Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Season of the Witch: David Talbot's Passionate Social History of San Francisco

Season of the Witch, subtitled "Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love," this 2012 book by the founder of Salon.com is both well-researched and a page-turner. It's romantic and dramatic and probably - simply because it dares to offer a defense of San Francisco and the mainstream electronic corporate media is so filled with haters of the political and social values that emanated from the city - controversial.

Deftly alternating between the culture of San Francisco and its odd politics - with the almost mythic Hallinan family running a thread throughout the book - Talbot has, in effect, written a bare-knuckles defense of what right wing quasi-fascists have denigrated as "San Francisco values." Some of these values would be: we Americans ought to take care of each other, we have the right to compassionate health care and living wages, and we need to tolerate differences among ourselves in order to keep the culture rich and vibrant. Indeed, San Francisco's history seems to have pushed an avant action in favor of the right to pleasure as a basic good. Sex, music, art...these are basic human pleasures and should be as close to free as possible.

No wonder the children from families of Nixon's "silent majority" came flocking to San Francisco as a Mecca in the 1960s.

                                David Talbot, born 1951, author of Season of the Witch
Make no mistake about it, Talbot loves his adopted city (he was born in LA to the family of film actor Lyle Talbot), but it is in his narrations of SF's inferno days that he really shines. And he pulls no punches: freedom is hard. The birth pangs last. And they come on, seemingly indiscriminately, such as the now oft-forgotten Zebra killings that terrorized the city from the fall of 1973 to the spring of 1974, when an African-American cult loosely aligned with the Nation of Islam drove around the city and killed caucasian-looking people randomly, and at times mutilating their bodies.

Around the same time, a seemingly lone mad crazed killer named the Zodiac baffled police, journalists, cryptanalysts, and private sleuths. Zodiac and Zebra seem ripped from the pages of some particularly vile comic book, but they were all-too-real. The Zodiac case has never really been solved (although there are many claims to have "proven" who it was); the police caught a couple of lucky breaks in solving the Zebra killings, after 179 days of sheer, city-wide terror.

Then there was the New World Liberation Front, which seemed to be a bunch of brazen and violent Maoists, but turned out to be one proto-Kaczynski and his PR man, and nameless followers. "They" had plenty of coverage in the underground press and bombed Mayor Alioto's house with a trick box of See's candy. "They" also terrorized via firebombs, vandalizings, death threats and bombing attempts of prominent conservative politicians John Barbagelata and Quentin Kopp.

This is a wonderful book filled with the Summer of Love (Bill Graham, Janis, the Dead, Hendrix, Moby Grape, the Human Be-In), heroic and compassionate doctors in the Haight-Ashbury and at UCSF and then all throughout the city, witty nonviolent street theater anarchists The Diggers, the wonderful Cockettes (only in SF?), and dozens of other life-affirming stories, but Talbot has a particular knack for uncovering "forgotten" or repressed histories, and the New World Liberation Front (NWLF) is one of those:

"The NWLF bombed dozens of targets in the Bay Area, including corporate buildings, Pacific Gas and Electric Company power stations, and even luxury cars and homes owned by rich businessmen. The public face for the NWLF was a tall, lean, mustachioed man in his early thirties who called himself Jacques Rogiers (real name Jack Rogers). Rogiers, operating out of an Oak Street flat, churned out threatening communiques on his Poor People's Press. When Rogiers - the son of a Minnesota Twins baseball scout who'd once played professionally - was finally arrested, the group launched a campaign to release him, accusing Barbagelata of squelching his freedom of speech. Leaflets depicting Barbagelata as a bloody-fanged rat were brazenly stuck to the marble walls inside city hall." (p.286)

When conservative Barbagelata was threatened again, the Reverend Jim Jones of the People's Temple offered protection!

I had no idea, before reading this book, how entrenched and well-connected the People's Temple were inside San Francisco politics. They seemed to help very liberal mayor George Moscone get elected. And Harvey Milk seemed to think they were creepy, but he used them for political gain. Maybe the People's Temple and "Father" Jim Jones helped Moscone steal the election from Barbagelata. Hell, they probably did!

November 18th, 1978: the Jones cult commits mass suicide in Guyana. The news rips through the city: family members and friends are stunned in horror, liberals who bought Jones's colorblind church of the poor, Jesus-was-a-socialist line in order to garner votes scramble to decide what to make of it. Then, only nine days later, lifetime loser Dan White cold-bloodedly slaughters the Mayor and the gay's political leader, Milk. After sneaking into city hall through an open window. He murdered them, point-blank, in their own offices. As soon as the news hit the SFPD, "Danny Boy" was heard on police radios. Those fighting for "San Francisco values" had to overcome very many entrenched enemies of those values in their midst.

I remember staying glued to TV and newspapers as a teen in the suburbs of LA when this all went down, but over the years it had seemed like a dream, too weird and hideous to be truly real. But it was real. And it only gains back that quality of stark too-real verisimilitude when I watch films like Robert Stone's documentary Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army, or David Fincher's 2007 film Zodiac. Or Milk, Gus Van Sant's 2008 film. Or read books as vivid as this one...

But I'm getting carried away by the craziness of those times and how well they are rendered by Talbot.

