"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
Class officially started three hours ago, but our instructor has not yet arrived. This is not uncommon. By now many of my classmates have begun to bring cards, magazines and DVDs to pass the time. “The Matrix” is playing on someone’s laptop and has attracted a small crowd in the back of the room. The fact that we’re being paid largely to sit around and entertain ourselves has been the source of lots of jokes and smiles, but in the back of our minds we can’t help but be concerned.
Several people confess that they’ve never done more with a computer than check their e-mail. Others admit they haven’t even gotten that far. An impromptu contest develops to see exactly who knows the least. There are lots of contenders. I’m listening to them battle for the crown of incompetence as I’m dealt a new hand of cards when a frightening thought occurs to me. Our clueless bunch is now part of the technical-support staff for one of the world’s top three computer manufacturers, and in seven days we’re going to be taking your calls.
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Ken is standing in the aisle, tethered to his cube by the spiraled umbilical of his headset, holding an unlit cigarette, and yelling. Ken is always yelling, and that’s why we love him. Lots of us jot down Ken’s more memorable tirades and compare notes on our breaks. Now, standing near my cube, screaming in the urgent and gravelly tones of a mid-40s chain smoker trapped in a non-smoking building, Ken tells a customer, “Quit whining and go get a damn screwdriver. I don’t have time for this bullshit.”
None of us is sure how he gets away with it, especially considering that Ken saves his real anger for dealing with management. His conversations with the higher-ups all end with Ken screaming, “This is bullshit! Total bullshit!” and hanging up.
We all understand why Ken is angry. We’ve been tech-support representatives for six weeks and already a third of our training class has left. A new crop of techs hit the floor last week, and two of them are already gone. It might be tempting to believe that the customers are driving the techs away, that they just can’t take the stress of dealing with endless complaints and callers driven to near madness by interminable holds. But the callers just want answers. Ken, and those of us who are left, are angry because for the most part we don’t have them.
When we pick up the phone we’re lying. We don’t really work for the company we say we work for. Because of the expense of housing and running a technical support operation, many computer manufacturers choose to outsource the work. We work for one such outsourcer, though you’d never know it just to talk to us. To the customer on the other end of the line the distinction, while important, is invisible.
Outsourcers are paid by the computer manufacturer based on the number of calls they handle. The more calls we take, the more the outsourcer is paid. So naturally everything that happens in this vast carpeted warehouse of cubicles is done with an eye toward speed. Our managers stress something called “average call time,” which is simply the average amount of time a tech spends on each call. They want us to be under 12 minutes. Our phones monitor our ability to reach this magic number as well as the total number of calls we take, the number of times we ask for help, how much time we take between calls, even the amount of time we spend in the restroom. In short, your phone is always watching you.
Twelve minutes can sometimes be difficult even if you know what you’re doing. It is impossible if you don’t have a clue. The stress of always being on the clock without really knowing how to do your job has already claimed a third of my classmates, and from the looks of the bulging veins in Ken’s head and neck, it’s threatening to claim still more. But no matter, when those spots open up they’ll be quickly filled by members of the next training class. They, like us, will have answered an ad for an entry-level computer support position. If, like myself, they have little or no computer experience, they’ll be told not to worry. As long as they can pass the typing test and drug screening they’ll be assured they’ll get everything else they need in training.
Our two-week “intensive training” course was helmed by a 19-year-old named Chad. Chad had great difficulty making it to class within three hours of the stated meeting time. Even when he rolled in by 11, holding a cup of coffee and wearing sunglasses, he looked as if merely being upright was unfairly challenging his abilities. Despite being comically late he usually started class by collapsing into a chair and telling us to take some “e-mail time.”
