Season of the Witch is a must read for any person living in San Francisco or for those who are students of cities. Talbot doesn't delve into the early years of San Francisco's history but concentrates his attention to the tumultuous 1960's and the years following that. While his title may be accurate that a season of the witch came out of the 60's his conclusion that the AIDS epidemic, the championship of the 49ers and the mayoral leadership of Diane Feinstein brought deliverance to San Francisco feels like he is stretching the events to fit into a plot that makes a nice story of Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance.
Nevertheless the history in this book through the meticulous interviews that he conducted and research has brought out a historical narrative that I have only heard in bits and pieces with many pieces I have never heard before.
Talbot starts off with a San Francisco set in the traditional conservative values of the Roman Catholic Irish dominated church and police department and the battle that liberals began to fight and the emergence of the hippie movement through the stiff resistance of the powers that were in the city. Characters such as Rev. Edward Beggs founder of Huckleberry House, Allen Ginsberg, The Hells Angels, The Diggers, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, David Smith and the beginnings of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, Charles Sullivan the King of Swing, Bill Graham the Napoleon of Rock, Scott Newhall and the San Francisco Chronicle, Herb Caen, The underground music movement, Hibiscus and his drag queen dance troupe are some of the characters and events in what Talbot describes as the Enchantment phase of San Francisco. Free love, free food, free music was a culture that was being created in this season of celebration.
In Part Two, "A season of Terror," Talbot starts off with the statement, "What began in San Francisco as a celebration of life would become the opposite." Janis Joplin and the entrance of heroin, speed, LSD, hard drugs, the underground railway of runaway youths in the Haight, Vietnam vets wasted from the war, Anton Levey and the Church of Satan, Charles Manson, The Rolling Stones at Altamont, the Good Earth Commune, Mayor Alito, Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, Donald DeFreeze alias Cinque, Art Agnos, The Zebra murders, The Zodiac killer, The Black Self help Moving Company, Muhammad's Temple no. 26 (the Fillmore auditorium), Rose Pak, Willie Brown, Ed Lee and the Housing crisis and International Hotel, The gay movement, the porn industry, Moscone, John Barbagelata, Harvey Milk, Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, the Fillmore demolition, Dan White and the Moscone/Milk assassination are among some of the events and people in this section that depict the downward spiral from a season of enchantment into the dark abyss of a season of terror. Talbot's countless interviews and intriguing writing style of recounting history in the context of how a city develops makes this book one that keeps you turning pages. At the same time the depth of human depravity and tragedy caught me often putting the book down and wanting to cry.
In Section three which Talbot titles as Deliverance he highlights the rise of Diane Feinstein as a mother/doctor who cares for the broken soul of San Francisco, the rise of the 49ers through Coach Bill Walsh and quarterback Joe Montana. Talbot ends this section with how the AIDS epidemic brought out the best in San Francisco as people began taking care of one another. The ending at best is shallow and left me wondering just how much those events actually brought San Francisco together and just how much Talbot was stretching the flow of events to fit a story line of enchantment, terror and deliverance. It is obvious that in his pursuit to write a story that Talbot missed some key people such as Randy Shaw and minimized others like Cecil Williams who played significant roles in the shaping of present day San Francisco.
Nevertheless this book is fascinating, detailed but not boring, grievous, R-Rated for its violence and sexuality but truthful for telling the story the way it was and I promise you a book you cannot put down. If you do put it down is will be only to catch your breath from the fast pace of events or the overwhelming sense of darkness and grief that this beloved city of San Francisco has passed through.
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