Handwritten lyrics of Eagles’ classic “Hotel California” the subject of a criminal trial that’s about to start

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New York — In the mid-1970s, the Eagles were working on a spooky, cryptic new song.

On a lined yellow pad, Don Henley, with input from band co-founder Glenn Frey, jotted thoughts about “a dark desert highway” and “a lovely place” with a luxurious surface and ominous undertones. And something on ice, perhaps caviar or Taittinger – or pink Champagne?

The song, “Hotel California,” became one of rock’s most indelible singles. And nearly a half-century later, those handwritten pages of lyrics-in-the-making have become the center of an unusual criminal trial set to open Wednesday.

Rare-book dealer Glenn Horowitz, former Rock & Roll Hall of Fame curator Craig Inciardi and memorabilia seller Edward Kosinski are charged with conspiring to own and try to sell manuscripts of “Hotel California” and other Eagles hits without the right to do so.

The three have pleaded not guilty, and their lawyers have said the men committed no crime with the papers, which they acquired via a writer who’d worked with the Eagles. But the Manhattan district attorney’s office says the defendants connived to obscure the documents’ disputed ownership, despite knowing that Henley said the pages were stolen.

Timothy B. Schmit,Glenn Frey,Don Henley,Joe Walsh
Members of The Eagles, from left, Timothy B. Schmit, Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh, pose with an autographed guitar after a news conference at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 19, 2013, in Park City, Utah.

Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP, File


Unique trial  

Clashes over valuable collectibles abound, but criminal trials like this are rare. Many fights are resolved in private, in lawsuits or with agreements to return the items.

“If you can avoid a prosecution by handing over the thing, most people just hand it over,” said Travis McDade, a University of Illinois law professor who studies rare document disputes.

Of course, the case of the Eagles manuscripts is distinctive in other ways, too.

The prosecutors’ star witness is indeed that: Henley is expected to testify between Eagles tour stops. The non-jury trial could offer a peek into the band’s creative process and life in the fast lane of ’70s stardom.

What’s in dispute   

At issue are over 80 pages of draft lyrics from the blockbuster 1976 “Hotel California” album, including words to the chart-topping, Grammy-winning title cut. It features one of classic rock’s most recognizable riffs, best-known solos and most oft-quoted – arguably overquoted – lines: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

Henley has said the song is about “the dark underbelly of the American dream.”

It  was streamed over 220 million times and got 136,000 radio spins last year in the U.S. alone, according to the entertainment data company Luminate. The “Hotel California” album has sold 26 million copies nationwide over the years, bested only by an Eagles’ greatest hits disc and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

The pages also include lyrics from songs including “Life in the Fast Lane” and “New Kid in Town.” Eagles manager Irving Azoff has called the documents “irreplaceable pieces of musical history.”

Horowitz, Inciardi and Kosinki are charged with conspiracy to possess stolen property and various other offenses.

They’re not charged with actually stealing documents. Nor is anyone else, but prosecutors will still have to establish that the documents were stolen. The defense maintains that’s not true.

Was the wheeling and dealing legal?

Much turns on the Eagles’ interactions with Ed Sanders, a writer who also co-founded the 1960s counterculture rock band the Fugs. He worked in the late ’70s and early ’80s on an authorized Eagles biography that was never published.

Sanders isn’t charged in the case. A phone message seeking comment was left for him.

He sold the pages to Horowitz, who then sold them to Inciardi and Kosinski.

Horowitz has handled huge rare book and archive deals, and he’s been entangled in some ownership spats before. One involved papers linked to “Gone With the Wind″ author Margaret Mitchell. It was settled.

Inciardi worked on notable exhibitions for the Cleveland-based Rock Hall of Fame. Kosinski has been a principal in Gotta Have It! Collectibles, known for auctioning celebrities’ personal possessions – so personal that Madonna unsuccessfully sued to try to stop a sale that included her latex briefs.

Henley told a grand jury he never gave the biographer the lyrics, according to court filings from Kosinski’s lawyers. But defense lawyers have signaled that they plan to probe Henley’s memory of the time.

“We believe that Mr. Henley voluntarily provided the lyrics to Mr. Sanders,” attorney Scott Edelman said in court last week.

Sanders told Horowitz in 2005 that while working on the Eagles book, he was sent whatever papers he wanted from Henley’s home in Malibu, California, according to the indictment.

Then Kosinski’s business offered some pages at auction in 2012. Henley’s attorneys came knocking. And Horowitz, Inciardi and Sanders, in varying combinations, began batting around alternate versions of the manuscripts’ provenance, the indictment says.

In one story, Sanders found the pages discarded in a backstage dressing room. In others, he got them from a stage assistant or while amassing “a lot of material related to the Eagles from different people.” In yet another, he obtained them from Frey – an account that “would make this go away once and for all,” Horowitz suggested in 2017. Frey had died the year before.

“He merely needs gentle handling and reassurance that he’s not going to the can,” Horowitz emailed Inciardi during a 2012 exchange about getting Sanders’ “‘explanation’ shaped into a communication” to auctioneers, the indictment says.

Sanders supplied or signed off on some of the varying explanations, according to the indictment, and it’s unclear what he may have conveyed verbally. But he apparently rejected at least the dressing-room tale.

Kosinki forwarded one explanation, approved by Sanders, to Henley’s lawyer. Kosinski also assured Sotheby’s auction house that the musician had “no claim” to the documents and asked to keep potential bidders in the dark about Henley’s complaints, the indictment says.

Other developments

Sotheby’s listed the “Hotel California” song lyrics in a 2016 auction but withdrew them after learning the ownership was in question. Sotheby’s isn’t charged in the case and declined to comment.

Henley bought some draft lyrics privately from Gotta Have It! for $8,500 in 2012, when he also began filing police reports, according to court filings.

Defense lawyers claim Henley found starstruck prosecutors to take up his cause instead of pursuing a civil suit himself.

The DA’s office worked closely with Henley’s legal team, and an investigator even yearned for backstage passes for an Eagles show – until a prosecutor said the idea was “completely inappropriate,” Kosinki’s lawyers said in court papers.

Prosecutors have rebuffed questions about their motivations as “a conspiracy theory rather than a legal defense.”

Last year, they wrote in court papers, “It is the defendants, not the prosecutors, who are on trial.”

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