while knowing their ownership history was shaky at best. Then, prosecutors say, they schemed to thwart Henley’s efforts to reclaim what he says are stolen pieces of his legacy.

Hotel California Lyrics-Trial
Former Rock & Roll Hall of Fame curator Craig Inciardi, left, memorabilia seller Edward Kosinski, center, andrare-book dealer Glenn Horowitz, left, take their places on the defendants table in the court, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, in New York.

Mary Altaffer / AP

“All these lyrics are very personal to him, they’re a part of musical history, and it was simply unacceptable to him that they be stolen by anyone else,” Irving Azoff, the Eagles’ manager, said during testimony. He said he had never known Henley to part with any of the legal pads on which he, alongside Frey, worked out some of the best-known lyrics in the rock songbook.

Defense lawyers say Henley voluntarily gave away the documents and leveraged prosecutors to try to take them back.

“They have accused three innocent men of a crime that never occurred,” Inciardi’s lawyer, Stacey Richman, told Judge Curtis Farber during opening statements. Farber will decide the verdict, as the defendants chose to forgo a jury.

“Hotel California” lyrics and meaning

The documents include lyrics-in-development for tracks from 1976’s “Hotel California,” the third-biggest selling album ever in the U.S.

Frey and Henley crafted them in a Beverly Hills house rented for the purpose, since the tidy Henley’s tendency to pick up after Frey “would drive them crazy” if they worked in their own homes, Azoff testified.

Henley did most of the writing, he added, with Frey leaning in to make suggestions such as the phrase “Life in the Fast Lane,” which became the title of a hit single.

The disputed pages include lyrics to that song, to “New Kid in Town” and, of course, to “Hotel California,” the more than six-minute-long, somewhat mysterious musical tale of a hedonistic but ultimately dark place where “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

In 2016, “CBS Mornings” co-host Gayle King asked Henley about the meaning of “Hotel California.”

“Well, I always say, it’s a journey from innocence to experience. It’s not really about California; it’s about America,” Henley said. “It’s about the dark underbelly of the American dream. It’s about excess, it’s about narcissism. It’s about the music business. It’s about a lot of different…. It can have a million interpretations.”

Don Felder plays “Hotel California” at the Met


If scorned by some as an overexposed artifact of the ’70s, the Grammy-winning song is still a touchstone on classic rock radio and many personal playlists. The entertainment data company Luminate counted more than 220 million streams and 136,000 radio plays of “Hotel California” in the U.S. last year.

“He had inside knowledge”

The case was brought in 2022, a decade after some of the pages began popping up for auction and Henley took umbrage. He bought four pages for $8,500 but also reported the documents stolen, prosecutors said.

At the time, the lyrics sheets were in the hands of Kosinski and Inciardi, who had bought them from Horowitz for $65,000. His company had purchased them for $50,000 in 2005 from Sanders.

A friend of Frey’s, he was hired in 1979 to write a band biography for $25,000 and enjoyed extensive access. But Azoff testified that the co-founders disliked the resulting manuscript and that, “for me personally, all the stuff about the Eagles’ breakup was unacceptable.”

As the project stalled, a frustrated Sanders asked Azoff in a 1982 letter for “a substantial amount of money,” saying he’d “behaved with great reserve” by not approaching a major magazine with a story about the Eagles’ split.

That worried them.

“He had inside knowledge,” Azoff said, and with Frey and Henley cultivating solo careers, “we didn’t want some ugly story of the breakup of the Eagles to be published.”

They ultimately paid Sanders about $75,000 and agreed to let him look for a publisher, comfortable that any book still would need the band’s approval under his 1979 contract, Azoff said.

Sanders hasn’t responded to a phone message seeking comment about the case. Emails sent to him bounced back.

Sanders told Horowitz in 2005 that Henley’s assistant had mailed along any documents he wanted for the biography, though the writer worried that Henley “might conceivably be upset” if they were sold, according to an email shown in court.

“It cast significant doubt on whether Sanders actually owned Henley’s lyric notes or had the right to sell them,” Assistant District Attorney Nicholas Penfold said in opening remarks.

Sanders’ contract said the Eagles owned any material they furnished to Sanders for the book. Defense lawyers said their clients knew nothing about the contract until after they were indicted.

Don Henley expected to testify

Prosecutors say once Henley’s lawyers asserted the documents were stolen, Inciardi and Horowitz gave evolving accounts of how Sanders obtained them.

According to emails recounted in the indictment, those explanations ranged over the next five years from Sanders finding them abandoned in a backstage dressing room to getting them from Frey, who died in 2016.

There was some input and assent from Sanders, but he also rejected some, including the backstage-salvage story, according to the emails.

Horowitz’ lawyer, Jonathan Bach, said the messages weren’t suspicious efforts to cover tracks, but rather an effort by Horowitz and Inciardi to get “a simple statement from Ed Sanders to rebut an allegation they know to be baseless.”

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. He also asked the auctioneers not to tell potential bidders about the ownership dispute.

His lawyer, Matthew Laroche, said Kosinski was upfront with all and “acted diligently and appropriately.”

Henley is expected to testify. Defense lawyers have indicated that they plan to question how clearly he remembers his dealings with Sanders and the lyric sheets at a time when the rock star was living “life in the fast lane” himself.

In 2016, Henley told Gayle King that the band was indeed living that lifestyle in the 1970s.

“Yeah… Everybody was doing it. It was the ’70s,” Henley said. “It was what everybody was doing, which doesn’t make it right necessarily. And you know, looking back on it, there’s some regrets about that. We probably could have been more productive … although we were pretty productive, considering.”

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