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'Season of the Witch': A Dive into the Tumultuous Era of Heroes, Hippies, Druggies, Deadheads and Psycho Killers

David Talbot’s book is an insightful, inspirational and frightening take on the cultural and political transformation of the U.S.

David Talbot’s book, Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love, is an amazing portrait and chronicle of the potent forces of political and social liberation that heated up in San Francisco, beginning in the late 1960s, and eventually boiled over, unleashing a shocking backlash that still feels hard to comprehend, today.

Talbot captures the high-speed velocity of the transformation crashing up against the deep roots of conservative resentment. The threats of change to a longstanding way of life were so powerful that they turned a public official, Dan White, into a psycho killer. White was able to wipe out Mayor George Moscone, and gay supervisor Harvey Milk, in a murder spree at City Hall — an act that was literally cheered on by members of the SF police department. As Talbot describes, Milk and Moscone “were everything White was not: charming, politically shrewd, sexual rambunctious, and comfortable in their own skins, the dynamic duo of San Francisco’s progressive revolution.” Dan White represented a past that some were desperately clinging to, and he stepped up to act out their fears and resentments.

The book reverberates through San Francisco neighborhoods that are iconic in the American cultural lore: Haight Ashbury, the Fillmore, the Castro and North Beach. The narrative is filled with dozens of unforgettable, larger-than-life characters, from heroes like Harvey Milk, to cultural icon Jerry Garcia, to killers like White, and mass murderers like Jim Jones.

Talbot’s masterpiece covers one of the most intense 15-year periods in American history and includes the emergence of the gay liberation movement, the drug revolution — from good to bad -- the short-lived hippie explosion in the Haight, the sexual revolution San-Francisco style, including topless bars in North Beach, and the first organizing of a union for prostitutes. There was the emergence of the hugely influential SF music scene, which included Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane. And the food revolution, whose Petri dish was Alice Water’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley, but included Stars where Jeremiah Tower reigned

, and the venerable Zuni Café, which still attracts full houses night after night.

It was also a period of incredible darkness and horror, far beyond the White murder, including the mass murder of hundreds of mostly poor African American San Franciscans by James Jones in Guyana; the Symbionese Liberation Army and its crazed leader Cinque; the kidnapping of Patty Hearst; and the never-apprehended Zebra killer, who terrorized neighborhoods for years. Despite the avalanche of tragedies, I loved this book for its unabashed enthusiasm for the positive, creative and often mind-blowing side of the San Francisco revolution. I marvel at Talbot’s dogged research and potent prose, which made the book such a great read.

I’ve known David Talbot since 1985, when he was an editor at Mother Jones magazine, and I was the publisher. I met with Talbot, along with my colleagues Jan Frel and Alyssa Figueroa, late this summer in his office in the classic building that houses Frances Coppola’s film operations, as well as a number of small organizations, right at the foot of North Beach.

Don Hazen: Let’s start with the all-important backlash question. Despite, or perhaps because of the powerful forces of change, some horrible forces were unleashed in the Bay Area, and then across the country. Was the backlash inevitable?

David Talbot: I think that is true. I quote Stuart Brand, who I think is a really important figure in San Francisco’s cultural history, emerged with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters during the acid test days; created the Whole Earth Catalogue and was kind of a bridge between hippie San Francisco and the digital future. I quote him saying, “You can’t have a Ken Kesey without having a Charlie Manson. That, when everything is permitted, when everything is possible, that’s what you have.”

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