When Chad saw fit to interrupt the endless series of card games and movies it was with detailed lessons on how to use our phones and log our calls. We learned that these things were key. If we remembered nothing else, as long as we could answer the phones and provide records that we’d done so, the company would be paid every time we thanked someone for calling technical support. When present and able to speak, Chad drilled us endlessly on these two skills. The most incompetent among us could have written a manual on how to answer calls and log them properly. As for how to actually troubleshoot and fix computers, we were largely on our own. Beyond a cursory overview of the computers we were in charge of healing, the closest thing to a troubleshooting tool we were taught was The Mantra. When class ended, which varied wildly depending on Chad’s interest and mental status, we were all encouraged to say The Mantra out loud. We repeated it over and over, the words seating themselves deep in the folds of our brains until the breakup of class began to feel more and more like the end of a cult meeting.
The Mantra is simply, “We don’t support that.” On the face of it, it’s completely logical. We’re here to help with problems related to your computer hardware, but we don’t pretend to know anything about your digital camera, or how to get the most out of Adobe Photoshop. Without The Mantra we’d waste precious time trying to answer questions beyond the scope of our expertise. Never mind that the scope of our expertise was largely limited to reciting The Mantra and logging calls. The important thing was that we understood our mission was to answer questions that fell within the limited margins outlined in the computer’s warranty. Beyond that we didn’t have to do anything.
Two weeks of half days later Chad pronounced us ready to answer calls and presented each of us with a photocopy of The Mantra and a single pushpin with which to affix it to the wall of our cubicle. He suggested we place it over our phone just to ensure we couldn’t miss it. At the time none of us really understood the obsession with The Mantra, nor could we have imagined its power. But the fact that we were given a cube and a phone and were turned loose on troubled customers with little more than four words on a photocopied piece of paper should have been a clue. It was as close as anyone would come to telling us the truth about our job. We were there to take your calls, not solve your problems.
Loni is a great guy. Like me, he keeps track of Ken’s more outrageous meltdowns and we compare notes over lunch. We have a good time. I like him. But Loni is a punter. I don’t condone it, but I understand. Since hitting the floor we’ve all learned the sad truth. Actually solving problems is by far the slowest way to handle a call. We’ve each got 12 minutes from the moment we say hello to find a way to say goodbye, and after two weeks of trying to fix computers he knew nothing about and racking up average call times north of half an hour, Loni decided that if he was going to survive, he was going to have to change his approach. So he became a punter.
A punter is someone who gets rid of problems by giving them to someone else. Punters tell customers that their problem is not really with their computer, but with their software, their printer, their phone lines, solar flares, whatever they can make sound believable. Then a punter will look at the piece of paper hanging above their phone and read you those four magic words. We don’t support that. If you want your problem fixed, a punter will tell you, you’ll have to call someone else.
It’s not that Loni isn’t smart. In fact, he’s wickedly so. He can listen to a person having problems with the mouse and spin a plausible story as to why it is really something the person needs to be discussing with the phone company. He can take a call about a modem and convince the customer that she needs to contact her embassy. He doesn’t lack intelligence, just tools. Like the rest of us, all Loni was really taught was The Mantra, and since then he’s learned to wield it like a samurai with a sword.
He’s not alone. Lots of the techs are punters. And many of those who aren’t have adopted some other time-saving strategy to help them dispatch their calls within the allotted time. Karen is part of a growing group called givers. Like punters, they don’t really solve any problems, but instead of just asking you to call someone else, givers want you to have a parting gift. They’ll listen to your problem and then randomly choose a piece of hardware to send you. Of course it won’t solve anything, but givers have discovered that people usually calm down and start agreeing as soon as they think you’re sending them something to fix the problem. And by the time they get the new part and discover it has no effect, they’ll call back and someone else will have to figure out how to deal with them. Givers are really just punters with style, and they find their tactic very satisfying. Karen and her ilk get to spend all day playing Santa.
Ted is someone I don’t speak to. Ted is a formatter. Ted, and those like him, have only one solution to their customers’ problems. Erase everything on the computer’s hard drive and start over from scratch. While this can be effective for solving all sorts of software troubles, it’s like amputating someone’s leg to fix an ingrown toenail. The solution is usually worse than the problem. Most times Ted doesn’t actually follow through with his plan. The entire strategy is just a bluff. Most people will balk at the proposition of losing everything and decide they can live with whatever problem they’ve called to complain about. At the very least they’ll decide to hang up, back up their data, and call back — at which point they’ll become someone else’s problem.
