UPDATE: Okkervil River’s Will Sheff has responded to Don Henley’s comments via an essay at Rolling Stone, beginning, “I woke to the news that Don Henley was ‘not impressed’ with me. OK…” He saliently addresses the issue of ownership and “stealing” here: “This is what artists are supposed to do — communicate back and forth with each other over the generations, take old ideas and make them new (since it’s impossible to really ‘imitate’ somebody without adding anything of your own), create a rich, shared cultural language that was available to everybody.” Read the rest there and catch the back story below.
In 1974, Linda Ronstadt’s former backing band (though not the one that recorded her classic “Different Drum”) put out a song called “Ol’ 55” on their album On the Border. That band, of course, was the Eagles, and the track was a cover. Tom Waits, who wrote the song and originally released it as the opening track on his debut studio album, 1973’s Closing Time, wasn’t impressed. Of the Eagles, he famously said a couple of years later, “Their albums are good for keeping the dust off your turntable and that’s about all.”
These days, the Eagles’ founding member Don Henley is the one criticizing people who reinterpret his songs. Two years ago, then-Album of the Year-maker Frank Ocean faced a threatened lawsuit over his Nostalgia, Ultra. mixtape’s “American Wedding,” which is built around the Eagles’ mammoth “little buds” ode “Hotel California.” Now, Henley has told Sydney, Australia’s Daily Telegraph Ocean’s song constitutes “stealing,” and he has compared Okkervil River’s recent reinterpration of his solo track “The End of Innocence” to art-museum vandalism. All of this suggests he still hasn’t heard the new War on Drugs album (a joke we shamelessly stole).
“Mr. Ocean doesn’t seem to understand U.S. copyright law,” Henley said, in the true spirit of American music. “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.”
He acknowledged hearing Ocean’s track, and wouldn’t you know it, his judgment was a bit like Waits’ of the Eagles. “I was not impressed,” Henley said. “He needs to come up with his own ideas and stop stealing stuff from already established works.” He also called Ocean “arrogant,” noting the channel ORANGE singer was “clearly in the wrong.”
Okkervil River covered Henley’s “The End of Innocence” late last year on their Golden Opportunities 3 cover mixtape (which you can download via Stereogum). The track had rewritten lyrics, and the band’s Will Sheff told Australia’s The Music (are the Eagles especially big Down Under?) that Henley “made me take it down.” Though Henley’s beef with Ocean might have been that the Odd Future affiliate didn’t change “Hotel California” enough, he indicates his problem with the Austin, Texas indie rockers is partly that they changed “The End of Innocence” at all.
First Henley went in with an air of #sorrynotsorry: “I’m sorry, but it wasn’t an improvement. We were not impressed. So we simply had our legal team tell them to take it down and they got all huffy about it.”
Then he went on to imply he’s, like, Leonardo Da Vinci or something:
“I don’t know how they’d react if I took one of their songs and re-wrote the lyrics and recorded it, I don’t know if they’d like that. Maybe they wouldn’t care but I care. We work really really hard on our material. We spend months writing it and years recording it. You don’t go into a museum and paint a mustache on somebody else’s painting. Nobody would think of doing that.” (Nobody! Acts of vandalism are only “much of the story of 20th-century art,” according to an illuminating article last year in Harper’s Magazine. But clearly Henley is a 21st-century man.)
So there you have it. Artists of the world, unite! Go into the museum of Henley and start painting mustaches on his songs. You have nothing to lose but freedom from listening to the Eagles. Which reminds us: Has the ever-litigious Henley sued Mexican-food chain On the Border yet? They opened their doors several years after the Eagles’ album of the same name. Also, there’s gotta be an Eagles sample incepted in the Ocean song currently involved in a separate sample-of-a-sample lawsuit.