MusicMakers: Tommy Keene Sees a 'Bright' Spot in His Long Career

Tommy Keene has won critical acclaim as a singer-songwriter but never huge commercial success.
Tommy Keene has won critical acclaim as a singer-songwriter but never huge commercial success. (By Chris Rady)
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By Geoffrey Himes
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 1, 2009

Tommy Keene, the former D.C. indie-rock hero now living in Los Angeles, came to this year's legendary South by Southwest music conference in Austin for two reasons. First, he was earning money as the surprisingly melodic bassist in a trio led by Sally Crewe, a blond, Chrissie Hynde-like singer-songwriter.

But Keene was also in town to stir up interest in his first new album in several years, "In the Late Bright," released just a few weeks before.

"I'm a fan of those dictionaries of jazz hipster slang," the 51-year-old singer-guitarist said from a stool at Guero's Taco Bar on a Saturday morning, explaining the disc's cryptic title between forkfuls of Mexican food. "And I found that phrase, 'the late bright,' in one of them. It describes that time when, after you've stayed up all night, it starts getting light again. It caught my attention, because . . . I've recorded most of my records between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. I like that part of the day when everyone else is asleep, and I can mess around to my heart's content on vocals and overdubs.

"Of course," he adds, "it can also refer to this later stage in my career."

It was a career that began in the rec room of his parents' home in Bethesda and moved fairly quickly to such D.C. bands as Blue Steel (led by Mike Lofgren), the Rage (led by Richard X. Heyman), the Razz (led by Michael Reidy) and finally the Tommy Keene Group. That 1984 EP, "Places That Are Gone," won a four-star review in Rolling Stone and was voted the No. 1 EP of the year in the Village Voice critics' poll .

Then, one night at the Roxy club at Dupont Circle, a talent scout walked backstage at intermission and told Keene, "Welcome to Elektra Records." After a bidding war, Keene actually ended up on Geffen Records, which flew him to the Caribbean to make an album with Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. He seemed on the brink of something big.

Keene, wearing an everyman blue polo shirt, his bushy eyebrows and curly hair still dark, sat at Guero's unnoticed by the many music fans walking past. "I never thought that I'd be Bruce Springsteen," he says with a sly smile. "I never thought I'd play arenas, and as I've gotten older I think it's just as well."

The new album is stuffed with good songs. The best are marked by guitar figures that are both propulsively rhythmic and infectiously melodic: the ringing Beatlesque riff on "A Secret Life of Stories," the jangly Byrds-like riff on "Tomorrow's Gone Tonight" and the punchy Stonesy riff on "Goodbye Jane." Those are the kind of ear-grabbing, two-bar guitar phrases that have made Keene an underground legend among power-pop fans.

"I'm a very guitar-oriented songwriter," Keene confesses. "I'm not the poet/Dylan type who strums and starts to come up with lyrics. I have to have that hook, that motif, something to get me interested in a song.

"When I'm in a writing mode, I'll sit down every day with an acoustic guitar and a tape recorder. If I don't come up with something in half an hour, I'll walk away. But if I play around, I'll often stumble upon something," he explains. "Usually I know in 60 seconds how the song is going to go and how good it's going to be. I'll say, 'This is an A song, this is a B song and that's a C song.' If it's a C song, I won't even finish it."

"Realize Your Mind" is definitely an A song. The lyrics declare, "Everything you've been is worth remembering," but it's the majestic guitar figure that captures the feeling of memories and desires ricocheting around the brain like the high-pitched chimes and low-pitched rumbles spinning off from the circular instrumental melody. It's a phrase brimming with hope.

The album's title track boasts a similarly hopeful guitar figure but one that is contradicted by the downbeat lyrics: "The night time world has lost its appeal/The dirt is done; I cannot feel anymore." It's as if the singer, a former night owl, is complaining about the lost glamour of the neon-lit streets, even as the guitarist is celebrating newfound joy. That the singer and the guitarist are obviously the same person is what makes it such a fascinating song.

"It's a song about me, the ultimate go-out-every-night person, being content to stay in," Keene says. "When you're young, you want to go out every night because you're afraid you might miss something or someone. It's about this epiphany I had last year: I'm finally comfortable with myself. I can entertain myself by reading a book or putting on a record, and no one's going to say, 'I don't like that record.' "

He admits that's where he's at in his career as well.

"These days I'm only writing songs for myself. Gone are the days when we'd say, 'We have to write this kind of song to get on the radio in Fort Collins, Colorado.' I used to be surrounded by managers, radio promoters, booking agents, label people, but it's just me now," he says contentedly. "Now the songs have to meet my standards: Would I buy this record? Would I go out to see this band?"

Tommy Keene Appearing Friday at Iota (2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington). Show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets: $12. Available at the door. 703-522-8340. The Download: For a sampling of Keene's music, check out: From "In the Late Bright": -- "A Secret Life of Stories" -- "Tomorrow's Gone Tonight " -- "Late Bright" -- "Realize Your Mind" From "Showtunes": -- "Long Time Missing" -- "Silent Town" From "Songs From the Film": -- "My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe" -- "Paper Words and Lies"

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