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Tommy Keene, 1958 - 2017: An Appreciation

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by John M. Borack

I first became acquainted with the music of Tommy Keene in 1984, and I immediately fell head over heels in love. I was slowly moving away from the AOR music that had saturated my youth, and when I first heard Keene’s Places That are GoneEP, it’s no exaggeration to say I was transformed. Here was intelligent, powerfully melodic pop music that owed a debt to the Beatles, Who and other like-minded heroes, but didn’t sound exactly like anything else I’d ever heard.

From that point on, I eagerly anticipated (and subsequently purchased) everything Tommy released, and wrote about his recorded output in glowing terms as often as I could. I was totally floored and honored when Tommy asked me to write the liner notes for the CD reissue of his classic Songs From the Filmdisc, as it’s one of my all-time favorite albums. I was thrilled when he graciously donated an exclusive track (“Gone to Midnight “) for the compilation CD that was included with my first book, Shake Some Action: The Ultimate Power Pop Guide. Tommy was always classy and accommodating every time we spoke, and I never stopped enjoying his music.

When I heard the news on Thanksgiving day that Tommy Keene had passed away the previous evening at the far-too-young age of 59, I sat for a bit in shock and in tears; damn, it hurt and it still does. Tommy was a supremely talented, kind and giving gentleman who’ll be missed by many, and my sincere condolences go out to his family and friends.

At a time when we’re supposed to be thankful, I’m giving thanks for all the wonderful music Tommy Keene left us with. To that end, I decided to compile a list of ten great Tommy Keene tracks. I soon realized that a top ten wouldn’t suffice, so the list grew to twenty…and then thirty (and even then, some wonderful tunes didn’t make the cut). At any rate, here they are, in alphabetical order, along with the album/EP from whence they came in parentheses:

“A Wish Ago” (From Drowning: A Tommy KeeneMiscellany, 2004) – “A nice melody, I think,” Tommy humbly stated in the liner notes to Drowning. It definitely is, and the wistful-sounding vocals and Keene’s tasteful slide guitar add to its dreamlike feel.

“Astronomy” (From Songs From the Film, 1986) – The best 1:28 power pop song you’ll ever hear, bar none.

“Away From it All” (From the RunNow EP, 1986) – A sorely underrated tune from Run Now. Everything about it is perfection, from Keene’s impassioned lead vocal to Doug Tull’s ace drumming. Like many of Keene’s tunes, the verse, bridge and chorus are equally memorable.

“Baby Face” (From the Places That are GoneEP, 1984) – A sweet, mid-tempo tune that builds from a stark, simple guitar riff and blossoms into a lovely, endearing popsong.

“Back to Zero Now” (From the Places That are GoneEP, 1984) – One of Keene’s signature tunes, it’s an invigorating blast of heavenly guitar-pop from start to finish. A classic.

“Compromise” (From Ten Years After, 1996) – Powered by John Richardson’s insistent drums and juiced by Keene’s angular-yet-melodic guitars, this is a stinging, bottom-heavy rocker.

“Deep Six Saturday” (From Behind the Parade, 2011) – One of Keene’s finest later-period tunes, it finds him stretching out a bit musically and adding some nicely-placed horns to his guitar-bass-drums formula. Check out the video for the song, which is at once bizarre and joyous.

“Good Thing Going” (From Ten Years After, 1996) – “When trouble fills these times/I’ll lay down by your side/we’ve got a good thing going.” The positivity of the lyrics is aided by another snazzy Keene melody and some great guitar hooks.

“Kill Your Sons” (From Songs From theFilm, 1986) – This ferocious cover of a Lou Reed number was a longtime live favorite, and features plenty of Keene’s patented six-string magic.

“Leaving Your World Behind” (From Tommy Keene You Hear Me, 2010) – Tommy was often bugged about being pigeonholed as a power pop artist when his music was about so much more than simply the chipper, upbeat tunes. Here, though, he covers a tune from 20/20’s debut long-player, long considered to be a power pop classic. It’s all Keene and his guitars, and his stripped-down rendition presents the song in a completely different light.

“Long Time Missing” (From Isolation Party, 1998) – The leadoff track on Keene’s solid Isolation Partyrecord, the guitar sound veers close to metal (not a bad thing), but the melody and lead vocal are vintage Tommy Keene.

“Love is a Dangerous Thing” (From the Sleeping on a RollercoasterEP, 1992) – Kickstarted by a powerful guitar riff and a shout of “Hey!” from Keene, it’s one of his most prescient, prickly songs about the business of love.

“Misunderstood” (From The Real Underground, 1993) – With a warm, inviting instrumental bed of acoustic and electric guitars peppered with a bit of keyboards, this one – which sounds like it could be a demo – soars on the strength of its superb chorus.

