Tommy Keene (1958-2017)

Power-pop legend, acclaimed singer-songwriter, and venerated guitarist has passed away at age 59.
Power-pop legend, acclaimed singer-songwriter, and venerated guitarist Tommy Keene has died.     
 
The 59 year-old Keene passed away unexpectedly, but peacefully, in his sleep at his Los Angeles area home on Wednesday. Keene – who recorded for Geffen, Matador Records, and Second Motion, among others – built an impressive and acclaimed catalog over the course of his nearly 40-year career, spanning eleven full-lengths, four EPs, three compilations, and a live album.  
 
Hailed by fans, critics and fellow musicians for the moving and consistently high quality of his pop songcraft, he was also consummate rock and roller. Over the course of his career, Keene worked with a range of artists who admired his work, including The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard, the Goo Goo Dolls, and the Gin Blossoms, among others.  
 
Born in Evanston, Illinois and raised in Bethesda, Maryland, Keene launched his career in the late-‘70s as a guitarist with a series of Washington D.C.-area combos including the Rage and the Razz, before hitting the national scene as a solo act in 1982 with the release of his debut Strange Alliance.
 
In 1984, Keene followed with a six-song effort titled Places That Are Gone (Dolphin). Blatantly romantic, unapologetically melodic, bittersweet but absolutely invigorating, the record landed high on the CMJ charts and atop the Village Voice Pazz & Jop EP of the Year poll.
 
Keene was soon being courted by major labels and ultimately signed with Geffen Records for 1986’s Songs From the Film. Produced by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, the album spawned two MTV videos and spent 12 weeks on Billboard’s Top 200. The accompanying Run Now EP led to the singer as well as its title track appearing in the Anthony Michael Hall movie Out of Bounds.
 
For 1989’s Based on Happy Times (Geffen) Keene headed down to Ardent Studios in Memphis to record with producers John Hampton and Joe Hardy. The ironically titled disc is the darkest album in the Keene catalog, with heavier guitars, fewer jangles, and a more brooding, fatalistic outlook.
 
Following the album’s release, Keene took a break from recording, eventually signing with Matador for 1996’s acclaimed “comeback” Ten Years After and its 1998 follow-up Isolation Party. Between 2000 and 2004 he released a live disc called Showtunes (Parasol), The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down (SpinArt) and rarities/demos/unreleased-tracks collection Drowning: A Tommy Keene Miscellany (Not Lame).
 
Keene also developed a career as in-demand sideman: he was a touring member of Sony/Creation-signed rockers Velvet Crush, and appeared on their 1995 live album Rock Concert. In 1996 he joined Paul Westerberg’s band, handling lead guitar duties on the Eventually tour and making appearances on “The Larry Sanders Show” and “The Late Show with David Letterman.”  A trek opening for Guided By Voices led to his joining Robert Pollard in 2006 as a touring member of Pollards post-GBV band the Ascended Masters and, two years later, Boston Spaceships.
 
Meanwhile, 2006 also saw the release of Keene’s Crashing the Ether (Eleven Thirty), along with Blues and Boogie Shoes, a collaboration with Pollard under the Keene Brothers moniker. He put out a double-disc career-spanning set in 2011, Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009.
 
In recent years, Keene continued to deliver a series of accomplished solo records for the Second Motion/School Kids labels, including 2015’s Laugh in the Dark, his final studio album. Keene had spent much of the past year on the road opening shows for fellow pop-rocker Matthew Sweet.
 
Keene is survived by his longtime partner, Michael Lundsgaard, his father Robert Keene, step-mother Dorothy Keene, brother Bobby Keene, nephews Hunter and Jason Keene, and his beloved dog, Coco. 
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22 thoughts on “Tommy Keene (1958-2017)

  1. I was lucky enough to see Tommy opening for the Gin Blossoms (should have been the other way around) in 1994 at Notre Dame and playing in Paul Westerberg’s band on July 4, 1996, in Chicago. (Sadly, I passed up seeing him and Matthew Sweet in July at Knuckleheads in Kansas City.) His records are practically perfect. May he rest in peace.

