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My relationship with Ben Hamper has resulted in my being fired from my job, sued for libel, losing a potential friendship with my hero Bruce Springsteen, and now forced into writing this damn foreword so I can keep my favorite ball cap. Which is actually Hamper's favorite ball cap, but now that half the world has seen it on my head in Roger & Me, and, possession being so many tenths of the law, we decided to settle this with my keeping the hat if I wrote this foreword.
Let me back up for a second...
I first heard of Ben Hamper shortly after John Lennon was murdered. A columnist in the Flint Journal, the daily rag in our hometown of Flint, Michigan, wrote that the country was actually better off with Lennon dead, considering all of the rebellion he caused. If it wasn't for Lennon and the Beatles, she exhorted, our generation would have turned out more respectable people who held such jobs as engineers or lawyers. So this guy named Hamper sent a letter to the Flint Journal saying, "I make my living turning bolts in the factory. Being a devoted Lennon fan, I'm suddenly discouraged to realize that, had I avoided this scoundrel's music, I could have been a real success in some lofty vocation."
I thought about trying to find this "Ben Hamper" to see if he would like to write for my alternative biweekly newspaper, the Flint Voice. But that idea got shoed aside, and it was another six months before an unsolicited record review from Ben arrived in the mail with a note attached saying I could run this if I wanted to. This one-paragraph review was so wonderfully sick that I immediately called him up to discuss further writing assignments.
After a few more reviews for the Flint Voice, it was clear from his writing that there was more inside him that needed to come out. I asked him to consider writing a column about life in the shop - or any other subject of his choosing. So in addition to reports from the General Motors assembly line, he covered the local Elvis impersonators, faith healers and greasy spoons. It was right about then I should have pulled the reins in on this guy, but he was upsetting so many people, I just couldn't stop him.
Then one week, Hamper wrote about a bar he frequented where there were so many fistfights, he suggested a smart dentist should open an office next door to the joint. "What the place lacked in ambience," he wrote, "it made up for in ambulance." Well, the bar soon closed and the owner sued me, claiming that Hamper's remarks had ruined his business. Fortunately, the judge had been my Boy Scout advisor and firmly believed, with God as his witness, that I could do no wrong, and dismissed the suit.
Hamper's "Impressions of a Rivethead" column became the most widely read page in the Flint Voice and, when the paper became the Michigan Voice, his popularity soared. The Wall Street Journal ran a front page story on him, Harper's magazine reprinted one of his pieces and some shoe company wanted him to endorse their industrial boots (Ben knows boots). Meanwhile, he would take of work in the middle of his night shift at GM, come over to the Voice office, and try to get the staff to stop working and join him in his various vices. I remember one particular night watching him engage the staff in a game of lawn darts inside the building, using a poster of GM chairman as the target. I guess that was our version of the new journalism.
Finally, after nearly ten years of publishing the Voice, I was asked by a liberal millionaire to move to San Francisco and become the editor of Mother Jones magazine. The owner like the "working class reality" of the Michigan Voice and wanted to put some of that into Mother Jones. It had once been the country's premier muckraking magazine, but now it was a soft, touchy-feely periodical that had lost over 80,000 subscribers. So, when I arrived in California on my mission to save the magazine, one of the first writers I commissioned was Ben Hamper. He wrote a hilarious piece I titled "I, Rivethead," and I made it the cover story of my first issue. I then told him that he could continue his "Rivethead" column in each issue of the magazine. I even sent him on a promotional tour.
Well, never trust a millionaire when he tells you he wants that "working class reality" in his magazine. As my third issue was being readied for publication, the owner came into my office and, waving a copy of Hamper's latest column, asked me if I really intended on printing this smut. Yes, I said. Bye-bye, he replied. The next day I was in the unemployment line.
I went back home to Flint, where Ben tried to cheer me up by letting me watch his collection of Charles Manson interviews. On his shelf, I spotted a ball cap that, I felt, summed up my life at that moment. On the front of the cap was a giant lake trout with the words "I'm Out for Trout." I asked Ben if I could borrow it and he said sure, but he wanted it back soon.
