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

A mediocre book; and yet writing about SF in the 1960s & 1970s seems like a slam dunk for interesting topics. Talbot murmurs in an average book filled with flaws, raising questions and no real insights. So, the premise: San Francisco is an amazing place, and it’s gone through some weird and wild shit through its history. He starts the book with an adjective-bloated description of the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park in January 1967, then backstories us into the early Sixties with what was going on in the city before the hippies descended. These sections are some of Talbot’s strongest, giving us insight into the clique of rockers and hippies and druggies and thugs and communes in the Haight during that time. Talbot, an ex-Chronicle writer, gives us plenty of info on the Chronicle’s role during all this, how Scott Newhall was a renegade who hired a guy who didn’t like sports to write a sports column and a bitchy queen to write the women’s page. (Note: women’s page! I love that we got our own page at least). Herb Caen was already part of the package for Newhall, already writing the columns that described the city in transition.

In Talbot’s mind, women in the Sixties (and probably before and after) were really only useful for a few things, looking at and screwing. He describes one hippie as a “beautiful, self-possessed fourteen-year old runaway.” He can’t mention Janis Joplin without saying that everyone knew her or “knew someone who had slept with her.” Can we make all men writers sign a pledge where they acknowledge their misogynistic blind spots?

Very weak chapter on Chinatown, which included bits of info about Rose Pak (not enough), and Ed Lee (too much). But those nine pages pale compared to the next chapter on sex/gays/Castro. I was left wondering exactly what happened in Chinatown to preserve its interests, save it from the Fillmore wrecking ball, keep FiDi’s encroaching paws off it.

Terrible things happen: Zodiac killings (only get a few lines here), Zebra killings (much more detailed and gory look), Jonestown koolaid murder/suicide, Milk/Moscone murders. But Talbot wraps up this ugly package with an unconvincing silver lining: Feinstein’s centrist mayorship (although he derides her as too buttoned up and denigrates the sexism she experienced), and an egregious reliance on football to carry the day. I admit to not reading the chapter on the 49ers, because… boring. Oh, but more terrible things: AIDS.

Learned:
* FM radio airwaves were considered second class to AM radio, at least until Tom Donahue took over KMPX with free-form alternative radio playing unspeakable records like the Doors.
* Kwanzaa was created by a guy who was jailed for torturing two women he accused of trying to poison him with crystals (Ron Karenga).
* Randy Hearst struck up an friendship with Sara Jane Moore in an effort to get information about Patty’s whereabouts. Moore would eventually shoot at Gerald Ford in SF a few days after Patty was found, to prove her loyalties to anti-government.
* Patty Hearst peed her pants when the police and FBI finally swooped in to rescue/arrest her, fully expecting that they’d shoot her like they did her comrades in LA.
* Writer Kevin Starr was editing New West during this time and killed a piece on the People’s Temple under pressure from Jim Jones’ group. I’ve never liked Starr’s writing, and this confirms that he’s worthless.
* Both Harvey Milk and George Moscone were deeply entangled in People’s Temple nonsense, Milk writing to President Carter’s secretary of health to get the Social Security checks re-flowing to Guyana, and writing to President Carter himself to support Jones’ kidnapping of Tim and Grace Stoen’s son: “Not only is the life of a child at stake, who presently has loving protective parents in Rev. and Mrs. Jones, but our official relations with Guyana could stand to be jeopardized.”