June 1, 2012

“Season of the Witch” is an enthralling — and harrowing — account of how the 1967 Summer of Love gave way to 20 or so winters of discontent. As Salon.com founder David Talbot tells it, San Francisco was famous for extending a welcome mat to outcasts long before it became the epicenter of the 1960s youth rebellion. Yet the city had an old guard that resented the influx, tried to squelch the rock concerts that gathered the young and the restless into a tribe, and did everything possible to shut down novel enterprises, such as street clinics, that sprang up outside official channels. None of which is to say that the challenges posed by the flower children wouldn’t have taxed the patience of saints. No other American city — probably no city anywhere — was any better prepared.

Talbot lovingly evokes the salad days when a group called the Diggers set the tone. Their Free Store (motto: “You can’t steal here because everything is free”) reflected an ethos that has endured: “Decades later,” Talbot argues, “echoes of the Digger philosophy could still be heard in web mantras such as ‘Information wants to be free’ and other slogans of the digital age.”

Also in effect was a lot of plain old looking out for one another. Talbot tells an amusing story about a rising local band called the Grateful Dead. On their way home from a grocery run, band member Jerry Garcia and his girlfriend, Mountain Girl, were hailed by a neighbor from her window across the street. “I’m so glad you got my groceries,” the neighbor hollered. “Come up right now.” The pair picked up on what was happening: a police raid of their house, which — the Dead being the Dead — was not a drug-free zone. Garcia and Mountain Girl accepted the invitation and “weren’t arrested that day.”

Meanwhile, some shoppers had needs that not even a free store could meet, such as treatment for the overdosed and justice for the harassed. Striking what Talbot calls a “devil’s bargain,” the denizens of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, ground zero for the Summer of Love, enlisted a thuggish motorcycle club called the Hell’s Angels as guardians. “In return for protecting them from violent cops, bad drug dealers, and other rogue elements,” Talbot writes, “the neighborhood turned a blind eye to the Angels’ own bare-knuckled behavior.”

Legitimizing the Angels came with a price. In 1969, several miles inland from San Francisco Bay at Altamont Pass, the Rolling Stones threw a free concert for which the Angels provided security. In the parlance of the day, they proved to be the problem, not the solution, when they stabbed and stomped a concertgoer to death. The anguish caused by the incident was only a prelude. As Talbot puts it, “No city would go through more convulsions than San Francisco as it processed the 1960s.”


‘Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love’ by David Talbot (The Free Press)

There was the terror reign of the Symbionese Liberation Army, which kidnapped Patty Hearst, demanded a gargantuan ransom from her wealthy father and robbed a bank before coming to a fiery end. There was a wave of random killings by black militants. The police responded with racial profiling and brutal crackdowns, and Mayor Joseph Alioto proposed massive civic renewal, which would have entailed razing certain troublesome neighborhoods. Skeptical citizens portrayed the city as facing a clear choice: “Was it to become a Manhattan of the West, whose office towers and high-rise apartment buildings overshadowed everything else, or remain an affordable, human-scale city of light nestled into the hills and hollows?” In the midst of all the turmoil, then, San Francisco was called upon to wrestle with its identity.

The arc of misery peaked with two grim sagas in 1978: the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in San Francisco, and the mass suicide of the Rev. Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple followers in Guyana. Milk was the city’s — and the nation’s — first openly gay politician, and Dan White, the man who killed him and the mayor (and also, a few years later, himself), was a scion of the Irish-Catholic contingent that, with help from Italian Americans, had dominated local politics for decades. Not long before his death, Milk told a friend he had a feeling that White himself was gay, in which case his rampage probably had a psychosexual dimension. In any event, he represented an element that resented the transformation of San Francisco into the gayest of American cities.

For Talbot, White also crystallizes the rigid puritanism found in some Catholics, particularly, in his view, the Irish variety, on whom he lays much of the blame for the city’s sometimes ham-handed reactions to the sexual and other revolutions. To be ecumenical, however, he might have fleshed out his account of the Peoples Temple by focusing on a strain of Protestantism — the anarchic, anybody-can-create-his-own-version-of-Christianity kind — that played into the hands of a monster like Jones. While in San Francisco, Jones parlayed his status as a man of the cloth into a free pass from authorities, who ignored complaints that he was tyrannizing his flock.

Citywide catharsis, when it finally came, took two forms. The first, the victory of the San Francisco 49ers in the 1982 Super Bowl, may seem frivolous, but even Mayor Dianne Feinstein, whom football bored silly, recognized the healing power of the win. In Talbot’s words, after the game was over, “many of the Faithful simply remained in their seats . . . some in tears, letting all the tragedies of the past come spilling out of them.” The other matter that unified San Franciscans was AIDS: Civic authorities and legions of volunteers developed methods of care-giving and coping that were soon copied in cities throughout the nation.

An undercurrent of rock music runs through the book, and in an appendix Talbot lists what he considers “The Best Songs Recorded by San Francisco Bands, 1965-1985.” Some of the artists, such as the Dead and the Jefferson Airplane, still get airplay. Others (let’s hear it for Moby Grape, the Vejtables and the Mojo Men) enjoyed fleeting fame. “Season of the Witch,” however, is good enough to last.

drabelled@washpost.com

Dennis Drabelle , a contributing editor for Book World, lived in the Bay Area from 1981 to 1984.

SEASON OF THE WITCH

Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love

By David Talbot

Free Press. 452 pp. $28