I was devastated to hear of Tommy Keene's passing the day before Thanksgiving.
I first encountered Tommy in 1986. He was the support act for Aztec Camera at a shabby old movie theatre converted to a concert venue in Washington, DC. I was eager to see Roddy Frame and his Aztec Camera colleagues who had impressed me when they supported Elvis Costello on his Punch the Clock Tour in 1983 at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland (incidentally, the first time I saw EC, with my best friend Andrew in tow and my father as chaperone).
I was vaguely aware of Tommy as he was from my neighborhood (well, actually, Bethesda, Maryland vs. Rockville but for those of us from the area there's not much of a distinction) and his bass player (Ted Nicely who went on to be a producer of some renown) was a clerk at Yesterday and Today Records on Rockville Pike where I would ride my bicycle to pick up EC's latest import jsingles.
In any case, Tommy and his group utterly knocked me out to the point that Aztec Camera sounded like total twerps (I guess they were twerps but I still dig 'em!). Tommy's sound was melodic but hard-hitting. And his voice had a reedy warmth that drew you in and kept you there.
The next day I went up to Yesterday and Today and bought TK's debut on Geffen Record, Songs from the Film and I've been trailing him every since.
I most recently caught him a Kung Fu Necktie playing solo. It's not easy to still an audience in a Rock'n'Roll club like KFN (not exactly a "listening" room). But Tommy did it with just a big Taylor 12 string, his trusty Tele, and his timeless tunes.
Here's my TK top-ten. But, really, you can start anywhere with this guy. He never made a bad album. Not even close.
1. Places That Are Gone: I was delighted to get to sing this song with an outfit called "The Bumsteads" at KFN a few years back. This is Tommy's most well-known song. A power-pop classic with a profile along the lines of, say, Peter Case's Plimsouls' classic, A Million Miles Away. Fave line: "We were standing so confused down the hall." TK, as a gay man growing up in the not so accommodating 70s and 80s in Maryland, knew what it felt to be an outsider from the inside even with his matinee idol good looks. Many TK fanatics prefer Places That Are Gone as it appeared on Tommy's early Dolphin records ep of the same name. But I like the Geffen one ... bad 80s reverb and all. It takes me back ... so that we can go on and on.
2. Call On Me: Another one from Tommy's first proper solo lp, Songs from the Film, produced by none other than the Beatles' engineer Geoff Emerick (who also helmed the board for EC's Imperial Bedroom). I once heard Tommy say that the music always came first for him ... lyrics second. Indeed, he is not especially known for his words. But they are great: he clearly privileged tone over content i.e. how the words sound vs. their meaning. Or as, say James Joyce might have it, the sound becomes the meaning. Check out the the chorus here: "There's a bridge on the water // there's a light by the sea // when you run from all the others // call on me". These lyrics may come off as generic or trite on paper but wedded to Tommy's peerless melodicism they endure, they enhance ... they entice you in. Tommy was perhaps best known for his guitar tone. The tone of his lyrics has been overlooked.
3. The Story Ends: A final selection from Songs from the Film. Tommy was not especially known for his ballads but, man, he could write one as evidenced by this, the last cut on his debut. TK had the ability to anchor an entire song on one word (this is premised on his dedication to tone). Here is it "luminous": "You're mother cares about your luminous affairs". TK got a ton of mileage out of light imagery -- this just being one of many examples (check out "Safe in Light" for another).
4. Kill Your Sons: Ooops. One more from Songs from the Film. I can't help it as this is the record that made me a lifelong acolyte. Anyway, Tommy's version of this Lou Reed composition is easily my favorite cover of the Prince of Darkness. In fact, I remember hearing
it at that Aztec Camera show and it sent me back to Lou's oft-under-regarded 70s output; this tune originating on the Sally Can't Dance lp. Anyway, Lou's version -- not without its charms -- can't stand a chance against Tommy's which while recognizing the father's power of suppression privileges the son's ultimately prevailing defiance. I copped Tommy's version and regularly play it with the Donuts.
5. Car Club: Finally moving along to the second Geffen record, Based on Happy Times, here is another cover ... this time by the Beach Boys. It is a tribute to Tommy's range that he could credibly cover both Lou Reed and the Beach Boys. In fact, he demonstrated that perhaps they don't stand that far apart: only an extraordinary artist could do that. Yep, that's Peter Buck playing the T-Rex sounding riffs on this one. Tommy had friends in high places including perhaps the two best songwriters of his generation, Paul Westerberg and Bob Pollard both of whom he toured with extensively (as lead axeman) and the latter of whom with he recorded an entire album under the moniker, the Keene Brothers.
6. Back Again; You can hear the Beach Boys influence on this one produced by T Bone Burnett and Don Dixon (everyone wanted to work with Tommy!) and originally released on an ep but now can be found on either the reissue of Songs from the Film or The Real Underground (this latter compilation of the early years is actually a good place to start if you've never heard Tommy). Try getting the chorus to this one out of your head!
7. Back to Zero: An early song also available on The Real Underground. The Dean, Robert Christgau, who so often gets it wrong, got it right about this song, praising it for it's "admonitory dolor". I'm not exactly sure what he meant by that but it's spot on! Hey, Tommy, was this a lift from something you read in Cream by Lester Bangs? Hey, Lester, ask Tommy when you see him! "You don't want to be nobody's hero, no // you just want to get back to zero, now". Right!
8. If You're Getting Married Tonight: I really hope he loves you, as TK completes the title line from this mellow gem from Ten Years After, the album that Tommy re-emerged with in 1996 after his Geffen contract fell apart following his second album for the corporate behemoth. Married Tonight, which I hope to essay with John Train in the near future, is a lovely outlier with steel guitar on an album that is otherwise noteworthy for its uncompromising and bone crushing guitar fuzz w/ signature TK melodies intact: a call to arms after a few years in the wilderness. I saw Tommy tour this album at the Grape Street Pub in Manayunk. The late great Jay Bennett from Wilco on guitar. Only a few of us were there but they played as if the joint were packed: another mark of artistic greatness. TK did it for himself ... which translated into doing it for all of us. Were you there?
9. Battle Lines: This one is from TK's second lp for indie label Matador and, I think, is his best overall collection. It doesn't hurt that Bennett and Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy feature prominently but it's the songs (as usual) that carry the day. This one's another bone-crusher and contains the immortal line: "I remember you in 1982 // very much aware // you didn't listen // you didn't even care". Ouch! Late John Train bassist Steve Demarest and I drove up to NYC to catch Tommy on the Isolation Party tour, the album of which contains this number. Steve forgot his ID but that's another story.
10. You've Never Really Been Gone: Another one from Isolation Party. Check out Tommy's effortless lift from the Beatles' All My Loving on the chorus of this one. Great artists steal with panache and Tommy's ability to re-harmonize the Beatles is non-pareil. Tommy went on to make many other great records into the new century ... but I'm running out of space here. What can I say? What a loss! Tommy, your music will continue as a constant companion, a source of strength and inspiration. I'll continue to spin your records and I'm
determined to cover as many of yours as I can. It's only been a few
days ... but now I know you've never really been gone.
Jon Houlon, November 2017