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The Intellectual Odyssey of Former Rolling Stones Promoter Peter Swales

He was once a promoter for the young Rolling Stones, a cool observer of their drug and devil world. He is now the punk historian of psychoanalysis

Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg filming 'Performance' circa 1968.
Andrew Maclear/Redferns
September 27, 1984

We live in a world shaped by the thought of Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychology: he established theories on sexuality and the unconscious that are inseparable from our twentieth century of the mind. We also live with a traditional view of the Founder as a chaste and puritanical man, a scientist of flawless integrity. He created and ruled over a worldwide psychoanalytic establishment, yet in 1934, he said:

"Nobody knows or has ever guessed the real secret of my work."

Throughout the century, psychologists, biologists, theologists, feminists and social critics have used Freud's own writings to challenge his theories. The intellectual game of using Freud to give Freud a whipping has been practiced by generations of biographers and historians as well. And yet, despite the dark secrets of Freud's life — the "anomaly" of his cocaine use, rumors of his love affair with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays — the sacrosanct image of the Founder has endured, protected and burnished by his followers in their fortresses, the Sigmund Freud Archives in New York and the U.S. Library of Congress, where crucial documents are withheld from public view — some until the twenty-second century.

But now, the Freudian fastness is beset by a new attack; now there is a startling portrait of a Freud that no one knew existed. This is a Freud of vanity and ambition, of drugs and demonology, who elevated and codified his own narcotic and sexual obsessions into the "science" of psychoanalysis. This is a Freud whose intellectual development was deeply affected by his secret love affair with Minna, her subsequent pregnancy and the abortion he may have arranged for her at an Alpine spa. And what is most remarkable about this portrait is that it is far more consistent with Freudian theory than the standard image of Freud.

This new portrait comes from without the walls of the Freudian bastion, from outside the universities, psychiatric hospitals and institutes — from another world: it comes from Peter Swales, the self-styled "punk historian of psychoanalysis," a thirty-six-year-old Welshman now living in New York, who departed on his fifteen-year odyssey into the life and mind of Freud from the Kingdom of Their Satanic Majesties, the Rolling Stones.

"Freud's work began in drugs and hypnotic suggestion, which belong to the tradition of black magic and demonology much more than they do to medicine proper," Swales announces in an interview at his Lower East Side tenement. His slight form is draped across a windowsill; he is tossing clots of grease to a crowd of cats milling in the air shaft four flights below. "And indeed, psychoanalysis has a kind of narcotic property: we all know the cliché of people addicted to their shrinks . . .

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"I have always been interested in the drug culture and rock & roll because in microcosm they amplify tendencies that are prevalent in modern culture as a whole. And the point here is that Freud is incredibly contemporary. In a sense, in getting involved with cocaine, Freud was a precursor of rock culture by eighty years. We live in a narcotic culture," Swales concludes, tossing himself into a kitchen chair to light a cigarette, "and anyone who can't see that has to be in a fucking stupor."

Not everyone sees it Swales' way: his attack on the "science" of psychoanalysis has stung the Freudian establishment. Author Janet Malcolm reports on his intellectual wars in a gripping book, In the Freud Archives, a chronicle that depicts the staid sherry-sipping world of Freudian scholarship as a backstabbing, neurotic swamp. But in this swamp, Swales has shown a remarkable ability to swim and snap: his self-published essays are now near legends in some psychoanalytic circles; the shelves of his bedroom office are lined with neatly bound and indexed letters from psychoanalysts, psychologists and historians around the world; at his first public lecture, at New York University on November 18th, 1981, Swales exhaled a three-hour disquisition on Freud's affair with Minna Bernays to an audience of 175 analysts, psychologists, sociologists, rabbinical scholars, academics and students. It was met with a standing ovation and not a word of dissent.

How a rock & roll fanatic from provincial Wales ended up "one of the world's leading authorities — perhaps the leading authority — on the early life of Freud and on the early history of psychoanalysis," as Malcolm called him, has to be one of the more bizarre intellectual odysseys of a generation. By approaching psychoanalysis through the drug culture, as did Freud himself, Swales employs the demonism, death obsession, stupefaction, paranoia and hype of the Sixties rock culture in the service of historical scholarship, and gives us good reason to defy the Freudian image of the mind as a nightmare from which we are unlikely to awake.

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