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The Intellectual Odyssey of Former Rolling Stones Promoter Peter Swales

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Sixteen years ago, in the fall of 1968, a twenty-year-old Peter Swales walked into a Georgian town house on the Thames in Chelsea, London, to be interviewed for a new promotional job with the Rolling Stones. The band's most recent single, "Jumpin' Jack Flash," had reestablished its reputation after the critical fiasco of Their Satanic Majesties Request, the album that LSD had made. Their next album, Beggar's Banquet, was about to profess sympathy for the Devil and revolution in the streets. The man Swales had come to meet was twenty-five-year-old Mick Jagger, the Crown Prince of Darkness.

In the midst of filming Performance with director Nicolas Roeg, Jagger had transformed himself into the decadent and demonic rock superstar he was portraying. Brian Jones' ex-girlfriend, actress Anita Pallenberg, had filled the Knightsbridge mansion where Performance was being filmed with satanic icons and symbols. Swales now encountered the Monkey Man-Demon in his own drawing room, near a dark altar covered with drapes and candles.

"Jagger talked such a lot of rot," Swales recalls. "All this revolutionary stuff: couldn't we sell Beggar's Banquet off the backs of lorries all over England, because Decca wouldn't release it with a toilet on the cover, and such. It was pretty weird, because he kept poncing about in front of a mirror in his long hair and makeup. A right little Narcissus. I knew then how to be cheeky. He talked politics, and I kept talking 'theater' and 'product,' but with a twinkle in my eye, as if I knew the terms of the game."

Swales had been living by his wits in London since the age of seventeen. A promising academic career had been foretold for this lad from Wales, but in February 1963, "Please Please Me" was Number One on the charts, and Swales' schoolwork collapsed almost overnight. Growing his hair long, he began running off to London to hear Manfred Mann, the Yardbirds, the Who and the Animals, and was finally booted out of school in 1965 by his disgusted headmaster. He headed for London, ostensibly to attend piano-tuner school, but instead landed a trainee position in the record-sales division at EMI. There he wandered the halls, passing the word on Tamla-Motown and compulsively filling notebooks with maniacal formulas for calculating musical success. "I was so nice and naive in a way," Swales recalls, "and on the other hand I was terribly manipulative, secretly. This duality has been a constant source of tension in my life."

Through apparent guilelessness and an encyclopedic knowledge of rock music, Swales advanced to an under-assistant promo position at Marmalade Records and became the protégé of Giorgio Gomelsky, the first manager of the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones. Swales' confident enthusiasm led to his interview with Jagger, but beneath this competent exterior was a painfully shy youth from the provinces. Living with a rock band called Blossom Toes, immersed in the "swinging London" of the mid-Sixties, he smoked his fair share of hashish, sampled a few psychedelics and took speed to dance all night at clubs around the city. But by and large, he kept his drug usage on a modest scale, fearing he might actually damage his "brain organ," his surest instrument of survival.

Instead he became a fascinated observer of the aberrant behavior and personality changes that accompany drug use. "All around me there were casualties," Swales recalls, "guys who blew their brains out and never came back. At the same time, I was interested in what people were overcome by." This early fascination with the psyche had been shaped by a Russian-born mystic and psychologist, Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff, whose writings Swales received from a friend. "I felt an overwhelming shock of recognition," Swales recalls. "So I'm not mad! I'm quite sane! People don't know who they are! It totally changed my life. The basic postulate of the Gurdjieffian world view is that man is in a thousand pieces, every one of which calls itself 'I' but none of which is. Each of these fragments coexists oblivious to the existence of the others — only at moments do we get any perception of these contradictions existing between all these fragments." Swales would later transform this insight into a methodological approach to Freud, but at the time, it provided a power to manipulate the madness of the decade.

"It was, if you like, almost like black magic — something that I'd artificially obtained but hadn't paid for," Swales says. "By marrying myself to this Gurdjieffian world, which was only what I intuitively felt anyway, I, for a moment, could see the structure of society in a way that enabled me to outwit it. And that's how I came to work for the Rolling Stones — in a totally precarious situation.

"I suppose I was scared to work for the Stones — Satanism, you know. But then again, it seemed exciting for just that reason . . . I decided that I would allow myself to get jaded very fast. I wanted to see through the Stones' mystique, the Stones' charisma, the Stones' image. I didn't want to be liable to it anymore. This had been my dilemma since I was fourteen, when I looked up to the Beatles and the Stones and idolized them. Now I wanted to see what their brilliance was or wasn't."

Swales was hired by the Stones a year and a half after drug busts had nearly destroyed the band. The rebirth of the group after nearly three years without a major tour, and the massive success of Beggar's Banquet, released that December, meant that a kind of family business had to be reorganized into a worldwide financial and musical empire. Nominally the promotions man, Swales in fact served an undefined role as general assistant and subtle master of hustle and hype. He spent much of his time as a liaison between the band and Decca but was also called upon to hail taxis and stage-manage love affairs for Jagger.

Observing the band members with his cool, analytical eye, Swales was careful not to mingle with them socially, fearing that too much intimacy would backfire. "I remember once smoking a huge joint in the studio of Jagger's Chelsea home. Mick made tea, then took me around to look at his new Moog. Suddenly I got incredibly paranoid, partly under the influence of a bit of dope, and I started thinking, 'He's coming on to me; he's gay! He's always pouting and doing these weird things at me.' And I got really scared. I was a pretty kid, you know, very pretty. And the girl he was fucking at the time, a gofer in the office, was continually mistaken for my sister. I fled the house at the earliest possible moment without offending the guy."

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