The next day, Roger Smith announced he was laying off another 10,000 workers in Flint. Buoyed by this development, I decided to make a film in which I would try to get Smith to come to Flint so he could see what happens to the people he throws out on the street. During the first day of shooting, I happened to wear Hamper's "Out for Trout" hat while on camera. To maintain consistency in the filming during the following days, I had to keep wearing that damned hat. That ball cap soon became the symbol for the film, and Hamper was not to have it on his balding head again.
As Roger.& Me neared completion, I wanted to get permission from Bruce Springsteen to use his song "My Hometown" in the movie. I went to New York to meet with Springsteen's friend and biographer Dave Marsh to solicit his help. Instead, Marsh took me tom task for once running a column by Hamper which poked fun at the Boss for being a multimillionaire while singing songs about working in a factory. Although I pleaded with Marsh that I despised everything that Hamper ever stood for, he stated "You were irresponsible for running such a thing. Ben Hamper is my ideological enemy." He showed me the door, thus ending any chance of hanging with the guys at the Stone Pony. (Warner Bros., the distributor of Roger & Me, and the largest media conglomerate in the world - but apparently no one's "ideological enemy" - later got permission from Springsteen for the song.)
Through his appearance in Roger & Me, Ben became known throughout the world as "that guy in the mental clinic playing basketball and singing the Beach Boys song." More than one person, he tells me, has stopped him on the street to comment on his pick and roll, his vocal range and the "Hinckley-like glint in his eye." With one memorable movie part under his belt, he still had not been widely recognized for the literary talent he and the nuns always knew he had, so he holed up in his backyard shed and began to write this book to set the record straight.
What has resulted on these pages, I believe, is a masterpiece of writing which paints a darkly humorous account of working class life in America. It establishes Ben as an important voice of the nineties, one which I'm sure we will hear from again and again. At the very least, it should confirm his place in publishing history as the first author to write a major book while under medical supervision - and the influence of eleven different miracle drugs. (I can hear the Regis intro now: "Please welcome author/outpatient... Ben Hamper!") And no matter what happens, Hamper still holds the free-throw record both at the mental clinic and at my house.
Of course, to read what he has to say on these pages, you may wonder who the real crazy ones are. This insane system known as the assembly line is designed to deny individuality and eliminate self-worth. Do you ever wonder who built the car you drive? Do you think about the personal toll it extracts from those individuals who spend the best years of their lives in a hot, dirty, boring, dehumanizing factory? Out there in the rust belt... the heartbeat of America...well, they're paid so well, you know, for their "unskilled" labor. Hell, they should feel lucky they even have a job! On this book, Ben Hamper tells what a lucky guy he is.
Ben and I both grew up in Flint, Michigan, the sons of factory workers. We were never supposed to get out, and you were never supposed to hear our voices. It all comes down to a matter of class, of knowing our place, and a place like Flint, Michigan doesn't really exist in the minds of the media or decision makers. Even the country's liberals are at a loss when it comes to thinking about the Ben Hampers. They speak often, as they should, of the ills of our society, but rarely so they mention class, that growing distinction between rich and poor, between those who sweat for their money and those who inherit it or legally steal it. Do they ever give one iota of thought to what the person who rivets their rocker panels is going through? Rocker panels, you say? Huh? Exactly.
Ben and I were both determined when we left high school not to go on the assembly line. So I started my own paper and Ben made up poems while painting houses. Unfortunately, he decided one day that no one was going to see any glimmer of creativity in him, so he gave up and went into the shop. I too had similar feelings yet, after getting hired at Buick, I just didn't have the guts to go through with it and called in sick my first day of work. I never did walk through those gates. I am glad that Ben and I finally ran into each other and, in our own ways, held on to that belief that we were not invisible people with inaudible voices simply because our fathers ate out of a lunch bucket and shopped at K mart.
Both of us finally got our chance. But I still have the ball cap.