There is reliable romance in the story of a brilliant musician who never got the full appreciation he was due. With the death of Tommy Keene, it might be easy to look at his career and wonder why he remained solely a cult figure among fans of the earnest, infectious branch of rock and roll that is insufficiently dubbed “power pop.” To do so would be folly: There is only joy in reflecting on a man who brought us elegiac yet ebullient songs like “Places That Are Gone” and “Hanging On To Yesterday,” among so many others.
He first drew notice in Washington’s nascent late-1970s punk scene, playing guitar in bands like the Razz before breaking out on his own. Always a critical favorite, Keene was a hot property in the early years of his solo career, signing a contract with Geffen Records and working in the studio with powerhouse producers like T-Bone Burnett and Geoff Emerick. The latter’s engineering work with the Beatles made him a seemingly ideal collaborator for Keene, who never shied from announcing his affection for the timeless rock of his youth while still striving to craft modern and progressive pop songs.
Sometimes somber, sometimes hopeful, Keene’s tunes ached with a mixture of nostalgia, wonder and vitality. “Places That Are Gone” — a 1984 song that was about as close as Keene came to a radio hit — distills everything that was so powerful about his music into one magnificent blast. It opens with an insistent, chiming guitar riff, before the rest of the band steps in to underpin Keene’s vocals — delivered in a voice that sounds cool and assured, while still brimming with unshakable longing. Paraphrasing John Lennon, Keene sings “these are places that are gone/now we can go on and on,” taking us backward and forward in time, all at once, as the great songwriters can so deftly do.
I love the picture of Keene on the cover of his 1986 EP, “Run Now.” He stands poised on a Metro platform, beneath the streets of his home town, looking intently down the tunnel into the near future. Although the photo captured a young man waiting for something that seemed imminent, Keene’s music career took a different path than what seemed widely expected by fans and record industry-types at the time. As most D.C. residents know, sometimes the trains don’t arrive when you expect they will. Instead of taking his place among rock’s royalty, Keene ushered in the 1990s by being dropped by Geffen Records, an indignity he brushed off while patiently continuing to propel a career that remained ever potent and interesting.
When I was fortunate enough to share a stage with Keene in 2013 for a one-off cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday,” it was an unforgettable pleasure to bask in his easy, confident and graceful glow. I remember standing on stage harmonizing with him and glancing over in disbelief. I was singing with Tommy Keene! As I gushed to him backstage about this after the show, he smiled humbly and shrugged, as if to say “Aw, who am I?”
Who were you, Tommy? One of the greats, even if you were too humble to say so and this world didn’t always recognize you as it should have. That’s who you were.
John Davis is a Washington musician and performing-arts archivist at the University of Maryland.