Denver Bar Association
September 2011
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Book Review: It's a Wonderful 'Life'

by Frank Schuchat

Book Review: It's a Wonderful 'Life'

"Life" Book Cover

“Life” is the title of Keith Richards’ 2010 autobiography. It might also be the sentence given to more than a few poor souls who got into situations similar to those Richards recounts from his colorful life story. It is even possible there are more unfortunates who received life sentences than there are sentences in this 576-page book. But every sentence is enjoyable—in the book, that is.

What has kept Richards out of prison, on tour, and in the studio all these years? A multitude of good lawyers. That’s what. And they are given their full and due respect in this account, written with the author’s old friend, journalist James Fox.

Richards begins his story over July Fourth weekend in 1975, when Keith and bandmate Ronnie Wood, tired of flying, elected to drive from Memphis to Dallas for the next concert. They pulled off the interstate for some food and a break in Fordyce, Ark., notwithstanding their lawyer’s very clear advice not to leave the interstate. Of course, they were stopped  and searched by police right after leaving the roadhouse where the two Rolling Stones had passed the time in the restroom getting stoned while their driving companions ate a meal.

In short order, at least for the pre-cell phone era, the boys were able to locate their go-to, well-connected lawyer, Arkansas native Bill Carter. He arrived in Fordyce later that same day on a private plane with a friend, whom he was visiting at the time he got the call, and the friend happened to be an Arkansas state court judge.

“Life” by Keith Richards with James Fox, 576 pages.

Published by Little , Brown, and Company.

Available in hardcover for $29.99 and paperback for $16.99.

The defense team moved to suppress evidence from the vehicle search. In a pretty good explanation of the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule, Richards writes that “on this little point of law, arguably, hung the future of the Rolling Stones, in America at least.” 

At the end of the hastily convened proceeding, Carter had established to the satisfaction of the Fordyce judge (who was himself intoxicated—it was the weekend after all) that the police search of the car was unlawful. The prosecuting attorney, who also was the brother of the judge, had to settle for a misdemeanor charge and a nominal fine. The judge insisted on having his picture taken with the two Stones. Score a big win for attorney Carter, and for the fans.

What has kept Richards out of prison, on tour, and in the studio all these years? A multitude of good lawyers. That’s what.”

Carter had earlier pulled off a victory for the Rolling Stones when, after a multi-year effort, he secured the visas needed for the band to make their 1975 U.S. tour. Apparently roadblocks had originated in the Nixon administration.  According to Richards, the fact that Mick Jagger had gone on stage with an American flag draped over his shoulders had offended members of the Republican administration.  (Times have changed: today, country singer Lee Greenwood displays his brand of patriotism by wearing a jacket made from Old Glory, and nobody is offended. Or maybe it was that Mick Jagger is British.)

But you really did know the times had changed when the Republican governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, as part of his positioning for a 2008 run for national office (or, alternatively, for the office of national talk show host), sought to gain national attention by issuing a pardon to Richards for the 1975 incident. As Richards points out, he did not need a pardon because “there was no crime on the slate in Fordyce.”

Richards and his squadron of lawyers later had to deal with another arrest on drug charges in Canada in 1978. It only added to the circus surrounding that situation that Margaret Trudeau, wife of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, was traveling with the band at the time.  At trial in Toronto, Richards was found guilty on some lesser charges and the judge’s sentence was that he perform a benefit concert for the blind, which he gladly did.

Richards and his bandmates needed good lawyers in matters other than possession and transportation of controlled substances.  There was the lawsuit of many years’ duration with former manager Alan Klein over rights to some of their music catalog. And there were the income tax lawyers who advised the Rolling Stones to become tax exiles in France in the early ’70s. That enabled them to earn enough to recover from bad business deals and bad management. While in France, they also produced the album “Exile on Main Street,” which Richards says “may be the best thing we did.”

The respect and admiration Richards has for lawyers is made plain throughout this entertaining autobiography.  In this regard, one instance is especially worth mention. Richards tells of receiving a surprise phone call from the great American composer and performer Hoagy Carmichael, who wrote “Stardust” and “Georgia on My Mind,” among others. One of the Rolling Stones’ lawyers had sent Carmichael a recording of Richards playing a Carmichael composition, “The Nearness of You.”  Carmichael paid Richards the high compliment of saying it was done the way he thought the song should sound when he wrote it.

Richards writes that getting a phone call from Carmichael was “like being summoned by the gods.” Of course it was. In addition to being a renowned composer and performer, Carmichael was a 1926 graduate of the University of Indiana Law School and a member of the Indiana State Bar. D

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