Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Out of all of his noteworthy life experiences — the sold-out shows, the Jack Daniels-fueled benders, the drugs and debauchery, the jam sessions with Muddy Waters and other guitar legends, the 1969 show at the Altamont Speedway where a fan was beaten to death by the Hells Angels — Keith Richards picked the tiny town of Fordyce and what happened there in the summer of 1975, to lead off his new book, “Life.”
The story has become somewhat of an Arkansas rock legend. Richards, Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood and two others were pulled over in Fordyce on July 5, 1975, after a late lunch at the 4-Dice Restaurant. The police found some cocaine and a hunting knife, along with a trunk full of booze. Richards and Woods were detained and a media frenzy ensued until the charges were whittled down to reckless driving and the Stones hopped a plane to Dallas for their next show.
It’s been written about ad nauseum in local and national publications and the tale makes up considerable portions of personal biographies, including that of former Rolling Stones lawyer and Arkansas native Bill Carter. Ronnie Wood also wrote about the incident briefly in his book, “Ronnie.” All of these accounts share a certain amount of continuity.
Now we have a first-hand account from Richards himself. His version stacks up well with previous accounts, although the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Famer adds a few details here and there. But some questions remain about what exactly happened that day in Fordyce, who’s telling the truth and whether or not it makes any difference.
“And here we were driving back roads in a brand-new yellow Chevrolet Impala,” Richards writes. “In the whole of the United States there was perhaps no sillier place to stop with a car loaded with drugs — a conservative, redneck southern community not happy to welcome different-looking strangers.”
Bill Carter had warned Richards and Wood not to drive through Arkansas at all and to stick to the interstate highways if they did. Rebellious as they were, they didn’t listen. Carter wrote about Richards’ stay in Fordyce extensively in his book “Get Carter.” Even today, the thought of the whole fiasco draws a big belly laugh from the retired music industry lawyer, now 75.
“There are some things [in Keith’s book] that are maybe not quite as accurate as things I said in my book,” he said. “But that was the way he saw it. And I wouldn’t challenge his view of it. I just think — and remember he’s a huge rock star — that the world through his eyes is a bit different than it is to the rest of us.”
Richards visited Carter in 2008 to go over the details of what happened, refresh his own memory and swap stories. Carter said Richards’ recollection of what happened at the city hall in Fordyce is, for the most part, accurate. It’s what happened before they got to city hall that might be a little bit fuzzy. Richards describes pulling into the 4-Dice Restaurant:
“So we drove and Ronnie and I had been particularly stupid. We pulled into this roadhouse called the 4-Dice where we sat down and ordered and then Ronnie and I went to the john. You know, just start me up. We got high. We didn’t fancy the clientele out there, or the food, and so we hung in the john, laughing and carrying on. We sat there for forty minutes. And you don’t do that down there. Not then. That’s what excited and exacerbated the situation. And the staff called the cops.”
But could anyone, stoned or not, spend 40 minutes in a bathroom? Maybe. Ronnie Wood writes in his autobiography that he and Richards “must have spent a couple of hours in the bathroom laughing.”
Paul Holt’s mother ran the restaurant at the time and his wife runs it now. A Stones fan himself, Holt was still in Memphis, having just seen the band perform on Friday night. He said the idea of spending 40 minutes in the restaurant’s tiny bathroom is absurd.
“The bathroom’s still in the same spot,” he said pointing toward the thin wood-paneled door. “It’s a one-seater. There’s no way they stayed in there for 40 minutes doing drugs. He’s trying to embellish the story to make himself look like the big outlaw. One thing I had a problem with was he said it was our waitress who called the police and that didn’t happen that way. My brother came in to eat lunch and the cop was sitting up the road with his nose out on the street looking this way. They had already been informed that there was somebody here.”
Holt is still a Rolling Stones fan to this day. The 4-Dice Restaurant is decked out with memorabilia including posters, pictures and a framed concert T-shirt. When “Life” was released, Holt bought six copies to sell at the restaurant in case any customers wanted to buy a little piece of Fordyce history. He still has all six.
“It didn’t hurt my feelings that he said he didn’t like the food,” Holt said. “I don’t like British food either. He and Ronnie ordered steaks. You can’t just go into a one-horse town and order steaks. So for him to say he didn’t like it, it just makes the story better.”
To hear Richards tell it, there were drugs stuffed into everything that would hold them. He and Wood both say the door panels of the rental car were filled with drugs. “All you had to do was pop the panels,” Richards writes, “and there were plastic bags full of coke and grass, peyote and mescaline.” Woods only remembered the first two varieties.
Richards also had some “hash, Tuinals and some coke” tucked into tiny pockets on his hat. But that’s a bit of a stretch said Joe Pennington, a former sheriff’s deputy who arrived on the scene after the Impala was pulled over.
“There’s some accusations that there was drugs all in the side panels of the car and so forth,” Pennington said. “I was there when they searched the car. Two state police criminal division officers searched the car and assisted in the arrest. They combed it pretty good. I don’t think they missed anything. There was only a little small package of cocaine seized with a spoon.
It stayed around until I took it and put it in a display at the next county fair, the spoon and the cocaine. Back then nobody knew what cocaine looked like or what a spoon was. It stayed on display for two or three years at city hall then the cocaine got flushed down the toilet.”
The spoon, which now belongs to Pennington’s son, Allen, is one of the only remaining artifacts left in Richards’ wake. The gold coating is a little faded now, showing the effects of heavy use and time. Pennington said he’s never thought about selling it, auctioning it off on eBay or anything of the sort. He said he’ll probably get it framed, along with a picture, and hang it in the 4-Dice Restaurant.
