Published March 14, 2019 in Warp & Woof
Van Slyke Assembly, 1967
Music for the Shop Rat
It was a lark. Something to do during college term break. I had just returned from a “career-service” internship experience in Washington, D.C. And, frankly, I was curious about what an auto assembly line was like. It was the defining social construct of my hometown — Flint, Michigan — but I had never seen one in action.
So, I signed up for a tour of the plant located directly across the street from the new townhouse my parents had just bought. It was their last address before leaving Flint forever, for Florida retirement. Odd, you may think, that this new townhouse development was built across the street from one of Flint’s premier General Motors manufacturing facilities, but there was a tall board-on-board fence separating it from the traffic noise of Van Slyke Road, blocking the view of the acres of factory occupying the equivalent of 20 adjacent city blocks.
In 1967 Flint was reaching peak “civilization,” still proud of its GM connections (indeed, General Motors was founded there in 1908). To see the lifeblood of my city close-up seemed an obligation, since I had already been talking up Flint with college friends in Kalamazoo.
I found myself overwhelmed by what I saw – and heard – inside, during the two-hour tour. It was a choreographed musical!
I had not been brought up with popular music. All music heard in my parents’ house was classical, especially violin and string orchestra. That was my father’s requirement. He was a failed violinist in his youth. Now he was an engineer, the head of process engineering at another GM plant in town.
It was perhaps that violinist’s artistic sensibility, combined with the process engineer’s dedication to efficient production methods, that led me to my profound aesthetic awakening after visiting that mammoth industrial facility.
I attribute my lifelong love of hard blues/rock music to the experience. Truly, this is the only style of music that fits the gritty, monotonous, obsessive life of the shop rat. I do not mean to imply that all assembly line workers loved that music – but, to me, the genre perfectly captures the spirit of the line. And, when done well, provides the seeds of an uplifting release from the grim drudgery of any job.
Those brightly colored Chevrolet Impalas marched down the assembly line in precisely timed formation, randomly distributed body styles and trims, based on an unseen production manifest. The shop rats’ responsibility was to put those cars together, unceasingly over an eight-hour shift, five days a week, each having a strictly defined small piece of the job.
And with the crashing noise of the stamping presses precisely timed, there was an unmistakable rhythm to the spectacle. Watching hundreds of workers below us, from an observation deck, all doing their repetitive ballet – it was real artistry. And, incredibly taxing, physically and mentally. When their shift was over, the urge to escape would be overpowering. At home, or at a local bar, as Ben Hamper relates in his seminal memoir of life on the assembly line, Rivethead. (Hamper worked in the same Van Slyke assembly plant in the ‘70s and ‘80s, then part of GM’s Truck and Bus Division). To a shop rat, music was likely an important part of that escape. As it was for me – but, the release I sought was from a different sort of stress.
Hamper had a dysfunctional psychological sense of destiny – he was a third generation Flint (and GM) shop rat, literally following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. I was first generation Flint and would never rely on an hourly rate factory job for income. I think I knew this, rationally, even in 1967. Yet, that tour of the Van Slyke plant showed me a world that I must have felt inside me. At each job station along the line, the task was to rivet, weld, or lift, one part of the overall vehicle, and only that one part. I feared It was the same as most jobs in life.
I had resolved at this point in my college career to be a history major, with English minor. Teaching was my chosen field – but I was uncertain whether I could advance directly to grad school. Draft deferments did not extend to graduate work. It was 1967.
Would I ever be able to do more? How much responsibility could I really handle?
So, I felt a great deal of stress about my future. It was something I could not control. But I had music. Not the classical music of my childhood, but angry, revolutionary music. The music of marginalized people who had no control over their futures. People like Ben Hamper, the “Rivethead.”
I had already collected some LPs since I had been at Kalamazoo College. Mostly Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and the like. My favorite album at the time was Aftermath by the Stones. It seemed dark to me. Paint It Black was perhaps my favorite song. But, on the album, not featured as a single, no air play, was another: Going Home. This song may have captured the beat of the assembly line better than any I knew then.
The cars are no longer made in Flint. Music was never made there. Detroit, on the other hand, did produce music! As far back as the 1940s, long before Motown, John Lee Hooker landed in that city during the Great Migration from Mississippi. He personified “Detroit Blues,” invented while he worked in a Ford plant. Music never left Detroit. Iggy Pop came from nearby Ann Arbor in the 1960s, same era as MC5. Even as late as the 1990s, Detroit was still producing artists like Jack White. I didn’t know these musicians in 1967, but there were the Stones (and other early “British Blues”), seemingly representing a similar industrial culture.
Throughout my life, I’ve been compelled to return to the anxiety, and bitterness, of the 19-year-old on that plant tour. It was important. More music, along the same lines as the styles I liked then, has come into my life since, but with modifications and improvements, much like cars have changed and improved over a similar time span.
Those Chevy Impalas, and the trucks that Ben Hamper assembled, were for the people. The music was as well. Workers were drawn to the assembly line because of good pay and benefits. Rock musicians were drawn to their calling because of its demand pricing. Fewer opportunities were available to either than to the privileged who could get an education and move away from places like Flint. Here there were majestic and powerful machines, like those rock drum riffs. The leitmotiv of amplified lead guitar was like the “dumpster hockey” Hamper and his colleagues wasted time playing when the line slowed or stopped. The angry lyrics of the front man were the profanity-laced banter of the shop rats.
The psychic need to escape, without the means. Hamper ultimately departed the shop only due to disability – he went directly from the rivet line at Van Slyke to a mental outpatient facility, permanently laid off, found shooting hoops in a cameo in Michael Moore’s film, “Roger and Me.”
I never experienced that sort of release with music, but in some ways, when listening to my iTunes playlists while working out at my gym, I feel like the Rivethead at that mental health clinic. Perhaps there never was an escape from Flint?