But some formatters are worse than Ted. They’ll help customers get started with the process without ever mentioning that all the data will be lost. Then they’ll ask the customer to call back when the operating system finishes reinstalling, at which point the customer usually says something to the effect of, “the last guy was helping me reinstall and the computer seems to be running now, but I can’t find my letter from my dead grandmother and baby picture of little Johnnie.” Punters and givers will waste your time. Formatters can do much worse.
While I may disagree with their strategies, I can’t argue with any of these people’s results. Offering a preplanned solution is always faster than listening to the problem and digging around for an answer. As Loni began to master the art of The Mantra his call times improved drastically, ridiculously. He was slowed only when he ran into a problem he actually knew how to solve and felt obligated to abandon his normal strategy and share the solution with the customer. Other than that he was ruthlessly efficient. His average call time dropped from 35 minutes in his first two weeks to just over 5 minutes this week. Even Loni was terrified that somehow they’d catch on, that they’d know he was endlessly kicking customers to the curb only to have them call back again later when the phone company said it wasn’t going to fix the mouse. Then one day the call he’d been dreading finally came.
“Loni,” his invisible manager said, “I’ve been studying your stats. Your call time has decreased drastically in recent weeks.”
Loni knew it was over. He’d be reprimanded. He’d be fired.
“That’s very impressive. Keep up the good work.” And so he did.
Those of us who haven’t taken up a strategy are still trying to learn how to troubleshoot and repair the computers and our call times are still suffering as a result. Like Loni I’ve received a call from my manager. He notified me that I need to show some improvement soon or there might be another cube waiting for the next training class. It’s clear that people who solve problems don’t last long. They either end up quitting, getting fired, or worse, screaming in the aisles like Ken.
Most of us are pretty sure Charles is the devil. When we discuss him during breaks we agree that he possesses uniquely evil qualities. None of us has ever seen him; he’s simply a voice that comes through our headsets from somewhere in the football-field-size labyrinth of cubes. But it’s very easy to picture his particular cube brimming with fire and filled with the tortured souls of the damned. Charles, or Satan, as he’s sometimes called, is here to help us. He’s one of our mentors.
Mentors are the people we call when we’re stuck, when we’ve tried everything we know how to try and we still can’t seem to solve a customer’s problem. Mentors were once lowly techs like the rest of us, until they were plucked from our ranks by the hands of management and promoted. Mentors don’t actually speak to customers, only other technicians, and because of that their environment is a little less formal and a little more relaxed. It’s a coveted job. But because the problems that mentors do hear about tend to be the real stumpers, the ones that take some experience to crack, they have to be sharp, to have answers at their fingertips, or failing that, to know where to look. This is the theory anyway. But Charles is living proof that theory and practice don’t often run into each other around here.
It seems logical that if you wanted to find the best, most proficient technicians you could simply look at their call times. Those who routinely turned in the lowest call times must possess superior troubleshooting and problem-solving skills that enable them to handle so many calls so quickly. But those of us who take the calls know that’s not true. The most proficient technician with a wealth of knowledge at his fingertips can’t hold a candle to your average punter or giver. But if you’re just looking for an expert at getting off the phone and getting back on again, you could not do better than Charles.
Charles was rumored to have been promoted after several weeks of turning in average call times under two minutes and repeatedly smashing his own records for the number of calls handled in a day. If anyone was curious how he did it, they didn’t show it. He was making the company money hand over fist, so his promotion to a position where he might help others achieve similar results seemed obvious.
A technician needing help dials the mentor line, an inside number where people like Charles wait to hear what’s got us stumped and offer a solution based on their superior knowledge and experience. Calling the mentor line is just like calling technical support: You have no control over who you’re going to get. After a lengthy hold your call is suddenly answered and a name pops up on your phone, telling you which mentor you’ve drawn. And if you draw Charles, you don’t have a lot of time.