Carter, who said he would “bet his life on” the fact nothing was stored in the car, has his own theory as to why Richards may have stretched the truth a bit.
“I think Keith knows he pulled one over on the authorities,” Carter said. “He needs to be thankful that the police bungled that job because while he gives me so much credit for getting them out of there, the fact is the police had violated every right that existed. And it would have never stood up in court the way they conducted the search and the way they conducted themselves generally. He’s very lucky it occurred like that. So, now he’s beaten the authorities and he’s just kind of pounding himself on the chest and rubbing it in a bit.”
No matter what version of the story you read, City Hall was where things started to get interesting. Richards, Woods, their friend Freddie Sessler and Jim Callaghan, head of the Stones security detail, were detained, but not locked up. Richards was charged with reckless driving and possession of a concealed weapon. Sessler was charged with possession of a controlled substance. A crowd started to gather as word spread that two of the biggest rock stars in the world had been detained by Fordyce police. Crowd estimates vary greatly from Pennington’s “200 or so” to Richards’ guess of 2,000.
Carter, who was in West Memphis with former Judge Lindsey Fairley at the time, chartered a plane to Fordyce to bail out his clients. Judge Thomas Wynne, who according to everyone present had imbibed a fair amount on the golf course that day, was called in to adjudicate the matter.
Carter maintains that Richards’ recollections of what happened after the judge arrived on the scene are accurate. Tommy Mays, then city attorney and deputy prosecutor for the city of Fordyce who Richards describes as “idealistic, fresh out of law school,” agrees. For the most part, anyway.
Richards describes the cast of characters at the hearing. He said the police chief, Bill Gober, was “vindictive, enraged.” According to “Life,” Gober was extremely upset with the judge, threatening to place him under arrest if he “let these bastards go.”
Mays said things got pretty heated, but the fight was between the judge and one of the arresting officers, Joe Taylor, not Bill Gober.
“Bill Gober was the police chief, he’s got that right,” Mays said. “But if you remember in that chapter, he’s talking about the police chief wanting to hang ’em and telling the judge he was going to lock him up. That was not Bill Gober. He was a very mild-mannered gentlemen and very professional. His actions were nothing like that. He’s just got his people mixed up there.” Mays, who considers himself more of a “Temptations man,” looks back fondly on the incident and said it taught him a great deal.
“I guess I kind of learned the way things really work in a lot of regards,” he said, “what goes on when you’ve got people of prominence, people with money and how they’re treated. It’s one of two extremes. The police officers almost wanted to go out and hang them up by their thumbs on the light pole. Then you have the other extreme of ‘they’re prominent people’ the state department’s calling, senators are calling telling us to let them go and get them out of there. I just learned how things really worked.”
Whether anything else was learned was a different story, he said.
“I don’t think anything was learned by the guys in the band. Here they were the hottest thing in the world. They knew Bill Carter was coming in. They were absolutely not concerned about anything. They weren’t worried. They knew they’d just pay a fine or whatever. It was just another chapter of their lives. Just another little bump on the road,” Mays said.
Life lessons or no, the incident will forever be a part of the town’s history. Holt said he has reservations about glorifying an incident that was centered on a drug bust. But he’s happy to be a part of the story.
“I love Keith, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But he’s a blowhard and he’s trying to sell his book. When it happened it really wasn’t that big of a deal to most people, but it was to me and it was to all the young people. It’s been a good thing. It hasn’t changed my life or anything. It’s just a wild tale that goes around and rears its head every so often.” Stephen Steed, a local freelance journalist, wrote about the incident for the Little Rock Free Press back in 1994. He thinks Richards probably exaggerated a bit, but in the end, who cares? “It’s a legend now,” Steed said. “And Keith took it to another level, there. There’s a lot of speculation as to what really went on. There was very little coverage that got into the charges and how they got out of there so quick. But, hey, it’s a piece of lore. It’s rock ’n’ roll. It’s like George Washington chopping down a cherry tree. It’s a good story.”
When asked about the discrepancies between Richards’ recollections and other accounts, the book’s publisher, Little, Brown and Company, said simply “Keith’s recollections are in ‘Life.’ ”
Carter said the tale, no matter who tells it, is pretty unbelievable.
“When the book came out, the publisher called me from New York,” he said. “They said, ‘We’ve read Keith’s book, the first chapter, and we’re going to be sued. There’s no way we’re going to print this.’ I could kind of picture it. Here’s a young lawyer in New York City, reading about this event in Fordyce, Arkansas, and Keith telling it and it just didn’t seem real. I laughed on the phone with him and I said there were still people who could testify that it really did happen. It was funny, though, to hear him question whether or not something like that could have happened, or whether it was Keith’s fantasy. But it did happen just exactly the way it reads.”
Richards pled guilty to reckless driving and paid a $162.50 fine. The concealed weapon charge was dropped. In 2006, Mike Huckabee pardoned Richards, who never asked for the favor, wiping away the reckless driving charge. Even after all the research, interviews, news stories and autobiographical accounts some questions remain. What happened to the knife? The car? Richards says the knife still hangs in city hall. It doesn’t. Carter said the judge — aside from asking for a photo with Richards and Wood — wanted to take it home, but, for whatever reason, didn’t. As for that Impala, supposedly crammed to the air vents with drugs?
“We left it in this garage loaded with dope,” Richards writes. “I’d like to know what happened to that stuff. Maybe they never took the panels off. Maybe someone’s still driving it around, still filled with shit.”
So no one knows for certain. All that’s really left is a tiny cocaine spoon and a hundred different versions of the same story. Why let the truth get in the way of that?
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