Tommy Keene 1958–2017

The music world continues to lose its very brightest talents. It was a very sad sidebar to the Thanksgiving holiday that on Wednesday, November 22, both the great jazz producer George Avakian passed away at 98 and power pop guitarist and songwriter Tommy Keene died way too early at 59 at his home in Los Angeles.

Not a household name by any means, Keene was a star in the world of indie rock. In a world populated by literally thousands of guitar players, Keene's sharp, extra crunchy guitar tone was distinct and unmistakable. His songwriting, indebted like all power poppers to The Beatles, was melodic in the extreme and always in search of the kind of irresistible hook that could anchor a blockbuster single.

Raised in Maryland, Keene came up in the Washington, DC club scene in bands like the Razz and the Rage. He spent most of his life fashioning a solo career fronting four-piece bands and recording for a number of indie labels like Geffen and Matador. His 1986 Geffen record, Songs from the Film, was produced by former Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. He made his next album, Based on Happy Times, at Ardent Studios in Memphis with John Hampton and Joe Hardy. In addition to 11 full-length albums, he released a number of EPs and singles during his lifetime. While his 1984 single, "Places That Are Gone," is his best-known tune, Ten Years After (1996) and Isolation Party (1998), the pair of records he made for Matador, are his finest moments in the studio. The incendiary live record, Showtunes (2000), released on Parasol Records, features a greatest hits lineup of original material, fairly well recorded for a live album, and all played at noticeably faster tempos than on the original studio albums.

Lacking that big hit pop single, Keene also developed a second career as a sideman. In the past 20 years, he added his guitar work to tours by the Velvet Crush and Paul Westerberg. More recently he formed a musical partnership called The Keene Brothers with Guided By Voices front man Robert Pollard. He spent much of 2017 opening shows for Matthew Sweet.

A fan since the 1980s, I have every scrap of music Keene ever recorded. During several in-person interviews, I found Keene to be humble and almost shy about his talent. Perhaps his death will bring his music to more people? Now sadly departed, he was a unique musical talent—and a hell of a nice guy—silenced long before his time. Find a favorite Keene track below.

Sugarbear66's picture

So glad you posted this Robert I too was a long standing fan and own every bit of what Tommy recorded. I was just gutted by the news. I saw him last April here in NYC playing a solo gig and had a lovely conversation with him after. I work in the theater and he talked about all the shows his mom took him to as a kid and showed me pictures of his dog. It was one of those moments of meeting a hero that I'll never forget. What a lovely talented man he will indeed be missed.