After smashing all the records for technicians Charles is now looking to rewrite the record book for mentors. Mentors tend to average two minutes a call with each technician. Charles is shooting for under 20 seconds. Charles does not want to hear what your problem is, he’s already got the answer, and it’s the same one he gave when he was a technician. In the fine print of your warranty it states that we will support the computer in its original condition.
This makes sense if you think about it. If you install some sort of aftermarket sound card and fry your motherboard, we can hardly be held responsible for that. But Charles has turned this small piece of fine print into his magic bullet. He simply ferrets out the changes you’ve made to the system since you’ve gotten it and then tells you that he can’t support the system unless it’s in its original condition. His definition of “changes” is extremely broad. If you’ve installed any software (who hasn’t?), hardware, or even downloaded something from the Internet, Charles will not support your computer. In Charles’ demonic little world checking your e-mail will void your warranty.
Seeing Charles’ name pop up on your phone will make your heart sink. If you try to explain your problem, “I have a customer whose modem is…”
He’ll interrupt with, “Tell them we can’t support the system unless it’s in its original condition.”
If you protest or try to finish a sentence, he’ll simply repeat The Mantra several times and hang up on you after precisely 20 seconds.
Lots of people have complained about Charles and other mentors and technicians just like him, but management seems unmoved. He’s fast, and in the end that’s what counts. For the rest of us the only reason to keep Charles around is for the spectacle that ensues when he pops up on Ken’s phone and Ken beings wailing and screaming, “Jesus Christ, not this moron again,” before hanging up and shouting, “Bullshit! Total bullshit!” The irony is that by yelling and hanging up on Charles, Ken only lowers Charles’ average call time that much further. And it means that Ken will have to make yet another call to the mentor line, which will be added to his total and further slow him down, all of which will only serve to convince anyone looking at his stats that the real moron isn’t Charles, but Ken.
Mr. Davis is threatening to shoot his computer. What this will accomplish is unclear, but he seems convinced it will make him feel better. Looking over his call log, I’m sympathetic. A run of givers have sent him six monitors in the last two and a half weeks, none of which has solved his problem. It seems safe to say that whatever his problem is, it’s not with the monitor. Still, that hasn’t stopped another giver from offering to send him a seventh one earlier today. When he refused that present he was promptly punted. He’s been punted a total of four times today. Now he’s had it. He just wants me to bear audio witness as he guns down his system.
Fortunately after a little prodding I discover that Mr. Davis’ problem is one of a growing number that I recognize and know how to fix. We go through a few simple steps, and in a matter of minutes I’ve determined that his video card is bad. I explain what we’ve done and that I’ll be sending a new video card to address his issue. He seems much calmer now, grateful that I’ve listened, and hopeful that I’ve really figured out the source of his frustration. All I need to do now is send him the part.
But because the givers have been sending out thousands of dollars’ worth of unnecessary parts and equipment lately, it’s not that simple. Now I have to call a special inside number and wait for the opportunity to explain to a manager why Mr. Davis needs the part I think he needs. With one manager set up to handle this post and hundreds of techs trying to dispatch parts, both legitimately and otherwise, it turns out that I’m in for quite a hold. So while the problem is actually something I know how to fix, and while I’ve gotten to the solution in only eight minutes, I now have to wait on hold for 16 minutes just to send out the necessary part. By the time this call ends, it will have taken almost 25 minutes and to anyone studying my stats I’ll continue to look completely clueless.
When I finally get back to Mr. Davis his goodwill is gone. The quarter hour of exposure to soft rock he’s endured has prompted him to get the gun and begin threatening to murder his machine all over again. I promise him the part is on its way and that his problem is finally solved. But it’s clear he doesn’t believe me. He calls me an asshole and slams down the phone. I begin to wonder if I might not be better off learning how to punt.
It’s been nearly three and a half months since my class took to the phones and less than a third of us are still here. All around me are new hires just hitting the floor and trying to figure out which strategy they should adopt in order to survive. Lately, I’ve managed to keep my call times in the 12- to 15-minute range and have started to feel like I know what I’m supposed to be doing. Those of us who are still here are all pretty firmly entrenched in whatever methodology we’ve chosen, regardless of whether we solve any problems or not.
