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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.

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I think there’s some truth to that. But also San Francisco was haunted, as I write in the book, and went through much trauma because it wasn’t an island. San Francisco was this paradise for young people like myself, and not just for sort of hippies, but to soldiers returning from Vietnam, to people who were running away from terrible family situations. If you were young and broken and full of pain, you headed to San Francisco because it was seen as a place that would embrace you and take care of you.

DH: With flowers in your hair!

DT: Or not. Or with a drug addiction from Vietnam. Oliver Stone told me that when he served in Vietnam this is where he wanted to come, because they all looked at Life magazine, they all saw these pictures of beautiful young people, dancing in the park. And after the hell they’ve been through, they wanted to come here. But, it was not un-violent — they brought their problems with them. The sort of violence they’d been through, the sort of addiction problems they had, they brought to San Francisco.

And I’m just so outraged when you hear these right-wing buffoons talk about how we, the peaceniks, spat on the returning soldiers from Vietnam. It’s such a lie, and it’s a purposeful lie. And the reality is that this was the city that took care of these broken men, these broken soldiers. And I tell the story in the book about one of these people who was on death’s doorstep, and the hippie doctors from the Haight-Ashbury free clinic, literally risked their lives to go into this drug den and take this broken, dying soldier out of there and to a hospital. And that happened again and again and again. So, San Francisco had these demons because the rest of the country had them. But I think San Francisco dealt with them in a much more compassionate way than anywhere else in the country.

DH: The book has larger-than-life figures, and two of them were San Francisco mayors: Joe Alioto and George Moscone. They both have the same background: Italians, went to St. Ignatius high school. Alioto you call the benevolent dictator, and Moscone was the opposite – almost anything goes. How do they become such different people?

DT: Well, slight generational difference. George Moscone was a bit younger, and I think he was infected a little bit more by the ’60s, the liberation spirit of the ’60s. As a legislator in Sacramento, he was fighting Reagan, and he was fighting for social issues, like to decriminalize gay sex, marijuana and make abortion legal. And for the mid-'60s, that was a brave and crusading thing to do for a politician. So he was already more, even at that stage of his political career, of a liberated spirit than Joe Alioto.

Alioto was a little more traditional. He came out of North Beach, of course — very traditional family here. And he was part of the Catholic tradition that was, at the time even, sort of pro-fascist. I write about that in the book: this school of theology within the Catholic Church that he associated with as a young man. Eventually he shook that off and became a strong New Deal type of Democrat. But in terms of social issues, he was not down with homosexuality; he was not down with drugs. He actually kind of got off on going into the Haight and butting heads with the hippies. While everyone else was afraid to debate Eldridge Cleaver on TV, he took him on. So you have to kind of give him credit for being a ballsy guy. He just thought the forces were ruining his city, and he took it personally. These young militants, the Black Panthers, the hippies; he couldn’t understand them. He thought he could drum reason into them and he took them on.

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