In a blaze of glory

<strong>Number One in Heaven: the heroes who died for rock 'n' roll</strong>

Jeremy Simmonds <em>P

How would you like to check into the granite garden? I would imagine peacefully, at a ripe old age, with your loving family by your bedside. Not electrocuted by a faulty microphone in front of 1,200 people on the stage of Top Rank in Swansea, as was the Stone the Crows guitarist Les Harvey. Or in a small aircraft, having failed to find the reserve fuel tank, like John Denver. Or by choking on a cocktail cherry, as did Steve "Peregrine" Took of Tyrannosaurus Rex. That's how these three entered the eternal nightclub; and this huge, affectionate and strangely compelling chronicle considers them to be heroes, the humble foot soldiers sacrificed for the common cause in the great campaigns of rock 'n' roll.

If they died of liver failure (Phil Lynott, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan), they are quietly applauded for their commitment to the sauce. If they bowed out with a heart attack (Lowell George, Alex Harvey, Divine), then hurrah to their insomniac lifestyle. If their demise was self-administered (as many were: Joe Meek, Ian Curtis, Richard Manuel), there's a hushed, sympathetic tone. And if, like Leadbelly, they expired because of "amyotrophic lateral sclerosis", the author just scratches his head and moves smartly on in search of more rip-roaring sagas.

And there's no shortage of these, shot through as they all are with black humour, pathos and peculiar insight into the madness that fame can install. The Temptations' David Ruffin stumbled into hospital clutching a briefcase stuffed with $40,000 in cash and cheques. John Entwistle of The Who - "it's the way he would have wanted" - expired of cocaine-induced heart failure in the arms of a Las Vegas hooker who had declared him "unresponsive" in the morning. The heart-throb Claude François popped his clogs trying to change a light bulb while showering, news so distressing in his native France that two fans promptly committed suicide. Judge Dread collapsed on stage at the Penny Theatre in Canterbury dressed as Superman, and you wonder if he'd be here today if his ambulance hadn't required bump-starting on the way to the hospital. Janis Joplin, it's now believed, hit her head on a lamp stand, though clearly a cocktail of intoxicants encouraged her to do so. There was little surprise when Tupac Shakur was gunned down, as "he wasn't wearing the bullet-proof vest issued by his record company". And so lawless was the life of the country legend Gram Parsons that friends torched his heroin-stuffed corpse on a makeshift pyre in the Nevada Desert, the flames visible more than five miles away.

There is genuine sadness, too - the detailed account of the death of half of Lynyrd Skynyrd in a small plane is all the more ghastly when you learn that nearly 2,000 people swarmed to the crash site and stripped the wreckage of souvenirs. And you have to feel for the relatives of Iron Butterfly's Philip Taylor Kramer, whose remains were not discovered until four years after he'd disappeared, in a van at the foot of a ravine near Malibu.

But it's the lonesome death of Dennis Wilson that still lingers for me. Swimming off his yacht at Marina Del Ray, the Beach Boys drummer drank the best part of a bottle of vodka to try to insulate himself against a bitterly cold tide. As he dived, he realised the seabed was littered with his own possessions, thrown from this very mooring during a domestic with his second wife years earlier. He appeared out of the swell clutching a cracked and mud-stained framed photograph of himself with the woman in question, plunged back down, reappeared briefly as a ghostly figure swimming two feet below the surface, and was never seen alive again - having hit his head on the underside of the boat.

At least his passing was mourned, which is not always the case. Asked why he hadn't turned up for the funeral of his former band leader Rory Storm (of the Hurricanes), Ringo Starr was brief and to the point: "I wasn't there for his birth either."

Mark Ellen is editor of the Word magazine

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Planet saved?: Why the green movement is taking to the streets

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.