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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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And so all these great institutions — Bill Graham and the Fillmore Auditorium — the great bands like Janis Joplin, Santana, Big Brother, they came from that spirit: “We’re just gonna do it.” And these bands were neighborhood bands. You’d see Jerry Garcia walking down the street in the Haight, and then everyone felt they owned him — he was their brother, he was Captain Trips. There was a feeling that the community had a sort of proprietary feeling about their musicians, about their poets. And what was so wonderful about San Francisco was this alternate reality that was created, and it became inspirational to the rest of the country and in many ways to the rest of the world.

DH: And what about the self-destructive side of the music scene? The wife of James Gurley from Big Brother and the Holding Company died of an overdose; then Joplin killed herself. Was that the dark side of the scene? It seemed the Grateful Dead avoided those traps.

DT: Well, Garcia had his own drug problems and ultimately died from issues related to his addiction. San Francisco was about pushing the limits. In those days, people didn’t realize what they were playing with when it came to drugs. They felt that drugs were a catalyst for elevating consciousness. And I think as musicians, it was really important for them, those bands in particular, to keep pushing themselves higher and higher in every way. And some of those musicians could handle it. I mean Paul Kantner, again, is probably 70 years old at this point. He’s had brain surgery; he’s been near death numerous times. He’s still going strong. He’s sharp as a tack. And he did more than just share drugs. Jerry Garcia and Janis Joplin didn’t make it. So, again, not to over-quote Stuart Brand, but he said, “Look, there are casualties whenever you try to change reality, and you can’t get too sentimental about it in some ways.”

These were tough hippies. The whole notion of these hippies being soft and pushovers and wimpy is completely bullshit. These were tough people, who were willing to use their own bodies as laboratories in order to change not only knowledge in themselves, but society. So in some ways, I look back and I think, this is sort of a veil of tears, and it’s a terribly tragic story. But in other ways, we won. In terms of liberating sexuality, liberating consciousness, eating healthy food and environmental consciousness, all these things that came out of the city. I name all the things that San Francisco is responsible for: livable minimum wage, universal healthcare, gay marriage, medical marijuana, bicycle-friendly streets, curbside recycling, all the things that freak out Bill O’Reilly and the Republican Party, started here to our great pride in San Francisco. And some of them spread.

Other things flamed out — the ideas were too radical or too far ahead of their time. But a lot of what San Francisco conceived and imagined became part of America ultimately.

DH: I liked in the book where you talk about the food revolution, which seems to be one of the more enduring results of San Francisco creativity. Grass-fed beef from Niemann-Schell, organic cheese from Pt. Reyes, arugula from Green Gulch – the local, fresh, organic revolution. Can you describe how that evolved? And the Zuni Café and Jeremiah Tower, who is a big figure in the book.

DT: Jeremiah is a great figure and a typical San Franciscan — gay, fabulous, handsome, beloved by Pacific Heights socialites as well as bohemians. And he learned his craft, of course, with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. He told me when he first came to the Bay Area in the late ’60s, you couldn’t even get good olive oil. He had to go down to the one Italian deli he could find in the East Bay to bring olive oil to Chez Panisse. There was no organic food movement. Finally, the word started to spread that they were doing new things at Chez Panisse. And some local farmers would bring them some mushrooms through the backdoor like they were selling drugs. But it really did take off. I think it was a gay movement in some ways — that great food movement. Zuni Cafe, which I think is a really important restaurant, as well.

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