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Okkervil River Responds to Don Henley: Copyright Laws Kill Art

Will Sheff writes artists "communicate back and forth with each other over the generations, take old ideas and make them new"

June 4, 2014 4:30 PM ET
 Will Sheff Okkervil River
Will Sheff of Okkervil River
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

I woke to the news that Don Henley was "not impressed" with me. OK, well, he technically wasn't impressed with a cover of one of his songs that I'd recorded and given away for free on a release called Golden Opportunities 3 – in fact he was angry with me and he wanted me to take it down.

Don Henley Claims 'Arrogant' Frank Ocean, Okkervil River Stole Songs

Golden Opportunities is a cover series my band Okkervil River has been doing for several years now and… I just realized it sounds like I'm plugging it but actually there's nothing to plug because Henley's lawyers made me remove the song I'd planned as the big final capping moment – a cover of "The End of the Innocence" – when Henley took umbrage.

I was first introduced to "The End of the Innocence" via Casey Kasem's Top 40 Countdown, which my Dad would play in our station wagon as he drove me and my brother to church every Sunday. I was a kid who was just figuring out my own taste in music; for the first time, I was realizing that I didn't like every song on the radio anymore, that some spoke to me more than others. Shuffled in with sappy late-'80s cuts like "From a Distance" and "Cuts Both Ways," "The End of the Innocence" stood out. Sonically it was just as soggy as those Bette Midler and Gloria Estefan ballads, but there was this deflated masculine middle-aged world-weariness to it that haunted me, although I wouldn't have thought of those exact words at the time. I was 12 or 13, but the song made me feel like I was 56. And the way the verse and chorus interacted with each other musically was gorgeous.

I had no idea I'd become a performer when I grew up, and the artists that influenced me to become one were nothing like Henley. I loved the angry rough edges of early Dylan, the meandering acid-laced folk of the Incredible String Band, the fearless, passionate performances of Nina Simone. All of these artists, on some level, drew from a folk tradition, and, as I got deeper into their work, they led me to old-time American folk and blues – to artists like Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Dock Boggs, Skip James and the Carter Family. As I fell deeper and deeper in love with these artists I started noticing something that they all had in common – they all copied each other. Woody Guthrie took the melody from the Carters' "Little Darling Pal of Mine" and he wrote "This Land Is Your Land." Robert Johnson took the already-existing blues tales about selling your soul to the devil and they ended up incorporated into his whole image. Bob Dylan took the Scottish ballad "Come All Ye Bold Highway Men" and used it for "The Times They Are A–Changin'." Nina Simone transformed the ridiculous Morris Albert MOR ballad "Feelings" and improvised re-written lyrics, stretching the song over the 10-minute mark and creating something harrowing from it.

I realized that 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. Once I saw it in folk art, I saw it everywhere – in hip-hop, in street art, in dada. I became convinced that the soul of culture lay in this kind of weird, irreverent-but-reverant back-and-forth. And I concluded that copyright law was completely opposed to this natural artistic process in a way that was strangling and depleting our culture, taking away something rich and beautiful that belonged to everyone in order to put more money into the hands of the hands of a small, lawyered few.

When I approached my cover of "The End of the Innocence," I had a hard time with it. The beautiful, slightly jazzier voicings of the chords Henley and his (brilliant) co-writer Bruce Hornsby sounded cheesy when I did them. I simplified the chords into their more folky voicings to fit my own style. In fact, I decided to do the song roughly, unaccompanied by any other instruments, with the flaws plainly audible. I also found that some of Henley and Hornsby's words didn't work coming out of my mouth, so – thinking of Nina Simone – I changed them. In Simone's cover of "Feelings," she actually breaks and addresses the audience to say, "I do not believe the conditions that produced a situation that demanded a song like that!" I kind of felt the same. "The End of the Innocence is surprisingly fatalistic and despairing for a pop radio hit, but it seems to back off of that despair at the end. I felt like it would be interesting if the lyrics worked through that feeling of despair and tried to understand it and take it to the limit, as it were. So I changed the last verse and chorus totally. I was thinking I might excerpt the lyrics here, but then I was like, "Would that get me in trouble? Could I be sued for that?" I don't know the answer, so I guess I won't. I guess the song won't exist. Wish you could hear it. I'm proud of it.

When Henley made us take it down, I figured I'd comply because I can't afford to get sued by Don Henley. I was advised not to talk about it in public, but when an interviewer asked me about it I couldn't disguise my feelings and shot off at the mouth about it. I actually figured Henley hadn't even heard the song and that someone in his employ – maybe even a computer algorithm – had done an automated search, found the song, and sent out the order. It turns out that Henley had heard it and didn't take kindly. In an interview that went online today he complains about my song and about Frank Ocean's "American Wedding" from his phenomenal nostalgia, ultra release, saying, "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…. 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…. 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 moustache on somebody else's painting. Nobody would think of doing that."

Well, I thought of doing that. Maybe I didn't spend months recording it, maybe it wasn't an improvement, and maybe he wasn't impressed, but I did think of doing that. But I wasn't the first person to do that, because doing it goes back to Afrika Bambaataa, to Marcel Duchamp, to Bob Dylan, and to pretty much all folk music pre-1940. So even in that I guess in that idea I was unoriginal.

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