Author, ex-"Shop Rat"
Radio Show Host and DJ
February 10, 2021
Ben Hamper started his writing career penning tales taken straight from his job on the assembly line at the General Motors Truck plant on Van Slyke Road in Flint Township for a local newspaper called the Flint Voice.
His articles were well received and often hilarious retellings of the antics of UAW workers bucking the system and ‘The Man’, while building rigs for the world’s biggest automaker and company.
His articles found their audience, and so did the book he wrote on the same topic called Rivethead. It’s more than a little strange that Hamper’s claim to fame is working the rivet line in an auto factory because he literally hated everything about it, despite the fact that his family lineage was littered with ‘hundreds of years’ of auto line work as he puts it.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1991, he said he somehow felt a pull to work in a Flint auto factory. “I would get drunk and park next to one of the factories just in time to watch the fools pile out at quitting time. I hated the looks on their faces. Miserable cretins, one and all.”
According to Hamper the monotony of life on the line as a “Shop Rat” as Hamper (and many of the old factory hands lovingly called themselves) referred to it, was juxtaposed with the excellent pay and benefits it offered. It was a Faustian bargain many others before Hamper had faced and decided in the end that the pension and health benefits made it worthwhile.
In the end so did Hamper.
Despite his loathing thoughts of the factory life and all it portended, that’s exactly where he went to work. Later the recession of ’79 led to a lay off and with the free time Hamper jumped back in to his writing hobby. It was a strange hobby for a self described “straight D student” at Flint Powers Catholic High School, but it turned out to be the right one.
It led to a writing career and ultimately to the book Rivethead.
The entire nation took note when it was published and Hamper was featured from New York to L.A, by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and on the Today and Late Night with David Letterman shows.
The book also met with intense critical praise and ongoing devotion from fans everywhere. Perhaps the most amazing part of all is Rivethead’s contemporary relevance and popularity. The book still sells 30 years later despite virtually zero follow up, marketing or promotion.
A motion picture based on Rivethead came close to happening. Hollywood star Matt Dillon was set to play Hamper’s role, and a screenplay was even written. Dillon and Hamper even hung out partying in Flint bars for a long drunken weekend, but all that led to, according to Hamper, was “two massive hangovers.” The idea of Ben Hamper and Matt Dillon getting trashed in Flint bars is one that deserves its own book or at least a story or two). But sadly, that lost weekend was the end of the road with the movie deal.
Hamper is now a radio DJ and lives near Traverse City. His shows feature an eclectic mix of soul “Soul Possession” and Hillbilly tunes “Head For The Hills”. It’s a natural career choice considering his past experience leading the local ground-breaking radio program that he hosted out of Flint Central High School’s own WFBE station. That show, Take No Prisoners featured punk bands and others that couldn’t find a mainstream audience. In that capacity, he was instrumental in launching the punk and alternative music movement in Flint, and supporting some truly foundational bands. Ben’s legacy in Flint is set for life. However, he does want to clarify a few misconceptions.
For one, Ben is quick to point out, that like his jokes about Flint and his “Shop Rat” personae, he and his factory co workers, despite their antics, took great pride in what they did for a living, including turning out a quality product. It would be a mistake to think that making fun of either his city or his old gig is reflective of his pride in both. He has great love for his hometown.
That is certainly reciprocated by his legion of local fans and friends both in Flint and around the country. A recent Flint book signing at Totem Books in downtown Flint was well-attended, with scores of fans posting pics on social media with Ben and his book. That’s decades after publication. Incredible, if you think about it.
Ben remains an extremely approachable, affable, interesting and cool guy. And even if he never writes another book, the one he wrote will offer more staying power and lasting legacy than many other more prolific writers of this or any era.
Plus, he wore an Angelo’s Coney Island hat on the book cover…and donned a “Fish and The Flint Chronicles” hat too, and that alone makes him a Flint legend for life in our book.