California

San Francisco’s Darkest Hours

The founder of Salon takes a fascinating tour of the Golden Gate City, 1967-82.

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Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love, by David Talbot, Free Press, 452 pages, $28

David Talbot discovered San Francisco in a literal Hollywood idyll. "Setting out from the Saint Francis Hotel," he writes of visiting the city during 1960s show-biz trips with his movie-star father, "my siblings and I would trek the wind-whipped hills, wander through Chinatown and North Beach, and take the ferryboat to Sausalito. I knew—listening to some older, long-haired teenagers dressed like Moroccan tribesmen, as they played guitars and flutes in a Sausalito square—that I would make San Francisco my home one day."

Talbot didn't just move to San Francisco. He conquered the town, rising to the top of San Francisco?inflected media (a senior editor gig at Mother Jones, assignments for Rolling Stone, and a stint as the Examiner's features editor). Then in 1995 Talbot led a ragtag band of Examiner refugees in forming the online magazine Salon, and the rest was decidedly not history. Salon has charted a harrowing course through countless iterations (its original URL was the instantly dated "Salon1999.com") and cutbacks, annual predictions of impending death, a long-forgotten "Dutch auction" IPO, all manner of journalistic controversy, and nearly two decades of ever-more-vertiginous economic boom and bust. Yet after 17 years—several lifetimes in old media, let alone new media—Salon is still in business.

Because I have buried more dot-coms than the Grateful Dead have buried keyboardists, and because Salon not only survived but graduated a generation of leading journalists, I consider Talbot both an eminent San Franciscan and a great American. Our dealings have been cordial but not extensive. In fact, before this book I assumed Talbot had been born to the San Francisco aristocracy, figuring he was somehow connected to the Talbot-Dutton House, a landmarked Italianate townhouse in Pacific Heights.

Season of the Witch, instead, is an adopted son's "bloody valentine" to the jeweled City by the Bay, covering the years from 1967 to 1982. Like many who have fallen for San Francisco's charms (this writer included), Talbot remembers what a paradise the place seemed at first and wonders where it all went wrong. He argues plausibly that this particular decade-and-a-half was one of the hairiest, scariest, Dirty Harry–est periods in the long and often grim history of American cities.

The three sections of Talbot's account are titled "Enchantment," "Terror," and "Deliverance." The "Terror" section is nearly twice as long as the other two combined, and it covers the city's descent into chaos in the period after the January 1967 Human Be-In and the Summer of Love six months later. In Talbot's telling, the period after the original hippie bloom was both a time of transformation and a parade of horribles, from bombing campaigns to wars against the police to the dawn of AIDS.

Lest any San Francisco skeptics doubt the city's ability to punch above its weight in both culture and mayhem, consider just a few players from Talbot's large cast: tragic lady blue Janis Joplin; Manson family murderer Susan Atkins; Symbionese Liberation Army guerilla and Patty Hearst kidnapper Cinque, as well as the heiress Hearst herself; self-styled prison revolutionary George Jackson; pioneering Chinatown activist Rose Pak; Grateful Dead front man Jerry Garcia; early AIDS chronicler Randy Shilts; cult leader and Guyana mass-suicide impresario Jim Jones; murdered politicians Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, as well as their assassin, Supervisor Dan White; idiot-savant Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra; a cell of "Death Angels" affiliated with a Fillmore Street Nation of Islam mosque that murdered 14 people and nearly killed future mayor Art Agnos in the then-infamous but now little-known "Zebra" racial attacks; the Altamont-era Rolling Stones and Hells Angels; miracle-working 49ers coach Bill Walsh; urbane fiction writer Armistead Maupin; seemingly immortal career politician Dianne Feinstein; and, of course, the Jefferson Airplane. (Talbot mercifully elides the band's "Jefferson Starship" transfiguration of the early 1970s.)

This is the story of a god that failed, and the god is progressive utopianism. Talbot is relentlessly progressive, but he embraces the dystopia with gusto, even when that means resorting to right-wing fire and brimstone. As you read, it becomes clear that the witch of the title is not just a throwaway journalistic cliché. Talbot uses demonological terms throughout, referring to the work of "Lucifer" in a chapter title and throughout the text. He calls HIV/AIDS a "demon virus" and joins in the tabloid/populist outrage at the violent crime that engulfed the city in the '70s.

This being San Francisco, the outrage in most cases must be directed at career leftists. Talbot describes a December 1973 evening: Two San Francisco Police Department detectives visit mayor-to-be Agnos in his hospital bed after he has been shot. Whispering in Greek, they inform Agnos of their theory that his attacker belongs to a team of four black men who are randomly killing nonblacks all over San Francisco. Talbot limns the response of Agnos, who will go on to win 70 percent of the vote in a mayoral race in 1987: "Ever the good liberal, he immediately thought that they were overplaying the race angle. 'You cops are all the same,' he told them."

