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Season of the Witch

 

Perhaps it's true of any generation, but those of us who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s tend to romanticize the past. We remember the good times - the good sex, the good drugs and the good rock 'n' roll. David Talbot, the San Francisco journalist and founder of Salon, has issued a gritty corrective to our rosy memories in "Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love."

Talbot's enthralling, news-driven history of those two tumultuous decades starkly reminds us of the nightmare of violence and divisiveness that followed the dreamy days of peace and love. The Summer of Love devolved into the Zodiac killer. The civil rights movement gave birth to the terrifying black-on-white murder spree of the Zebra death cult. The antiwar movement spawned such deadly fantasies as the Symbionese Liberation Army, the kidnappers of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, and the New World Liberation Front, which bombed the homes of San Francisco politicians whose only sin was the voting record of a moderate Democrat.

The decade of the 1970s reached its horrifying crescendo during 10 unforgettable days in November 1978. That's when the city's scandalously compromised politicians and newspaper editors were shocked by a monster of their own creation: the Rev. Jim Jones, the paranoid pastor of Peoples Temple.

Talbot recounts the shameful story of how Jones was aided and abetted by Mayor George Moscone, Supervisor Harvey Milk, Assemblyman Willie Brown, Chronicle City Editor Steve Gavin and others in San Francisco's political-media establishment. Not all were fooled. Chronicle writer Marshall Kilduff, New West writer Phil Tracy, Examiner reporter Tim Reiterman and Rep. Leo Ryan, a San Mateo Democrat, believed the horror stories of Peoples Temple defectors. Their investigations led to Jones moving more than 900 men, women and children to a remote region of South America, where they played out a macabre ritual of murder and suicide.

Ryan, along with a young and talented Examiner photographer named Greg Robinson, were among those murdered in the Guyanese jungle. Then, a little over a week later, a conservative former cop, firefighter and politician, Dan White, stormed into City Hall and gunned down Moscone and Milk, leader of the city's rising gay rights movement.

By the end of the 1970s, the city had become so divided along the lines of political persuasion, ethnic heritage and sexual orientation that more than a few members of the San Francisco Police Department openly cheered the Moscone-Milk murders. Politicians like Moscone and Milk threatened the old political establishment in San Francisco. They embraced the city as "a haven for dreamers and outcasts and wandering souls."

"Both men gave their lives for this oasis of freedom," Talbot writes, "the city where no stranger was kept outside its golden gate."

"Season of the Witch" is made up of three parts: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance. Part One is the most fun, with its chapters on how Chronicle Executive Editor Scott Newhall turned a once-drab newspaper into "The Daily Circus" of the 1950s and 1960s; on "The Free City" of the proto-hippie movement the Diggers; and Talbot's account of early drag queens and the outrageous, LSD-fueled gender-bending chorus line that was the Cockettes.

Part Two, titled "Terror," is the strongest section of the book, and the hardest to read. Talbot, the Los Angeles-born son of actor Lyle Talbot, drags us through the corruption, hatred, violence and despair of the 1970s.

Part Three is the only real disappointment in this otherwise smart and briskly paced tale. Talbot finds his "Deliverance" in the steady hand of Mayor Dianne Feinstein and the rebirth of the San Francisco 49ers. Perhaps, but I'm afraid it takes more than a moderate Democrat and a few Super Bowl titles to deliver us from the dark side of the 1970s.

The author tries to end on an upbeat note with his account of the city compassionately coming together to heal a gay community ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. Much of that work was heroic, but one could just as easily write a less redemptive analysis of how anonymous sex and heroin addiction came back to haunt the drug culture and the sexual liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. I would have preferred a more thoughtful analysis of how the broader values of the counterculture of the '60s and '70 have inspired more ecological awareness, spiritual exploration, gender equality, healthy lifestyles and, despite what you read in the newspaper, rising religious tolerance.

As a young reporter who covered those times for the Examiner and The Chronicle, I found it hard to put down "Season of the Witch" - but sometimes wished I could. Reading it, I realized how close I've come to repressing some of the more painful memories of the 1970s. But as Jim Jones, quoting philosopher George Santayana, reminds us in a sign hung over his Jonestown death throne, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

 

Don Lattin's next book, a memoir titled "Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, With a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk," will be published in October by the University of California Press. 

Originally run: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/05/04/RVJC1NLNBD.DTL#ixzz1uZWPZQtS