The SLA and Patty Hearst (which leads to multiple tunnels down the C.I.A. conspiracy rabbit-hole), Altamont (the most horrific rendering in prose about that concert I have ever read), Charles Manson, and the incredible story of the conservative Catholic's and the SFPD's man Dan White's murder of Moscone and Harvey Milk: they are all here. (Including Dan White's admission to a friend, after serving five years at Soledad State Prison for the city hall carnage, that he had premeditatedly planned to kill not only Milk and Moscone - Twinkies had nothing to do with it! - but another liberal supervisor: Carol Ruth Silver. And Willie Brown, future mayor.)

                                 Radical agnostic anti-fascist lawyer Vincent Hallinan, left,
                                 defends ILWU leader Harry Bridges in court, Nov. 15, 1949

Talbot's history of San Francisco really starts in June, 1932, with a marvelous prologue that makes Vincent Hallinan a hero-lawyer along the lines of Clarence Darrow, with maybe some William Kunstler mixed in. But Talbot writes it as if it's part of a plotline from a film noir, with Hallinan and his famously sexy and street-smart wife as a sort of real-life Nick and Nora Charles.

The book barely touches on the history of the city before the 1930s, but Talbot mentions San Francisco had always been embracing of the weird, the wonderful, the eccentric, the bawdy, the free-spirited. It was made into a city by people who'd rushed there to get rich by finding gold. Longtime defenders of the West Coast counterculture have often proffered the idea that the truly maverick genes in Unistat left the settled East Coast cities for the San Francisco frontier in the 1850s, and this explains the genetic caste of the city, which still seems as good an explanation to me as any other...

The book culminates with San Francisco's success in going it alone when the AIDS crisis hit: Reagan refused to even mention the word. Widely circulated was the idea that Reagan and most of his cabinet thought those deviates were getting what they deserve. It was put-up or shut-up for San Franciscans and their proud liberal values. And they made it. It wasn't easy. As far as AIDS treatment, they led the way, and the rest of Unistat followed.

For anyone who loves San Francisco, this is a must-read book. For anyone who is interested in the epicenter of the "culture wars" in Unistat, this book is essential. For anyone who loves to read well-researched history with a gripping narrative voice, this may be one you'll want to get to over the coming long hot summer nights.

Publisher Simon and Schuster's and Talbot's 2-min promo for Season of the Witch:


Eric Wagner said...

Great blog. It makes me think of Fritz Leiber's novel about San Francisco Our Lady of Darkness. It has a lot of pre-1930 San Francisco history. I love that book.

I grew up in San Jose from 1967 to 1978 and lived through much of what you discuss.

I loved the film Zodiac.

I remember the video for "We Built This City on Rock and Roll" included cameos by Tim Leary and the Residents.

Gary Snyder said of San Francisco in the 1950's, "it meant I didn't have to go to Europe," which I find interesting for a post-Eliot, post-Pound poet.

michael said...

Thanks for reminding me about the Leiber; I still haven't read that one.

I don't think I ever saw that Starship vid w/Tim in it. But you did remind me of Homer Simpson, who once sang:

"Jimmy Crack-Corn, and I don't care
Jimmy Crack-Corn and I'm not there
We built this city on rock and roll...
Something something day."

Talbot mentions the crazed violence along with the Dirty Harry film and Streets of San Francisco TV series, and the citizens started complaining about the film community adding to the palpable feeling of violence in the city.

My favorite San Francisco film is Vertigo. There were some pretty good noir films from the classic cycle (1940-1959) set in SF too.

Eric Wagner said...

Your comment about Homer nodding reminded me about this: http://paulkrassner.com/homersuppressed.htm . Paul Krassner got Don Castellaneta, who does the voice of Homer on The Simpsons, to introduce him doing Homer's voice.

michael said...

And...Castellaneta "mistakes" Krassner for "Kantner," which brings us back to San Francisco.

The other night we had a party at our house and the topic of Julie Kavner in Woody Allen films came up.

Lydecker said...

A native San Franciscan who lived through all this, I'm anxious to read this book. Particularly want to know the author's take on the Zebra killings, which was a buried story. It's one reason I can't agree with the comment about the media "hating" San Francisco. I think just the opposite. I just read "Philip's Code: No News is Good News - to a Killer." A history novel set in the same time period, it pretty well says the AP took its marching orders from the Chronicle - hardly a San Francisco basher.

michael said...

If you have the misfortune to watch Fox News, you'll see how San Francisco is framed by them, over and over again. The not-so-subtle subtext of it: the City is a danger to "real" America.

Talbot has a decent chunk of stuff to say about the Chronicle and its writers and editors, and the Examiner, too.

Thanks for the head's up on "Philip's Code: No News Is Good News - To a Killer." I'll check it out.

Mr. Wagner cited Fritz Lieber's Our Lady of Darkness in the comments above, and I just started reading it, and I really dig it so far.

Eric Wagner said...

Oh man, I love the book by Fritz Leiber. I've read it over and over again. I've taught it twice to science fiction classes, and it just didn't work for them.

I met Mr. Leiber walking along the street near the World Science Fiction Convention in Phoenix in 1978. I consider him one of my heroes. I hope you like the book.