I would like to preface this article by pointing out that, historically speaking, Don Henley is a wang. He’s been proving it for decades, most recently in last year’s Eagles documentary on Showtime, The History of the Eagles: Henley and fellow Eagles member/songwriter Glenn Frey cooperated and had some amount of creative control in this film, and yet they both come off looking like pricks. They say asshole things right into the camera because they have no idea they’re being assholes.
In recent years, Henley has made a point of expressing his disdain for Frank Ocean’s use of the master track of the Eagles’ “Hotel California” as the musical base of Ocean’s song “American Wedding.” This ill will escalated as far as Warner Music Group (the owner of the master recording of “Hotel California”) and, later, Henley threatening legal action against Ocean in early 2012. “American Wedding” appeared on Ocean’s 2011 mixtape album, Nostalgia, Ultra., which was released for free on Tumblr.
“Don Henley is apparently intimidated by my rendition of ‘Hotel California,'” Ocean wrote at the time on his Tumblr, later clarifying that it was Henley’s label who first made contact. “He threatened to sue if I perform it again.”
In a new interview with Australia’s Daily Telegraph, Henley has dredged up the issue again, also again discussing Okkervil River’s cover of his “The End of Innocence,” which he made the band pull off the web earlier this year. (Like Ocean, the folk-rockers released their Henley take — a cover with a some changed lines — for free via mixtape on their website.)
“I was not impressed,” Henley said of “American Wedding” in this new interview. “He needs to come up with his own ideas and stop stealing stuff from already established works. [He] doesn’t seem to understand U.S. copyright law. Anyone who knows anything should know you cannot take a master track of a recording and write another song over the top of it. You just can’t do that. You can call it a tribute or whatever you want to call it, but it’s against the law. That’s a problem with some of the younger generation, they don’t understand the concept of intellectual property and copyright.
“[Mr Ocean] was quite arrogant about it,” Henley continued. “We tried to approach him calmly to talk reason to him via his managers and his attorneys and he wouldn’t listen. So finally we threatened to bring legal action against him. He was clearly in the wrong. I wouldn’t dream of doing something like that. What kind of ego is that? I don’t understand it.”
Already the Henley outrage has come, ranging from “Arrogant? Henley calling the kettle black much?” to something along the lines of what Okkervil River leader Will Sheff told TheMusic.com.au back in February, when the controversy about his “The End of Innocence” cover first broke: “[Getting the track pulled] is a real dick move, man. I guess he’s an old-fashioned guy who doesn’t understand. I don’t really get what his issue with it was, it’s not like I was making money – I figure that’s all he fucking cares about anyway, know what I mean?”
Ocean also assumed Henley’s objections were about money: “Ain’t this guy rich as fuck? Why sue the new guy? I didn’t make a dime off that song. I released it for free. If anything I’m paying homage.”
The thing is, as money-driven as Henley has been throughout the Eagles’ career, I don’t think this is about money. This is about Following The Rules and getting proper credit. The latter point become clear to me in something Ocean wrote in his aforementioned Tumblr post: “They also asked that I release a statement expressing my admiration for Mr. Henley, along with my assistance pulling it off the web as much as possible.”
Henley is not exactly one of those canonized classic rockers, his influence asserted to generation after generation via name-checks from “cool” young bands. When the Eagles get nods from Gen X or millennials, it’s almost begrudgingly. I’m not sure Henley is accustomed to the new guard giving him credit, nor does he seem to understand the #NewRules that define how this credit looks. Younger artists understand this; Coldplay rewarded Ocean’s liberal sampling of their “Strawberry Swing” by asking him to open a European tour in 2012 (gigs he later pulled out of, but still).
“American Wedding” was an Ocean cosign that had the potential to drive sales to “Hotel California” and introduce it to a hip-hop youth audience — listeners accustomed to modern sample culture. And how would a young indie music listener discover a Don Henley solo hit from 1989 if not through a band like Okkervil River? The Ataris made Henley’s “Boys of Summer” a relevant anthem for millennials, after all.
But as laid back as some of the Eagles’ records can be, Henley is no hippie. He’s not of the folk music tradition, one in which making a traditional song your own is encouraged. Nor does he seem to subscribe to the Picasso school of thought — “good artists copy, great artists steal” — at least not when it involves another artist riffing off his own work. No, he wants young artists to worship at his feet. If only he’d realize that Ocean’s and Okkervil River’s versions of his work are as close as he’s going to get to seeing this happen — these are 21st-century homages, copyright be damned.