“Mr. Roland” (From The Real Underground, 1993) – Originally relegated to a non-LP B-side released early in Keene’s career, this five-and-a-half minute pounding slice of psych-flecked pop saw its CD debut in 1993 and showed up once again on the Tommy Keene You Hear Me comp in 2010.

“Much Too Much” (From Excitement at Your Feet, 2013) – A superb version of the Who’s 1965 rocker from Keene’s great all-covers record, which also featured him tackling tunes from the likes of Randy Newman, Donovan, Guided By Voices and others. (A big Who fan, Keene had also worked up a fine reading of the band's “Tattoo” earlier in his career, and of course the album titles Excitement at Your Feetand TommyKeene You Hear Me reference the Who as well.)

“My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe” (From Songs From the Film, 1986) – A slightly dark-hued, nostalgic snapshot, with subdued verses and a super-catchy chorus.

“Never Really Been Gone” (From Isolation Party, 1998) – Keene’s guitars jangle and chime quite nicely, and his understated lead vocal suits this beautiful number perfectly. Love the low harmony on the chorus.

“Nothing Can Change You” (From Based on Happy Times, 1989) – Kicking off the Based on Happy Timesrecord with a bang – and a cannon-like drum sound, courtesy of Joe Hardy and John Hampton at Ardent Studios – it’s a typically kinetic Keene rocker with some oblique lyrics.

“Paper Words and Lies” (From Songs From the Film, 1986) – A biting indictment of someone who plays fast and loose with the truth, Keene’s sharp vocal delivery and the alternately spiky and chiming guitars shine brightly.

“Places That are Gone” (From Songs From the Film, 1986) – Another one of the tunes most closely associated with Tommy Keene, “Places That Are Gone” is an undisputed power pop classic and one of the finest songs of the 1980s, period. (Both the 1984 Dolphin Records version and the slightly glossier 1986 take are equally wonderful.)

“Run Now” (From the Run NowEP, 1986) – This one could have/should have made Tommy Keene a household name; released as Geffen’s follow up to the Songs From the Film album, it was placed in a major motion picture – albeit a relatively crappy one – and was as catchy as anything on the radio at the time. The drums are big, but thankfully the guitars are even bigger.

“Save This Harmony” (From In the Late Bright, 2009) – One of Keene’s most touching melodies, with slightly menacing verses giving way to an absolutely gorgeous chorus, like sunshine breaking through clouds.

“Sleeping On a Rollercoaster” (From The Real Underground, 1993) – Atypically sunny-sounding, this relative rarity was also released on Alias Records’ 1994 Driving Into the Suncollection, but – curiously – was not included on the 1992 Sleeping On a Roller CoasterEP on Matador Records.

“There’s No One in this City” (From Drowning: A Tommy Keene Miscellany, 2004) – AKA “No One in This City,” this undeserved orphan of a tune also appeared on Keene’s career-spanning compilation Tommy Keene You Hear Me. It’s notable for a killer bridge, and a typically fluid Keene guitar solo, and was the first song Keene composed after moving to Los Angeles from Maryland.

“They’re in Their Own World” (From the Run NowEP, 1986) – The Run NowEP was a six-song gem, and this Keene story-song (also available on the Songs From the Film CD reissue) is one of the highlights. Listen to how the tune glides seamlessly from the chorus to the bridge to the guitar solo, then back to the bridge and the final verse.

“Tuesday Morning” (From Isolation Party, 1998) – This loping little ditty features backing vocals from Shoes’ Jeff Murphy and some subtle organ from the late Jay Bennett (Wilco, Titantic Love Affair). Lyrics such as “Good vibrations are cascading down” may be a bit uncharacteristic for Keene, but they fit the feel-good vibe of the tune like a glove.

“Warren in the ‘60s” (From Crashing the Ether, 2006) – Thick, cascading guitars rain down at the outset, and the brief harmonica break is a nice touch. Although the lyrics are somewhat obtuse, instrumentally this is jangle heaven.

“When Our Vows Break” (From Based on Happy Times, 1989) – A marvelous Keene/Jules Shear co-write (Jules also contributes some harmony vocals), this slice of pop-rock perfection may have been Keene’s best chance for commercial success while still on a major label. I still love the fact that Geffen attempted to turn Tommy into some sort of matinee idol with the Clark Gable-like black-and-white portrait on the back cover of the album.

 “You Can’t Wait For Time” (From Ten Years After, 1996) – With a sped-up “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” instrumental feel, Tommy may have invented a new genre here: janglebilly.

“Your Heart Beats Alone” (From Ten Years After, 1996) – One of Keene’s best-ever melodies, this one tugs at the heartstrings from the get go and never lets up.

Rest in Peace, TK…

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