The Zebra case ends up taking much longer to crack than it should, in part because of the cops' clumsy policy of stopping all black males (except, in Chief Donald Scott's words, "very young blacks or big, fat blacks"), but also because the police department, in a city that boasts its own "civil rights commission," is subject to severe restrictions. One detective comes to suspect that the department, which has failed to infiltrate the mosque on Fillmore, has itself been infiltrated by Nation of Islam faithful.

Jim Jones, the socialist potentate of the Peoples Temple (located adjacent to the Nation of Islam mosque), had better luck embedding followers in San Francisco's power structure. District Attorney Joseph Freitas hired Jones' top lawyer to work in his office. When Peoples Temple defectors began asking for an investigation of the cult, Freitas assigned the Jones mole to the case. Feinstein, Milk, Moscone, and future mayor Willie Brown all supported Jones even after he and his followers fled to the jungles of Guyana.

Talbot devotes nearly 50 pages—more if you count a chapter on Moscone's victory over conservative John Barbagelata in the 1975 mayoral race, which was achieved with massive vote fraud by Jones followers—to the Peoples Temple. Giving so much attention to the very familiar Jonestown massacre (which contributed the catchphrase drinking the Kool-Aid to our language) seems at first like a misstep, but Talbot finds a trove of outrages by the city's New Left leadership. "Moscone and San Francisco's liberal leadership had aided and abetted Jones' reign of 'horror, inhumanity, and bizarre brutalities,'" Talbot writes. "And the press immediately clamored for an explanation."

The press, however, had itself been taken for a ride by the Jones cult. San Francisco Chronicle City Editor Steve Gavin, an occasional Peoples Temple worshipper, ran a puff piece on Jones and quashed an investigative piece. Kevin Starr, then an editor at New West magazine, now the pre-eminent historian of California, killed another critical look at the Jones cult.

But nobody's involvement with Jim Jones was less excusable than Harvey Milk's. The gay political icon was a regular congregant at the Peoples Temple even while warning his own staffers about the bizarre cult. The gold-tongued Willie Brown merely praised Jones as "a combination of Martin King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein [and] Chairman Mao," but Milk leaned on the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to forward Social Security checks to the Temple's "beautiful retirement community in Guyana, the type of which people of means would pay thousands of dollars to patronize." When a couple of high-level Temple defectors tried to get their 6-year-old son out of Jones' custody in Guyana, Milk wrote to President Jimmy Carter, urging him not to support the parents and claiming that the child had "loving protective parents in Rev. and Mrs. Jones." The child ended up among the 909 dead at Jonestown.

In 128 minutes of screen time, Gus Van Sant's Sean Penn vehicle Milk, for which Dustin Lance Black won a Best Screenplay Oscar, finds no room for any of this. But Talbot barrels through it with evil glee, and his stubborn support for the New Left revolution sharpens rather than dulls his attack.

There is very little not to like in Season of the Witch. I might have asked for more attention to the role that redevelopment honcho Justin Herman and his destruction of the Fillmore District played in the great coming apart. I was saddened to see only one mention of maverick one-eyed Ramparts editor Warren Hinckle. But these are minor quibbles in a book where even the sportswriting is top-notch: Talbot argues that Eddy DeBartolo's Niners helped bind up the city's wounds, with Super Bowl XVI putting a cheerful coda on the New Left's Jacobin terror.

The prim, rich, self-satisfied San Francisco I got to know from the mid-'90s through the mid-2000s is barely recognizable in Talbot's book. Baghdad by the Bay is now a far-left boutique city run by limousine liberals who ban Happy Meals and circumcision. Safe and scenic, with small (by California standards) black and Latino minorities, San Francisco is no longer the main population center even of Northern California. (Fast-growing San Jose took that title in the 1990s.) Yet the city's mix—of weed and wealth, one-party rule and good-government sanctimony, social laissez-faire and voluminous regulation, health fascism and the best bars in America—is built on contradictions. Season of the Witch is a bracing reminder that even one of the brightest spots of Western civilization is always just a few inches from anarchy.

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30 responses to “San Francisco’s Darkest Hours

  1. Growing up in the hinterlands of California, I was keenly aware of San Francisco’s social abnormalities. But now that I live next door I get the impression that everyone views it as a sort of utopian mecca. Progressivism has so thoroughly infiltrated out culture that it’s taboo to criticize the city by the bay. But it needs criticizing. It remains a highly disfunctional city, a filthy city, an fiscal basket case, and politically nasty. It has a certain charm, to be sure, but the charm is all in the facade.

    1. While I do enjoy visiting SF, I really don’t see the appeal of actually living there for the reasons you mentioned. It does seem like a city full of lotus-eaters.

