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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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Billy West, who founded the Zuni Cafe and died of AIDS later, was really a delightful sprite of a character, who loved food and created this great eclectic space. And that’s the thing about San Francisco restaurants that’s so great. You can have people down to their last buck, but would sit at the counter and get a burger. And you’d have the mayor there, you’d have movie stars, you’d have Mick Jagger. It was always an eclectic mix. But at the heart of it was that we wanted to work with local food ingredients — healthy, delicious — and not have it be processed and really push the limits of American cuisine. And so that started in San Francisco in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and now it’s, of course, taken over San Francisco.

DH: What about the porn business? Does San Francisco get credit — do the Mitchell Brothers get credit — for stretching the porn biz?

DT: What the Mitchell Brothers bring to porn is sort of this wacky, hippie sensibility. And instead of having these drugged-out prostitutes staring in the movies, you’d have some clean-cut college girls, who are making a little extra money, or hippies, like from the local communes, who are also picking up some money and fucking people they liked to fuck. So there was a spirit of fun in those movies that you didn’t see in the sleazier movies. They knew each other, they were like a big tribe of crazy, stoned-out hippies.

But I think what they did — well, first of all they were a little kinkier because they were willing to push the limits, had more bisexuality, they were bringing in multi-racial sex before it became hot or really conventional. So their films went viral; Behind the Green Door, made by the Mitchell Brothers, was the biggest grossing porn movie of its day. So suddenly these crazy brothers from the Sacramento Delta are these huge porn moguls. And I think they never really fully adjusted from that crazy wave they were riding.

DH: One of the brothers killed the other, right?

DT: Yeah, and he got a light sentence, and then he ended up dying not long after himself. I knew both brothers. Then they were already heavily into cocaine. The period I’m dealing with though is prior to their descent into that; it was the more fun days of the Mitchell Brothers. And then later Hunter Thompson was hanging out there. It drew a kind of literary and underground crowd.

DH: One of the things that I still can’t comprehend is how so many good people in SF supported the terrible catastrophe of Jim Jones and Jonestown; how they were in denial and how they recovered. We’re talking a range of people from Willie Brown to Angela Davis and many in between. Even after 900 people were killed, Davis was still trying to strategize how to spin that story.

DT: That’s a story about the failings of San Francisco’s liberal political establishment in the 1970s, and they have a lot to answer for when it comes to Jim Jones and Jonestown. Historically, you basically had a new wave of liberal politicians clawing their way into power during that period in San Francisco. They were the first to break down City Hall. Before then, San Francisco had been a very traditional Democratic town run by this sort of machine — candidates from the Democratic Party establishment, the downtown business establishment.

And George Moscone, when he ran in ’75, was the first mayor to really break away from that as we discussed earlier. And he was a true progressive. And he mobilized the neighborhoods, he mobilized women, minorities. And so all the people that had been excluded from power in City Hall, he broke down the doors and brought those people in with him. Harvey Milk soon followed on the board of supervisors and so on. But to do that, it was a really hard fought election. It was very narrowly won. He won by, I think, only 4,000 votes. Moscone found himself in the middle of a very tough battle, which surprised him because he thought San Francisco was just going to take him up on their shoulders to victory. But he had a tough opponent — a conservative guy, named John Barbagelata, another Italian Catholic guy. He was very traditional, very conservative, a realtor, who thought San Francisco was going to hell, thought the gays were taking over and all the crazies. And so Moscone was shocked that this guy was putting up such a tough battle.

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