“It’s the story of the city that radically changed itself and then changed the world.”
Thus began an evening with David Talbot, UC Santa Cruz alumnus and founder of pioneering web magazine
Salon.com. Talbot the journalist took a temporary backseat to Talbot the author at a 4 p.m. gathering in Humanities 1 on May 22.
The focus of the appropriately named “An Evening with David Talbot” (“lecture” would have been overly formal) was Talbot’s new book, titled “Season of the Witch.” In slacks and a black polo, Talbot took the lectern after a brief introduction from humanities dean William Ladusaw.
“I mean this as a compliment — it’s a ripping yarn,” Ladusaw said to the group of about 30, comprised largely of baby boomers, before segueing into a YouTube trailer for Talbot’s book.
“Season of the Witch” details the aforementioned city “that radically changed itself”: San Francisco in the late 20th century. Drawing largely from Talbot’s own experiences as a journalist and his interviews with San Franciscans, the book is a study of the city’s tumultuous history and the catalyzing effect it had on the nation as a whole.
“San Francisco was the cradle of the American cultural revolution, but it was also its coffin,” Talbot said. “So-called ‘San Francisco values’ are still hotly debated — gay marriage, a livable minimum wage, universal healthcare.”
But first, Talbot said, San Francisco had to take care of its own issues, and those issues are one of the book’s focuses.
“The city first had to settle its own civil war; savage murder sprees, mysterious bombing campaigns, the largest cult suicide in history, the AIDS epidemic,” Talbot said. “San Francisco values weren’t born with flowers in their hair, but in blood and strife. [San Francisco] went from a rough-and-tumble hierarchy to a progressive’s vision of Oz.”
Talbot graduated from Stevenson College in 1973. During his time at UCSC he worked on a radical student publication, Sundaze, which folded in 1976.
“At UCSC, I was an angry young activist. I investigated slaughterhouses in Watsonville, I investigated drug murders, I investigated the mayor,” Talbot said. “I didn’t have anyone training me, so the journalism was probably pretty sloppy, but no one ever told me, ‘You can’t do that.’”
A few decades later, Talbot founded Salon in 1995. After working for a variety of publications that included Mother Jones, Rolling Stone and The San Francisco Examiner, Talbot said he just wanted somewhere to work that wasn’t in the mainstream media.
“I cherry-picked [the SF Examiner’s] newsroom, and got the hell out of there,” Talbot said of the then-struggling publication. “The state of journalism today is you either have a patron or you get gobbled up.”
Talbot has thus far managed to avoid both fates.
“Salon is my baby. I’ve done everything I could to keep Salon alive as an independent,” he said.
In some ways, Salon’s trajectory is similar to Talbot’s vision of the evolution of the “city by the bay,” which he defended to audience members who expressed concern over a perceived stagnation and sterility pervading San Francisco.
“I still think San Francisco has this cool artistic underground — it’s rough, but it can be done,” Talbot said. “Bohemia has always had a hard time surviving.”