    2. everyone views it as a sort of utopian mecca

      All it takes to dispel that notion is to live there a short while. The street punks terrorizing whole neighborhoods, the transit system funked up by bums that live on it, and the overall intolerance of the residents are just some of things that I found out when I lived there. My current home (NYC) is a model of reason and order in comparison.

      1. I’ll admit it’s losing its luster for me. For one thing, much of the city is a complete pigsty. I was in Las Vegas a while ago, and was astonished at how clean it was in comparison.

        And our latest bit of progressive reform: starting Oct. 1st, grocery stores (and others?) are not allowed to give you free bags. We’ll have to pay 10 cents for each one, or bring our own bags.

        By the way: good review, Mr. Cavanaugh.

        1. Thanks! I thought my “best bars in America” claim would be controversial. I haven’t been everywhere in America, but that’s one area where San Francisco still beats the hell out of L.A.

          1. I didn’t go to many bars when I lived there because I worked until 11 and the bars close at 1 – and unlike anywhere else I have ever been, they snatch your drink out of your hand at like 12:45.

          2. I read this review in the print version right after a trip to SF. I lived there for most of my 20s and still love it despite all the urban disamenities and whacked-out city government. I lived in Oakland for a while and it is way worse.

            While I was there, I reflected on the distinctiveness of the bars and how I prefer them to those in most any other place (well, except maybe London pubs). When I read that line in your review, I felt gratified.

            Anyhow, great review. I really want to read the book!

  2. I grew up a second generation Southern Californian, with the attendant view that we were the inferior part of the coast. Then in 1983 I moved up there to the peninsula. I had a crap apartment (the worst one I would ever have) in Belmont and everyone thought I was the shite because of the city’s rep. I stayed less than two years. Everything bad about SoCal was worse in the Bay Area and there really wasn’t anything better.

    With any luck SF will be the site of the interplanetary federation, and get reduced to stray subatomic particles by a dissident faction.

    1. The restaurants in SF are way better than those in the LA area.

      Everything else is much better in SoCal.

      1. We do have lots of really good ones. When I visit the family in Florida I have a hard time finding anything that’s as good as what I’d consider “decent but not great” here, much less anything I’d recommend.

  3. Season of the Witch is a bracing reminder that even one of the brightest spots of Western civilization is always just a few inches from anarchy.

    “A really huge and oppressive government” is not even remotely close to “anarchy”.

    1. Quantum politics.

    2. A really huge and oppressive government run by Liberal Intellectuals and the Political Class parasites that cling to them is usually one and a half steps from being a totally non-functioning government. It will not cope well with emergencies, and the next big Quake, just to name an obvious contingency, will leave the city as flattened as New Orleans.

      Keep in mind; the Radical Intellectual Left rules by whim. They like to have laws and regulations about everything, and then make enough exceptions for the society to function – sort of. Under pressure the unspoken agreements involved in those exceptions break down. Governmental paralysis sets in. And then, a spark in the wrong place and hell is out for noon with little silver bells on.

      1. the Radical Intellectual Left rules by whim

        Bingo.

        It’s the OWS theory that government should regulate everyone else but they shouldn’t have to bother with getting permits or picking up their trash or providing their own porta-potties. Or even feeding themselves.

        Narcistic anarchy means never having to accept responsibility.

        1. It’s more than that. In order to usher in the Utopia that the Left is SURE is possible, it quickly becomes clear that the State will have to exercise control over absolutely everything. And since selfish people must not be allowed to ‘game the system’ , the State cannot be bound by the Rule of Law; it will obviously have to have the authority to rule according to present circumstance, which is to say momentary expediency.

          And so you end up with a society in which nobody can ever consider themselves safe, because there are no hard and fast rules.

          Sounds like Anarchy to me!

    3. Chaos, then. At any rate, most people think of post-anarchic lawless order when they think of “anarchy”, which fits large, oppressive, dysfunctional governments fine.

  4. Visited SF once. Never wanted to go back. Overrated, nasty, mega-expensive and just no fun.

    Santa Rosa, on the other hand – THERE’S a place I could live! Lovely – just lovely.

  5. Kind of strange now to realize that I was there as a 19-year-old bike messenger toward the end of that period, utterly oblivious to pretty much everything.

    Although in San Francisco that’s probably the best way to be.

  6. Meh, I much prefer Austin. Lower cost of living, great food, a whole lot less smug (it’s concentrated in particular, easy-to-avoid zones), and more guns. I believe as of the last census Austin is now more populous than SF, and the divergence is set to only expand.

    1. The only problem with Austin is that it’s in Austin. If they could fix that… it’s be total win.

  7. City Journal also did a review of this book:

    http://www.city-journal.org/2012/bc0925df.html

    They were a bit more critical, but both reviews make it sound like an interesting read.

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