Pearl Jam co-founder and bassist stays true to hometown roots through charity, activism and philanthropy while never seeking the limelight
Story by Tristan Scott | Photography by Mandy MohlerIn the lotus land of rock-stardom, a model day for Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament stands out in stark relief against the glitzy conventions of the celebrity-establishment.
Although his career flourished in a cutthroat industry whose stars are scrutinized through the reductive, default lens of fans and critics, the lens that draws someone like Ament into sharpest focus deserves more intimacy.
It employs a kind of specially dialed clarity, dispelling the blurred stereotypes yoked on famous rock musicians, actors and athletes. It teases out rare human moments, and frames them with a “you-are-here” reference point.
To that end, Ament has never lost sight of the “here” of his small-town Montana roots.
As a purveyor of punk-infused alternative music, the familiar strains of which weave together an anthemic backdrop for generations of listeners, Ament stands out among the legions of self-entitled rock legends as a refreshing antidote to celebrity-induced apathy, streaks of which, while not necessarily the rule, are rarely the exception, particularly at the highest levels of the music business.
It’s not Ament’s humble background that sets him apart, but that the fabric of his background remained intact even as the purview of his career grew so expansive, that while his stature might have been crushed beneath the downward-thrusting telescopic lens of fandom and celebrity, his roots were in crisp, crystal focus, even as the rest of his world was stretched and distorted.
To retain that focus, he’s always returned to Montana.
By example, one recent vignette is set in Browning, on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
It’s the grand opening and dedication of the Thunder Park skateboard park, the design and construction of which Ament funded through charitable contributions, building the labyrinthine network of ramps and bowls right in the heart of the Blackfeet Reservation, a beleaguered, impoverished community beset by social and governmental mishaps, flanked by a landscape of eye-poppingly gorgeous scenery that defines this state’s namesake Big Sky, and fostering a rarefied brand of indigenous goodwill.
Before the DJ queues the music and the skate contest commences in earnest in June, before 150 locals prepare collectively and discordantly to drop in to the gleaming bowls of concrete, Ament hands out 50 custom skateboards, hand-assembled the day prior by Ament and his skater friends, a motley crew known as the Montana Pool Service, at Ament’s home in Missoula.
The frenzy of skateboarding that ensues at the unlikely, world-class skate park is disrupted only by a welcome recess, during which Ament receives an honorary Blackfeet Indian name from the tribe’s longest-serving chief, Earl Old Person, and praise from Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, whose sprawling, Pearl Jam-supported Senate campaign in 2012 was ultimately successful due in no small part to its extensively coordinated outreach to young voters.
Ament, Tester and the tribal leaders then turn their attention to another cause – protecting the pristine Badger-Two Medicine area, a region laced with rivers and wildlife habitat that borders the reservation and Glacier National Park, from the looming threat of oil and gas drilling.
“Drilling for oil and gas has no place in the Badger-Two Medicine,” said Ament, who recently threw his weight behind the effort to retire energy leases in the culturally sacred region. “Clean water and clean air are precious resources that hold the key to the future of the Blackfeet people and all Montanans.”
Ament grew up in the same town in which Tester runs a dirt farm, and the Pearl Jam bassist’s father – the mayor, bus driver and barber at the time – sheared the future Senator’s first, signature flat-top haircut.
In Big Sandy, a teenaged Ament found work as a paper boy and a rock-picker, saving money to buy skateboard magazines, punk-rock cassettes and skate decks, which he rode until they were chewed up, splintered and un-rideable by the standards of skate meccas like California.
That level of grit and determination turned him into a talented skater, and he’s employed the same degree of dedication to all his endeavors, be it music, skateboarding, activism, or philanthropy.
It also gave Ament a humility that is increasingly precious in any industry, and especially in one that demands showmanship such as the music business.
“Jeff never seeks recognition, he never grandstands,” Tester said. “And yet his commitment to Montana is extraordinary. You look at what he’s done for communities across the state and it’s beyond commendable.”
After the ceremonies conclude in Browning, a throng of fans surrounds Ament, but not to the degree that might envelop him after a sold-out stadium show – even though in this context he can’t seek backstage refuge; he doesn’t want to, either.
