(Re)Collection #5: Tommy Keene
Updated: Feb 12, 2019
Tommy Keene died on November 22, 2017. He was 59. This is not a tribute or an obituary or a piece of rock criticism. It is a recollection of what Tommy's music meant to me and how it fit in to my particular life. I feel like I kind of knew him.
I first heard about Tommy Keene on WHFS, one of the many progressive rock radio stations that blossomed in the 70s with the advent of album oriented rock music. It was a new kind of station with a more open format that didn't play the hits. It played the deep cuts. It was the sanctuary for many music loving hippy types who hadn't given up on the ideas and promise of the 60s. Of course, I had no idea about any of that in the late 70s when I discovered the station. This is the kind of station that the Replacements were referencing in that song "Left of the Dial," although WHFS, or HFS as we called it, was at 102.3 (99.1 when they were sold and moved to Annapolis) on the dial. More middle of the dial.
WHFS had DJs with names like Weasel, Milo, Cerphe (pronounced Surf), Damian and Bob. It was located in Bethesda, Maryland. Bethesda was just over the border from DC. My friends and I would often ride our bikes or skateboards over there after school and on the weekends. There was a great video game arcade on Wisconsin Ave where I had the high score on the Galaxian machine. More importantly, there was the Bethesda Surf Shop on Cordell Ave. Man, I loved skateboarding. That shop had a special section in the back that smelled of grip tape and urethane wheels. I would hang around and stare at the Dogtown and Alva decks, Sims, Kryptonics and OJ wheels and dream about owning something other than my G & S Bowl Rider. That smell is burned into my olfactory memory, and I love it to this day. A candle or incense with that smell is the kind of aromatherapy I could get behind.
Tommy Keene was a local Bethesda boy. He was in a moderately successful band called the Razz that put out some 7" singles before they broke up. The HFS DJs were boosters early on so music nerds in the area knew about them. In 1983, my best friend Ben gave me a bunch of home recorded tapes. Tommy Keene's solo debut, Strange Alliance, was on one of the cassettes. I don't recall ever listening to the tape all the way through. I was much more into the Peter Gabriel/Buzzcocks tape that was also in that bundle. Ben made the tape over at our mutual friend Dave Nolan's house. He was the friend with the taste and the record collection. He had tons of LPs in high school, and Ben and I would go to his room and record them onto tape fairly frequently. Dave had all the Bowie, U2, Roxy Music, Eno, Tangerine Dream, Jean-Michel Jarre and King Crimson as well as lots of New Wave and punk rock. He was a very generous friend. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to him for expanding my musical mind and focusing my attention away from just David Bowie.
So Tommy was in my consciousness but he was little more than a name. It wasn't until 1989, roughly six years after first hearing him, that his music hit me. I had just moved from DC to Chicago and was living in Hype Park on the south side of the city. I spent a lot of time alone listening to cassettes. Driving around in my blue Honda Civic surrounded by piles of them. I had a crappy Aiwa boom box in my room that I bought with money I earned during the summer of my 18th year, and I had my car cassette deck. That was my lo-fi world. I loved it then and I love it now. I am not a hi-fi guy. When people criticize the sound quality of MP3s and how people listen to music primarily on their phones or Bluetooth speakers, I have to laugh. I relate to low quality sound. I am no audio snob.
There was a neighborhood record store in Hyde Park called Dr. Wax. They had a couple of locations. I went to the one on 53rd Street by the Kimbark Plaza (I lived in a group house on Kimbark Ave at the time). Dr. Wax was right across the street from a good middle eastern restaurant that had a wall of photos of Mohammed Ali hanging out with the owners. I used to dig around in the cut out bins and the boxes of promo stuff they were trying to get rid of.
One day, I spotted a cassette with the dark red cover and the photo of Tommy on the cover. Based on Happy Times was the record. He was not shy about putting pretty nice photos of himself, often moody, side view shots, on the covers of his records. Anyway, it was 50 cents so it was firmly within my meager budget. That is when it all made sense to me. Here was a peer of Marshall Crenshaw, who I listened to somewhat obsessively. Another melancholic pop singer. That was my fall asleep music for years--various melancholic singers crooning me to sleep. The Smiths, The Cure and Echo & the Bunnymen. Just another puzzle piece.
I was a young man with an appropriately naive view of the world. I wanted to do something to help the world. I worked as an adult literacy/GED teacher. I wanted to be in love like people were in the movies. I wanted to travel. I longed to be in a band. I wanted adventures. Bruises and all. Tommy Keene was doing all that. He was leading a romantic life. He was in a band. He was an adult, but I could relate to him. I wanted that. The bittersweet heartache.
My girlfriend and I were breaking up in slow motion for my first three years in Chicago. She was in grad school with a clear notion of what she wanted to do, and I was just working a job hoping I might some day figure out who I was and what I wanted to do. I wasn't hanging out with friends, playing video games, getting drunk and stoned like a character in some of my favorite Jawbreaker songs. I was oddly serious and very earnest. And I sincerely had no idea what I was supposed to do. I suffered the missteps that many young people make in that situation. I tried to be like her. I decided to go to graduate school. Her dad was a lawyer and instantly disliked me the first time we met. I was on a cross country road trip in my Civic, had ratty clothes, John Denver glasses and long hair. I get it. I looked like a bad prospect to him. But I was searching. I was trying to find something that I could do that seemed important when it came out of my mouth in adult, small talk conversation. "What do you do?" "I am in graduate school at the University of Chicago studying History. I want to be a high school teacher or college professor." That sounded good, right? It seemed plausible.
History. I did read lots of American history books that I took out of the Chicago Public Library because I couldn't afford to buy books. But going to grad school was so not the right move for me since I barely made it through college. I really didn't like school. I liked learning but not school. I had an inferiority complex, and a drive not to repeat family mistakes. I came from a family of strife, addiction, depression, divorce and death. I was determined to stick this out and be the successful son. To not do so would mean I was just like my dad. I was in conflict with myself. I wanted things I couldn't have. I had things I didn't want. I couldn't figure out how to make things work correctly. I had a girlfriend who was drifting away from me just as fast as I was growing away from her.
In a nutshell, that is Tommy Keene's songwriting wheelhouse. Hearing him sing about it soothed me. Every single day for a few years. He accompanied me on many, many long drives back and forth to the east coast to visit family and friends. It was an 11 hour drive from Chicago to DC. It was a 12 hour drive from Chicago to Albany. My girlfriend's family lived there. My grandmother, the family member that I was closest to at that time, lived not far from there in Saratoga. On those drives, I listened to a lot of music. A lot of Tommy Keene.
I couldn't tell you how he is good or why he is good. His music is just right for me. If someone asked me to name my ideal pop singer, it would be a singer like Tommy. Nasal tenor voice, slightly sad, heart on the sleeve. Down but not out. Songs that express the hope that something good might just be coming around the next corner. Melancholy and hope. That is music to me. Thank you Tommy Keene. R.I.P., brother.