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Review -- Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love

Posted: 06/01/2012 4:36 pm

Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love
David Talbot
Free Press
452 pgs, hardcover, $28

Salon magazine founder David Talbot and author of the bestselling Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years has just released Season of the Witch -- a history of San Francisco circa 1967-1982. Talbot's book is a gritty, poetic Valentine to the city by the bay as it emerged as a fantasia of ethnic, cultural, sexual, intellectual and social liberation. Talbot doesn't back off from having literary flowers in his hair recounting some of the halcyon days of the summer of love, but he also chronicles the city's many problems with a heavy dose of hardboiled reporter noir.

Talbot flashes back to the fabled Barbary Coast days of the 30s Irish-Catholic, union town, the its import as a departure point to the Pacific theater, all components that nurtured the city's pioneering spirit, embodied by such local luminaries as the legal bulldog Vincent Hallinan and legendary city-beat reporter Herb Caen. The author tries to balance the glamour of turf wars, power grabs and corrosive politics. By the 60s a racially divided city teeming was with turf wars of the status quo and struggling minorities.

As much as San Francisco was a Mecca for the disenfranchised and disaffected, political and business operatives knew how to exploit the culture wars for political gain of one brand or another. Meanwhile the changing sex, drugs and rock and roll that took hold in the Haight, Fillmore and Castro districts became a national phenomenon.

There is a bit of imbalance with extensive focus on the music scene and its explosive cultural impact and some of the anecdotes about such luminaries as Janis Joplin and rock impresario Bill Graham, for instance, read like so much backstage gossip. Meanwhile, Talbot's portraits of such home-grown groups as the crossdressing theatrical troupe the Cockettes and the phenomenon of communal houses, is fascinating rescued history.

Talbot penetrates such influential but forgotten social revolutionaries as the Diggers and the network of free communes that absorbed the influx of aimless kids from around the country. There is also a keen focus on the exploitation of the politically powerless.

The stories of notorious criminals and their crimes pepper the book starting with Charlie Manson seducing his future followers. Other infamous events -- the Zodiac killings, and the activities of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the media circus around the Patty Hearst kidnapping -- are recounted in detail. The inner workings of the cult of Jim Jones is particularly illuminating, especially since Jones at one time wielded political influence with mayor George Moscone and gay activist Harvey Milk. After the Jonestown massacre, Talbot gives an equally vivid account of the murders of Moscone and Milk, as well as the back story of their assassin Dan White.

Several chapters are devoted to the success and failures, real and metaphoric of the San Francicso 49ers and, like his emphasis on the rock scene, is a bit overdone (Although his play-by-play run of the 49ers fabled win over the Cowboys is as good as any sports announcer's account). Talbot's moving chapters on the first years of the AIDS era and his city's response to the epidemic is powerfully written and testament to the city's soul and spirit.

 
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