These fans are polite, waiting patiently to catch his eye. He signs autographs on T-shirts and Blackfeet Nation flags, he shakes hands, poses for photos, smiles, and radiates a sense of overwhelming gratitude, floored by the significance of what’s just happened, the honor bestowed on him for his role in the park’s creation and humbled by the attention.
“I’m honored and surprised and I can’t tell you how happy I feel right now,” Ament said. “I thank you from my heart. I’ll hold this feeling with me for the rest of my life.”
In the midst of the celebration, he agrees to step away for a magazine photographer’s portraiture, the concept of which poses him at the center of the skate park, on the coping of a heavily trafficked bowl, under the harsh midday sunlight. It’s the only request he denies all day, not because he’s uncomfortable, but because it will disturb the skaters happily swooping through the bowls.
“I don’t want to be the guy who shuts the skating down,” he says apologetically. “I’m not going to be that guy. These kids are having so much fun today. I don’t want to be that guy.”
In a moment of disappointment for a journalist, Ament’s true character shines bright, and he happily entertains more questions while cheering on Browning local Toby Crawford, 7, who has only recently learned to skate and is already busting out tricks that would put most skaters to shame.
“Woah, did you just see Toby style that nice little Alley Oop?” he asks a crowd of onlookers perched above the bowl.
Thunder Park in Browning is the latest in the bassist’s efforts to construct skateboard parks in communities across Montana. To raise money for Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy Foundation, $2 from every concert ticket the band sells goes toward their nonprofit organization, which in turn benefits groups hand-picked by the band members, organizations that are “doing commendable work in the fields of community health, the environment, arts and education, and social change.”
With Ament’s portion of the donations, he has set his sights on providing communities with the gift of skateboard parks. He has helped fund skateboard parks throughout his native state, including in Missoula, Great Falls, Polson, Big Sandy, and Browning.
Tyson Running Wolf, secretary of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, said the gift has already gone a long way toward engaging the next generation of Blackfeet, promoting healthy activities and community involvement among a demographic that has endured cultural and spiritual erosion.
The skate park provides another outlet toward channeling their energy toward something positive.
Running Wolf recalled growing up “on the mean streets of Browning” before moving to Bellingham, Washington, where he discovered skateboarding at a young age.
“I was 11 years old and my family was poor. We lived in subsidized housing. But my mom took me to Fred Meyer and bought me an old inexpensive Nash Skateboard. I tortured it and beat it up and my trucks weren’t worth a damn, but I used it and I learned to skateboard and it helped me interact with people,” Running Wolf said. “But then when I came back to Browning we didn’t have nothing. We couldn’t even use those boards on the gravel and the high asphalt. We didn’t have nothing. Now these kids have something. That’s an amazing gift.”
Running Wolf also recalled the moment that Pearl Jam became personally significant to him, in 1991, when their debut album “Ten” was released and sparked the explosion of grunge music.
“The music of Pearl Jam got me through some really, really difficult times,” he said. “I don’t know where I would be today if it wasn’t for their music.”
Tribal councilman Joe McKay, who organized the competition, said his son, Joe Weasel Fat, is a professional skateboarder living in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. He moved there to pursue skateboarding because there wasn’t any opportunities in Browning, besides skating on some scabbed-together ramps at the old bingo hall.
At the dedication of Thunder Park, McKay organized the skate competition in Weasel Fat’s honor.
“The kids didn’t have a skate park; they used to skate around town, around the school,” McKay said. “Now my son can come home and skate here. These are our future leaders.”
Born in 1963 in Havre, Ament began skating in 1979 while attending high school in Big Sandy. He still remembers his first skateboard, a Caster Chris Strople-signature skateboard, a flat deck with two layers of fiberglass between the plies and the biggest-selling deck of the time.
At 51, Ament still recalls those feelings of dread, wonder and exhilaration of stepping on a board and setting up for a trick, or edging over the coping of a pool before dropping in.
“There’s nothing like walking up to the edge of a new bowl and getting that 14-year-old shake; it takes me back to that 14-year-old kid who isn’t jaded at all and is full of wonder,” he said. “I see these kids and I know they’re going to have that forever, like I do.”