Singer, songwriter, guitarist
The career of singer, songwriter, and guitarist Tommy Keene has been one of both commercial promise and invisibility. “Over the past 15 years,” concluded Geoff Cabin in Rock Beat International, “Tommy has released a series of albums and EPs that contain some of the best rock ‘n’ roll of the post-punk era (or any other era), featuring songs with reflective lyrics and buoyant melodies, framed by Tommy’s electrifying guitar playing.” From his 1992 debut set Strange Alliance through his 1998 Isolation Party album, Keene displayed a penchant for crafting timeless, memorable melodies, thick guitar textures, and intelligent lyrics about real people experiencing ordinary life, not always exploring the happiest of situations.
His songwriting sensibility contains both overt and subtle classic rock influences from the Who, the Rolling Stones, Cheap Trick, the Velvet Underground, Big Star, Modern Lovers, the Only Ones, and countless others. Critics compare his music most often with that of Paul Westerberg, for whom Keene played guitar on the latter’s 1997 tour. However, Keene subverts Wester-berg’s grumpy wit, arriving at a lyrical and vocal style that radiates in equal parts desperation, loneliness, and hope.
“It’s kind of a weird contradiction,” Keene admitted in an interview with Magnet magazine’s Matt Hickey. “I think most good pop music touches a nerve in people. I mean, it’s true, obviously, going back to the Beatles. But even people like Bruce Springsteen, that’s why people really went nuts for him, because he had these sort of desperate songs, but he rocked out… That’s kind of my shtick or my thing. There’s a constant thread running through all the records that I put out. Some records, I think, are darker than others, but they’re all pretty consistent. I get a lot of flak for it [from the press]. This guy in D.C. who’s been there forever called me ’Morrissey’s American cousin.’ You know, whatever. I guess Morrissey has the patent on misery.”
Born around 1960 and raised in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington D.C., Keene—whose father was a respected jazz saxophonist and was employed by the CIA as a Secret Serviceman after World War II—displayed a talent for music early in life. Growing up, the Keene family traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia, where Tommy first discovered rock & roll. “I started playing piano when I was six and then drums and guitar when I was eight,” he said in an interview with Otoño Cheyenne.
During a visit to London in 1966, a relative who worked for an amplifier manufacturer invited Keene to attend a concert of the Small Faces and the Yardbirds. Backstage, he met guitar legend Jeff Beck, who was so impressed with the youngster’s knowledge of guitars that he gave Keene his Fender Esquire. “He said something like, ’Well, maybe one day you’ll make better use of this than I can, ’” recalled Keene, as quoted by Matador Records, dismissing the event as “unbelievably cool but he must’ve had an endorsement.” Although the two guitarists never crossed paths again, Keene to this day still uses Beck’s guitar on every studio recording.
While in junior high at the age of 12, Keene, having seen the world and sporting a Beatles-inspired haircut, joined his first band, Blue Steel, for which he played drums. They mostly performed covers by artists like Deep Purple, Rory Gallagher, Mott the Hoople, and the Who. In high school, Keene, transitioning to the lead guitar position, joined another rock group called Only After Dark, whose repertoire included songs by such notables as David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Bruce Springsteen. In 1977, while a student at the University of Maryland, Keene formed his first “serious” band called the Rage with songwriter Richard X. Heyman. They played a mixture of Heyman’s originals and 1960s-era cover tunes.
The Rage regularly opened for a group called Razz, at the time the top rock band in the D.C. area. When one of Razz’s guitarists left the band, leaving an opening, the first person the group thought of to fill the vacancy was Keene. He gladly accepted the offer, turning down an opportunity to join a touring version of an unnamed, popular American act and lots of money to hook up with Razz, his favorite local band. During his stint with Razz, Keene began to concentrate on his songwriting, working in collaboration with lead singer Michael Reidy. With Razz, Keene recorded an EP, Air Time, and some singles. But although Razz appeared in position
Born c. 1960 in Bethesda, MD; son of a jazz saxophonist. Education: Attended the University of Maryland.
Started playing piano at age six and drums and guitar at age eight; started playing in bands at age 12; forged solo career after a stint with the band Razz, 1980; released debut album Strange Alliance, 1982; released first of two EPs on Dolphin Records, 1984; signed with major-label Geffen Records, 1985; released Songs From The Film, 1986; Geffen released Based On Happy Times and dropped Keene on the same day, 1989; signed agreement with Matador Records, 1992; released Ten Years After, played guitar with Velvet Crush on tour, 1996; released Ten Years After, 1998.
for a major breakthrough, it never quite happened, and the group disbanded in December of 1979.
