In the post-Beatles era, D.C. claims only so many nationally acclaimed pop musicians. Atop that list is Tommy Keene, who died Wednesday at age 59. Keene, according to his website, “passed away unexpectedly, but peacefully, in his sleep at his Los Angeles area home.”
Raised in Bethesda, Keene’s legacy is rooted in the clubs of D.C., Baltimore, and Northern Virginia, and on WHFS, where his breakout hit in 1984, “Places That Are Gone,” was central to the soundtrack of that summer, and beyond.
Often classified as power-pop—a category he eschewed—Keene’s solo output includes 11 LPs, four EPs, three compilations and a live album. He recorded or toured with major pop and rock musicians such as Matthew Sweet, Robert Pollard, Peter Buck, and Paul Westerberg.
He was a musician’s musician.
Keene’s path traces to D.C. in the late 1970s with his band (The) Razz. He debuted as a solo act in 1982 with a self-produced LP (along with Ted Niceley) titled Strange Alliance. His big moment came in 1984, with a six-song EP featuring “Places That Are Gone” as the title track, on Dolphin Records.
In an August interview with Nashville radio show The Vinyl Lunch with Tom Hibbs, Keene recalled recording demos of his signature song on an 8-track in a friend’s basement. The eventual result led to college radio success, placement on the CMJ charts, and major label interest. “I was sort of in the right place at the right time, for the only time in my life,” he told Hibbs.
Keene’s early success coincided with the mid-1980s jangle-pop scene populated by bands like Let’s Active, the dB’s, and R.E.M. He signed with Geffen Records in the summer of 1984, and in 1986 released Songs From The Film, which featured “Places.” In retrospect, Keene regarded his major label foray as a misstep, as it interrupted his rise on the college radio charts. “We were young and desperate,” he said in the Hibbs interview.
Keene was dropped by Geffen in 1989. He reemerged in 1996 with the unheralded but stellar Ten Years After, on Matador Records. He was at the top of his game, with melodies, power chords, and pathos to burn. He followed in 1998 with Isolation Party, also on Matador, a collection of songs of defiance and perseverance that could be a metaphor for his musical career.
Whereas some might have tasted fleeting success then faded away for good, Keene kept recording and touring on his own terms, earning a reputation for quality, versatility, and rock showmanship.
When I spoke with Keene for an interview in 1998 at the Museum of Flying at the Santa Monica Airport, Keene was candid about commercial success and art, which he kept alive through solitary hours in his home recording studio. Even as a resurgent artist on Matador, he was up for playing small local gigs.
Keene also confessed to feeling dread that each time he wrote a good song he could never write another one as good again. Obviously, for fans and followers of his work over the next 20 years, he could, and did.
After reestablishing himself, Keene went out on the road as a hired gun for Westerberg and the sporadic but brilliant Velvet Crush, proving his value as a side man as well as a front man. Meanwhile, he kept turning out songs and albums and collaborating with musical partners on multiple continents.
His 2006 release with Pollard, Blues and Boogie Shoes, under the alias Keene Brothers, brought together two prolific song masters who enhanced each other’s street cred, much to the excitement of their respective and mutual fans.
“One can never be prepared for that kind of sudden and shocking news and it’s very depressing and sad for me personally, as I was deeply touched and inspired by Tommy’s talent, generosity and open warmth,” Pollard tells City Paper. “He made any room he was in a much happier place with his smile and quick wit. He was the Power Pop king and it make absolutely no sense that the music industry couldn’t or wouldn’t make him a huge commercial success. We discussed doing another Keene Brothers album. I was greatly looking forward to it. I’ll miss him very much but the spirit he created in his earthly vehicle was very positive and I’m certain he’s alright.”
Keene was a musician first, but he also photographed his own album art. And he was a discerning curator. His 2013 covers compilation, Excitement at Your Feet, features cuts from Big Star and The Bee Gees, with gems from Television, Guided By Voices, and Echo and the Bunnymen. It was heralded by AllMusic as “a cohesive work that stands as a testament to Keene’s good taste, inspiration, and skills as a rocker.”
Keene released his final solo album, Laugh in the Dark, in 2015, and spent the last year touring with Matthew Sweet as The Tommy Keene Band. He was looking forward to producing a DVD comprised of videos of old 9:30 Club shows, television appearances, and rarities. According to his website, Keene “is survived by his longtime partner, Michael Lundsgaard, his father Robert Keene, step-mother Dorothy Keene, brother Bobby Keene, nephews Hunter and Jason Keene, and his beloved dog, Coco.”