In Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love Salon founder David Talbot traverses 15 years (1967–1982) of San Francisco’s rugged history.
Why did you title your book after the Donovan song, “Season of the Witch”?
Donovan’s seen as a hippie-dippie musician, but there’s a haunting side to his lyrics. The song caught that paranoid and eerie aspect of the 1960s, so it was appropriate to the mood of much of my book.
Season of the Witch reads like a novel with interweaving plot lines and characters with complicated internal conflicts. How long did you research the book?
I lived this book. As a kid from Los Angeles, I came up to San Francisco with my father. I lived in the Bay Area during many events that I describe. As a young journalist, I had actually written about Zebra for Rolling Stone, but the story was too creepy; they didn’t run my article.
With many key figures dead—Harvey Milk, Herb Caen, Janis Joplin—how did you manage to paint such deep portraits of the city’s characters?
Many people still living in San Francisco had been their lovers, their friends, their band mates, had gone through hell or heaven and beyond with them. Janis Joplin, for example, was the kind of the person everyone in San Francisco had either known or slept with.
The book covers the city’s gruesome past, from the Manson family to the mass grave at Jonestown. What was it like researching such menacing material?
Jim Jones had taped his sermons. It was soul scarring to hear Jones in his drugged-out, singsong voice, persuading people to kill themselves. My son overheard and walked out of the room. I had to turn off the tape.
What evidence of the city’s culture war (between conservative Catholics and free-loving hippies) still remains?
The Irish-Catholic and Italian-Catholic social structure still exists. And the old order does tend to control the police department and City Hall. A lot of people around Ed Lee, our first Chinese mayor, are from that Catholic power structure. You still see tensions, but by and large, San Francisco had absorbed those by the 1980s, because of Diane Feinstein’s leadership, because of Harvey Milk and his martyrdom, because of the 49ers that drew the city together. San Francisco values have become enshrined here.
How has the new generation of San Franciscans carried the progressive torch?
When I started to work on my book, I didn’t know that Occupy Wall Street would blossom, but the values of the Digger Movement and other cutting-edge ideas that were incubated in the ’60s—early anarchism, Situationism—have now borne fruit.