Thereafter, Keene obtained a gig in New York City accompanying new wave pop singer Suzanne Fellini, who scored a minor hit with the song “Love On The Telephone.” Afterwards, he remained in New York and joined a band called the Pieces. This group, too, would be short-lived. Despite playing several showcase gigs, the Pieces, after recording a four-song demo tape, split up when they failed to land an acceptable record deal. Under the advice of a manager, Keene struck out on his own after the breakup and returned to Washington, D.C. Here, he recruited Razz’s former rhythm section—bass guitarist Ted Nicely and drummer Doug Tull—to record some demos. In 1981, securing a deal with Avenue Records, Keene released his first solo LP, Strange Alliance. The following year, Avenue reissued the album with a bonus seven-inch track entitled “Back To Zero,” the song that brought him to national attention.
Then Keene signed with Dolphin Records, an independent label out of North Carolina. In 1984, Dolphin released Keene’s Places That Are Gone EP, one of the year’s top-selling indie releases. It additionally garnered a four-star review in Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice named Places That Are Gone the number-one EP of the year in its Jazz and Pop Poll. Another EP, Back Again…Try, followed in 1985. Produced by T-Bone Burnett and Don Dixon, it, too, won critical praise. Many of the songs from this same session were planned to form the backbone of Keene’s proposed forthcoming album.
These early successes led to major label interest in Keene, and he opted to go with Geffen Records (home to Cher, Stan Ridgeway, and Quarterflash, among others) in 1985. Geffen, however, decided to scrap Keene’s original songs previously recorded with Burnett and Dixon. Instead, they hired producer Geoff Emerick to record a new version with Keene. The resulting Songs From The Film, released in 1986, earned stellar reviews, as did the EP that followed that same year, Run Now. Regardless of the quality of Keene’s music, both failed to attract mainstream record buyers. Even a brief appearance in the 1986 Anthony Michael Hall film Out Of Bounds, for which Keene played the role of a rock musician, did little to bolster his image.
Frustrated, Keene in 1988 fired his entire band and moved to Los Angeles. In 1989, he released his third LP, Based On Happy Times, recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. But on the same day of its release, the album was also destroyed, as Geffen had decided to drop Keene from their roster. Later that same afternoon, his management company and his booking agency dropped him from their roster.
After picking himself up from this major disappointment, Keene recorded a series of demos in 1990 through 1991 that led to nothing other than mounting studio and telephone bills, though he did receive an offer from Island Records. However, the deal was retracted when the Santa Monica Shopper quoted Keene as stating that the band U2 (who record on the Island label)“really stink.” Keene, according to Matador, denied ever making the statement.
Following a brief stint playing guitar with Reprise Records artist Adam Schmidt, Keene turned to Matador Records for the release of a new EP, 1992’s Sleeping On A Roller Coaster. In 1996, also for Matador, he released the enigmatically titled Ten Years After, his first full-length album since Based On Happy Times. Both records received high marks from the critics. To promote his newest collection, Keene toured the United Kingdom with Oasis, serving as a fill-in guitarist for the opening act Velvet Crush. In 1998, Keene returned with Isolation Party, yet another critical favorite. Unlike his previous albums, he chose to record most of the instruments and produce the sessions himself, though he enlisted various contributions from drummer John Richardson and Wilco guitarist Jay Bennett, as well as Jeff Tweedy, leader of Wilco, and Jesse Valenzuela, formerly of the Gin Blossoms.
During 1999 and 2000, Keene began writing and recording songs for his next album. Although his records never sold millions of records, he continues to believe in creating the music that makes the most sense to him. “All I’ve ever really set out to accomplish is writing songs that appeal to me, that reflect my life’s experiences in a musical language that I can relate to, “said Keene, as quoted by Matador. “Sure, positive feedback from fans or the press is something that I appreciate but those things have never dictated how or why I write songs. That’s not why I want to make music.”
Strange Alliance, Avenue, 1981; reissued with nine bonus tracks, including “Back To Zero,” 1982.
Places That Are Gone (EP), Dolphin, 1984.
Back Again…Try (EP), Dolphin, 1984.
Songs From The Film, Geffen, 1986; reissued, 1998.
“Listen To Me” (seven-inch single), 1986.
Run Now (EP), Geffen, 1986.
Based On Happy Times, Geffen, 1989.
Sleeping On A Roller Coaster (EP), Matador, 1992.
The Real Underground (compilation), Alias, 1993.
Driving Into The Sun (European import), Alias, 1994.
Ten Years After, Matador, 1996.
Isolation Party, Matador, 1998.
Boston Phoenix, March 2, 1998.
Los Angeles Times, March 9, 1986; March 23, 1986.
Magnet, March/April 1998; September/October 1998.
Otoño Cheyenne (Cheyenne Autumn), Issue #2, 1998.
Rock Beat International, Summer 1998.
USA Today, March 4, 1996.
Washington Post, March 4, 1998.
The Band Next Door, http://www.thebandnextdoor.com (December 21, 2000).
Matador Records, http://www.matador.recs.com (December 21, 2000).
Pitchfork, http://www.pitchforkmedia.com (December 21, 2000).
Salon, http://www.salonmag.com (December 21, 2000).
Wall Of Sound, http://www.wallofsound.com (December 21, 2000).
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