“I blame Mick Jagger for fucking with black magic,” Peter Coyote says a good chunk of the way into Season of the Witch, Salon founder David Talbot's sprawling, lurid, dishy, and electric history of how the San Francisco of good Catholics and longshoremen became all the San Franciscos that followed: of pot and Diggers and its own rock 'n' roll, of H and Hell's Angels, of Alioto debating Eldridge Cleaver on KQED, of Harvey Milk, “one-woman Tammany Hall” Rose Pak, and Sister Boom Boom, who once in full nun's getup pinned a “Dump Dianne” button onto Dianne Feinstein herself, of whom Talbot notes, “in any other city in America, [she] would have been considered a raving liberal.”
(Another juicy Feinsteinian adventure: In the early '70s, touring the damage a police raid had done to the Haight's neighborhood-transforming Good Earth commune, the future mayor and senator encountered “stark naked” resident Wild Bill Huston, who recalls that she was nonplussed at the sight — and even chipped in some cash for the commune's beer fund.)
But back to Coyote, Jagger, and that “black magic,” a concept that hangs as heavily over Talbot's madhouse S.F. as the fog did over Dashiell Hammett's. Coyote — actor, Digger, and Exhibit A in any case that '67 in the Haight was about far more than hippie naïveté — was of course talking through the horrors of Altamont, the '69 East Bay music festival where the Rolling Stones hired the Hell's Angels as security, and Mick Jagger — “dressed like a medieval prince,” Talbot jabs — watched powerlessly as Angel tough Allen Pizzaro stabbed Meredith Hunter. “They reaped what they sowed,” Coyote tells Talbot of Jagger and his cohort of not-that-bad-by-comparison bad boys. “So you want to go strolling on the dark side, boys? This is what it fucking looks like.”
Coyote's take on the Stones is a less charitable précis of Talbot's take on the collapse of the Summer of Love ideal itself. As Talbot has it, the “dark magic” of hard drugs quickly upended the pot-and-LSD-inspired utopianism of the Human Be-In or the groove-together ethos of the early rock shows at Bill Graham's Fillmore. With heroin, crime spiked, the free clinic was overrun, and great talents — Janis (whom Coyote calls “an ugly girl with bad skin”) and Moby Grape — guttered.
There's not much new about the outline, here, but Talbot musters magnificent details from new interviews and old news reports. This is especially true as that magic turns darker still at the dawn of the '70s, and San Francisco comes as close to a crack-up as any American city ever has, outside of Detroit or New Orleans. Talbot's chapter on the Zebra killings — 23 victims in half a year, perpetrated by black Muslims and inspiring what Talbot calls “the country's first official racial profiling operation” — is genuinely harrowing, as are his accounts of Altamont, the SLA, and miscellaneous madness in a Haight flooded with junk-addicted veterans: “I had a guy who put his cowboy boots in this girl's vagina,” homicide inspector Jack Cleary recalls of “Hippieville.” “He killed her that way.”
It's not all bleak, of course. Talbot devotes as much space to the Cockettes (and what John Waters calls “sexual anarchy”) as he does to Herb Caen, and he doles out hilarious hints about the lovemaking prowess of a 14-year-old George Moscone. There's political victories and crusading lawyers and the triumph of gays over cops. There's Gordon Chin saying that “If Miles Davis had gone into politics, he would've been Willie Brown” — an astonishing claim, considering the jazz genius' personal history makes Chris Brown look like one of today's S.F.'s sex-positive crusaders. (Maybe, as with jazz, you have to listen to the bribes he's not taking.)
And then there's the stark choice facing what he calls this “finite peninsula of competing dreams and ambitions”: Should S.F. “become a Manhattan of the West … or remain an affordable, human-scale city?”
Spoiler alert: Read this issue's cover story.
Talbot carries his history through the '70s, lavishing his attentions on the big names and the big moments, always finding fresh anecdotes to savor even in familiar stories. By the end — he goes out with the more unifying magic of Bill Walsh and the 49ers — Talbot hasn't quite explained how the city of the Human Be-In became the city of the Happy Meal ban. But this wild, thrilling, deeply reported book is a choice guide to all of those San Franciscos — cities nobody yet has managed to reconcile in a coherent whole, so kudos to Talbot for matching subject to form.
David Talbot reads and signs books at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 18, at the McRoskey Mattress factory across the street from Green Arcade Books, 1680 Market (at Gough), 431-6800.