After lunch we’re called together to watch a training video. Why we’re watching it more than three months into our employment is unclear, but it hardly matters. In a world where the phone is counting the seconds you spend at the water fountain, we’re all grateful for a respite from its unblinking eye.
The video turns out to be the funniest thing any of us has ever seen. Cheeks are wet, stomachs are sore, as we laugh riotously at the video’s assertion of how things are supposed to work around here. We see the video’s students carefully studying intricate diagrams and complex equipment under the watchful eyes of their instructors, and we think back to our card games and Chad’s labored efforts to remain on his feet. We hear the kind and courteous manner in which the technicians speak with their mock customers and the grateful thanks of callers who’ve been rescued from their computer nightmares by these intrepid yet imaginary technicians, and we think of Ted and Satan. No matter how many times they tell us to be quiet, none of us can help it. It’s like working in a motel and seeing it advertised as the Four Seasons. If we weren’t laughing, we’d probably cry.
As I return to my cube I’m tempted to believe that the insanity is confined to this office, but the call logs tell a different story. People are punting, giving, and reading The Mantra all over the country. In Tennessee, Oregon or Texas, in operations run by my outsourcer or others, even in the support centers run by the manufacturer, it seems there’s no safe place for a call to go. Wherever they’re sitting, when techs answer your calls, they’re more likely to be a Charles than a Ken. Suddenly the video seems a little less humorous. It’s one thing to imagine that this place is an anomaly. It quite another to think we’re just a small part of a larger disaster. I’m sure it would depress me if I gave it a chance, but suddenly my phone rings and I’ve got 12 minutes to fix something or get off the line.
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Ken’s last day feels like the beginning of the end of something bigger. Without him standing in the aisles screaming, who will give voice to what the rest of us are feeling? What will we have to write down and talk about at lunch? In short, who else is going to make working here bearable? The irony is that the company has no clue what they’re really losing. Far more than a foul-mouthed sailor in a headset, Ken has become one of the most competent techs on the floor. His style may not be user friendly, but on average he can take a call, solve a problem, and berate his customer for whining in less than 12 minutes. Ken fixes their trouble whether they like it or not, regardless of how long it takes him, and when he hangs up the problem is solved. He’s even received several thankful e-mails from callers who’ve endured his drill instructor’s approach and finally gotten a much-needed solution.
But good as he is to customers, he’s better to us. Instead of waiting interminably on hold to get a reading of The Mantra from a mentor, many of us will simply step over to his cube and ask Ken. More often than not he begins, “Oh shit, that’s easy…” and like that we’re on our way. No one wants to see him go, but Ken can’t be persuaded to stay.
Last week word began to circulate that Charles was being taken off the mentor line and promoted to full-blown manager. Ken was uncharacteristically calm. He sat down at his computer and hastily typed something up. Minutes later he handed in his resignation without a word. Since then we’ve pestered him endlessly to stay. We’ve tried to convince him that Charles’ promotion is actually a good thing; at least he won’t pop up on the mentor line anymore.
But Ken’s decision is made. He’s the kind of person who acts on principle, logic be damned. He’s in his mid-40s, divorced and the father of two, but he’s decided that he’d rather be unemployed than work for a company that considers Charles to be among its very best assets. It’s a noble stand, but one made in vain. Already names are being floated as to who will get Charles’ spot on the mentor line and Loni’s name has been mentioned more than once. As the owner of one of the lowest average call times and highest call volumes, he’s an obvious choice for management, though even Loni would tell you in a perfect world it would be Ken who was moving up. But it’s not a perfect world, it’s tech support, and instead of moving up, Ken is moving on. Someone has gotten him a cake. It does not read Good Luck, or Congratulations, or even say Goodbye. Ken opens it up to reveal three words scrawled neatly in the icing.
“Bullshit. Total bullshit.”
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)