It was with much anticipation and excitement that I started former Salon.com editor David Talbot's 60s-70s-80s history of San Francisco, "SEASON OF THE WITCH", and with much disappointment and disgust that I slammed it down thirteen chapters later. No, I did not finish the book. I'd never get those hours back, and alas, neither will I get back the four or so hours I invested in those 13 chapters. I believe that I can successfully and accurately review the book anyway, and hopefully talk you out of any inclination you might have toward reading it. To wit:
1. It has some of the most cringe-worthy, unimaginative writing I've seen in years.
I knew in the back of my head that Talbot, for all the initiative and gusto he showed in founding the once-excellent SALON back in the 1990s, was the web magazine's primary weak link when it came to actual journalism. Left-wing and emphatically so to a fault, his screeds about Bush this, 9/11 that (not to mention a bizarro Kennedy assassination obsession) made Michael Moore look like Tom Brokaw. Yet his bozo rock-n-roll shorthand in this book is even worse. He actually writes about how, in the Haight Ashbury, "the idea of free medical service was blowin' in the wind" (I wish I was kidding), and he quotes numerous other hippie rock lyrics in the service of his horrifically purple prose. I just googled the SF Gate review of his book and they respectfully quoted a very representative line, about the murdered George Moscone and Harvey Milk:
"Both men gave their lives for this oasis of freedom," Talbot writes, "the city where no stranger was kept outside its golden gate."
That's a line the reviewer thought represented Talbot's writing style very well. I think so too.
2. Talbot has absolutely zero nuance, nor the ability to tell a complex tale.
In David Talbot's 1960s San Francisco, the world is strictly black and white. The hippies and the people that welcomed them were heroes; the city's Catholic "old guard" were intolerant, incompetent, racist, sexist pigs. Rock and roll, peace and love was all upside. Dissent against the warmed-over, likely half-baked, "Rolling Stone" popular history of liberated 60s San Francisco is nowhere to be found here. Everyone is cast into stereotypical roles: "socialites"; "free thinkers"; gruff, tough-talking cops; gritty newspapermen; earthy rock and rollers like Jerry Garcia; and so on. Talbot shows zero initiative in carving his own researched narrative through the tropes of the past, and instead relies on the sort of Summer of Love picture books I used to flip through as a dumb kid in the 1970s for his journalism. I know this book takes a "darker" turn later, after the part where I stopped reading, yet after such an awful first third, the thought of how badly he'd butcher the People's Temple and Patty Hearst stories was just too much for me to stomach.
3. He believes every bit of BS this city's been telling itself since 1967.
I've lived in San Francisco since 1989, and I love it here. The self-congratulatory mythology this city soaks in, however, is and has forever been totally nauseating. Talbot has bought it all hook, line and sinker. He repeatedly waxes rhapsodic about "the fog rolling across the hills" and about San Francisco's "liberated, anything-goes spirit", except he usually uses some trite rock lyric or metaphor to write it even worse than I just did. Anyway, who actually calls this place "the city of love"? No one except for stoned hippie journalists in 1967 did – no one. The last straw for me was Tablot's misty-eyed chapter on San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, "swinging with the hepcats at Tosca", nursing a highball, rapping with Ferlinghetti, stooping down to understand the hippies, wearing his fedora to jazz clubs blah blah blah. I couldn't believe the shorthand and the shortcuts this guy took in the service of telling what could have been an incredible tale. The popular thumbnail view of everything that's happened here, and everyone who did it, just happens to be Talbot's lazy method of describing it as well.
All my worst fears about a clunker of a book were realized in its first third, and then some. I'm writing this as a warning to any potential readers, so that you may be dissuaded from investing four hours of your own life into this complete exercise in futility.