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Thursday, March 22,2012

Some assembly required

After more than 20 years, Ben Hamper's 'Rivethead' still works for readers

by Bill Castanier
Ben Hamper is coming. Ben Hamper is coming. And people have been waiting a long time to see this celebrated writer of the working class.

He will not be wearing his "Out for Trout" baseball cap: His former boss Michael Moore borrowed the cap for the filming of "Roger and Me" and never gave it back. Moore writes about the theft in the foreword to Hamper’s 1991 cult classic book "Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line."

Hamper will be at the Michigan State University Library Tuesday for the Michigan Writer Series, co-sponsored by Our Daily Work Our Daily Lives and the MSU Press.

“Rivethead” took the back-breaking, mind-numbing job of working on the line and gave it life in a book that has no parallel for style except for perhaps “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” or Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Reading like one of Hunter Thompson’s creations, Hamper took assembly line life to a new level of desperation. His opening rap in the prologue zings like Thompson’s classic opening paragraph in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” For those of you who forgot: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

Hamper writes in “Rivethead”: “Dead Rock Stars are singing for me and the boys on the Rivet Line tonight. Hendrix. Morrison. Zeppelin. The Dead Rock Stars catalogue churning outta Hogjaw’s homemade boom box.”

And that’s just the start of life on the line in Department 07 of the Blazer Suburban line in Flint, where Hamper worked until panic attacks and anxiety led to his retirement in 1988. Whether you worked on an automobile assembly line your whole life or only during the summers while paying your way through college, the stories Hamper tells have resonated with hundreds of thousands of former shop rats who made steering assemblies or popped rivets in a chassis. The book still has life today, having been continuously in print since it was published in 1991. It also shows up on countless college reading lists.

General Motors, on the other hand, was not so happy with the book’s tales of drinking and drug use on the job.

To hear Hamper tell it, he became a writer almost by accident, albeit he does have an ear for the vernacular and the absurd. While working in the plant, Hamper hooked up with another Flint literary fugitive, Michael Moore, who was publishing a counter-culture newspaper, The Flint Voice. At first, Hamper saw himself as the second coming of Dave Marsh and his contributions were music reviews. But Moore liked his style and convinced him to write about life on the line.

Hamper said he had no particular inspiration to write. “It was just something to do while working on the assembly line,” he said.

Growing up in Flint, he had heard stories of working on the line all his life, and he put them to work. His father, both grandfathers and one grandmother had all put in their time on the line.

“I just didn’t want to do it like them,” Hamper said. “I wanted to leave an imprint.” And leave an imprint he did when his writing appeared in such magazines as Harpers, Esquire and Mother Jones. Once his book was published he turned up on all types of talk shows like “Good Morning America,” “Today” and “Late Night with David Letterman,” telling tales of life in the plant.

He said that while he was working and writing that his bosses knew he had a column in the Voice (which later morphed into The Michigan Voice). “They were not all that keen on it,” he said.

It’s likely they were also none too keen about how he described his white-collar bosses in “Rivethead.” In the book, one foreman says to him, “Sorry, Rivethead. Your ass is mine. I had been catapulted right to the top of the Henry Jackson endangered feces list.”

Hamper said the only time GM responded to his book formally was in an article in People magazine, in which he said they were quoted as saying, “Mr. Hamper doesn’t represent the vast majority of workers.”

The author, who now lives in Suttons Bay, said that when he worked on the line that the governing philosophy was “quantity over quality.”

“The idea was we could fix it later — just don’t stop the line,” he said.

Hamper said working on the line offered ample opportunity for story ideas, many of them completely crazy. “I was almost like a war correspondent. There was always something to report.”

At the time, Hamper was more inclined to be like his literary hero, poet and novelist Charles Bukowski: “Voyeuristically, I wanted to be like him.” 

Since moving to the north country Hamper has done little writing, instead putting his time in at WNMC-FM, where he hosts two weekly radio shows, “Soul Possession” on Saturday nights and “Head for the Hills” on Sunday morning, which features early country and western music.

At a recent book event in his former hometown — which was once also home to the largest automotive assembly plants in the world — Hamper ran into two old friends, Bobaloo and Janice. 

He said he is seriously thinking of writing a book about what happened to some of the stars of “Rivethead,” as well as the fate of Flint. “For a long time I resisted the notion of writing (another) book,” he said. “I didn’t want to milk it.”

Ben Hamper

Author Of "Rivethead: Tales From the Assembly Line"

Tuesday, March 27

7 p.m., Michigan State University Library, Room W449 (4th floor, West Wing)

Free

www.lib.msu.edu

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