Tommy Keene, a power-pop guitarist and singer whose wistful, warmly melodic rock songs placed him at the fore of the District’s local music scene in the 1980s, when he seemed poised to reach a national audience that eluded him throughout his four-decade career, died Nov. 22 at home in Los Angeles. He was 59.
His partner, Michael Lundsgaard, said Mr. Keene died in his sleep. The cause is not yet known.
A native of Bethesda, Md., Mr. Keene developed a jangling, arpeggiated guitar style while playing with local bands the Rage and the Razz, honing a sound that melded the gentle melodies of early Beatles records with the hard-driving guitar rock of the Who.
Describing himself as a “cynical romantic,” he recorded a dozen solo albums that were generally well received by critics but reached only a small, deeply devoted group of listeners, leading the Phoenix New Times to christen him “the patron saint of neglected and overlooked power-pop stars.”
“He finds himself between rock and the hard place,” Washington Post music critic Richard Harrington wrote in 1984. “His music is almost too commercial for those who support alternative music styles, and not calculated enough for those who control the nation’s airwaves.”
Mr. Keene appeared to have his breakthrough record with the 1984 EP “Places That Are Gone,” which featured a rollicking, nostalgia-tinged title track and landed atop a year-end Village Voice critics poll.
The album earned a four-star review in Rolling Stone, which called it “a critical link between the ringing glories of ’60s rock melodists like the Beatles and Monkees and the more twisted renewal of guitar pop in the ’80s,” and it resulted in a major-label deal with Geffen Records.
Label and artist never seemed to fit, however. Mr. Keene accused Geffen of trying to make him into an American version of Canada’s Bryan Adams, the rock singer behind “Cuts Like a Knife,” and maintained a strained relationship with superstar producers T-Bone Burnett and Geoff Emerick — a former Beatles collaborator who took Mr. Keene and his bandmates to record at George Martin’s Montserrat studio in the Caribbean.
The resulting records, “Songs From the Film” (1986) and “Based on Happy Times” (1989), featured few radio-ready singles, although Mr. Keene scored some much-needed exposure with a cameo performance in the Anthony Michael Hall thriller “Out of Bounds” (1986).
Mr. Keene eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he put out a steady stream of well-crafted rock and pop records for smaller labels.
He also moonlighted as a guitarist and touring partner, playing alongside leading alternative-music acts such as Matthew Sweet, the Goo Goo Dolls, Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices and Paul Westerberg of the Replacements.
Thomas Clay Keene was born in Evanston, Ill., on June 30, 1958, and grew up in Bethesda. His father worked as a Defense Department contractor, and his mother was killed by a drunk driver when Tommy was a teenager. Her death “provided the genesis of Tommy’s creativity,” said his older brother Bobby Keene.
Mr. Keene joined with songwriter Richard X. Heyman to form the Rage while studying at the University of Maryland, but he soon jumped to the new-wave band the Razz, opening for punk acts such as the Ramones and Patti Smith before releasing his solo debut, “Strange Alliance,” in 1982.
Survivors include his partner, Lundsgaard of Los Angeles; his father, Robert Keene, and stepmother, Dorothy Keene, both of Bethesda; and his brother.
Mr. Keene released a live album, “Showtunes,” in 2000, and continued recording until shortly before his death. A two-disc retrospective, “Tommy Keene You Hear Me,” was released in 2010.
“I’ve hung in there,” Mr. Keene told The Post in 2006, shortly after the release of his album “Crashing the Ether.” “Although I haven’t made a lot of money, I feel I’ve attained an honorary status where people let me hang out. I’m a Cancer, so I think I’m really tenacious.”
“I’ll entertain the idea all the time of ‘God, how much longer can I keep doing this?’ ” he continued. “At the end of the day, I always want to go back in and make another record and try again and see if I can do it this time, see if I can crack it.
“Maybe this time it will be different.”