  2. So sad to hear this news.

    Don’t know what to say. So many times I wanted to write to Tommy and tell him how much his music meant to me. “Based on Happy Times” is still my all time favourite record. I always used to buy extra copies of the LP from Bill at Minus Zero in London to give to friends.

    RIP Tommy

  3. I wore my TKG Tommy Keene Group shirt to bed last night, and woke up to hear this news today. I’m stunned and so sad. He was funny and accessible to his longtime fans. I’m so thankful to have his music in my life. From one Tommy to another, RIP.

  4. I saw Tommy and the Strange Alliance-era band multiple times in the early ’80s, and had the good fortune to meet them all while writing a story on the group for the Washington City Paper. They were all really nice people and it was a pleasure to spend time with and write about them.
    They put on some damned fine shows, too.
    Strange Alliance remains one of my favorite LPs (a CD reissue would be wonderful). Mr. Roland is one of my favorite songs.

    RIP Tommy. You will be missed.

  5. Deeply, deeply saddened by the unexpected passing of the one guy I looked up to and revered from the first night I opened for him at The Marble Bar in Baltimore in the early 80s. That night I asked Tommy Keene what advice he would give to a young musician who wanted to become a songwriter. He said simply to play every day — even if you didn’t want to — and approach it with the intent on writing something. Win or lose, I took his advice to heart. It would be about 25 years later when I would be able to thank him for his advice, for taking my question seriously, and for making an impression upon me that stuck. Bless you Tommy Keene for what you gave pop music and for being kind to a pip-squeak like me. Rest easy now. But, 59 is far too young.

  6. Sadly, no one has mentioned his early years of playing with the cutting edge band known as Blue Steel. He was the drummer with Vince Corvelli on bass, and virtuoso guitarist, Victor Coelho. I watch them over and over in 9th grade as well as in high school. They even backed up the band named Grin, which was led by none other than Nils Lofgren. It’s just too bad that this fine biography of Tommy’s music did not include his very beginning…

  7. I am stunned to hear about Tommy’s passing. I loved his music and have a Tommy Keene channel on Pandora. I, along with the rest of his ardent fans send our condolences to his family.

  8. This one hurts because he was not just a wonderful artist but so accessible and easy-going. I admired not only his talent but work ethic…making records time and again, going on tour, working his craft. From the outpouring of grief on Facebook it’s clear he was the kind of person who nobody ever had a bad thing to say about…hard to do in general, especially in the music world. RIP Tommy, what you left for us lives on as a testament to you and your art.

  9. So sad to hear this. I’ve loved Tommy’s music since the 1980’s, and I’m fortunate to be able to say I saw him play Louisville, KY this year. My condolences to all his family.

  10. For many years Tommy was my favorite artist. I would fly from my home in Houston to see him play in DC or LA. After moving back East I was able to see him more regularly in DC, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Chicago. He always put on a great show and once recording became less expensive it was such a treat to get a new solo record from him every 2 years vs every 5 years or so back in the 90’s. This one hurts. Petty was more successful but Tommy’s music resonated much deeper for me. I actually pulled him up on my iTunes library Wednesday for the first time in many months. I wonder if I sensed something. Godspeed Tommy. You will be missed but you brought many of us great joy and happiness over the years. Thank you.

  11. I am so sad to hear about losing Tommy from this earth. I didn’t know him well. But got to meet up with him for a hug, some laughs and kisses on the cheek when he played the Narrows in Fall River, MA. His smile will forever be emblazoned in my mind. He lit up the room. Sending love and strength to all his family and friends. xxxooo

  12. So very sorry to read about this in the SF Chronicle this morning. I saw him at his last (I believe) show here in S.F. and got to shake his hand and thank him for his music. He even played a request from me (Turning on Blue). My favorite artist and I will miss his music. R.I.P. Tommy.

  13. Dear Bobby,
    Out hearts ache for you and your family.
    Our sympathies are coming late to you. We are still having difficulty wrapping our heads around Tommy being gone.
    We will remember him as a wonderful musician, close bandmate, and special friend.
    Much love, Billy & Judi

  14. I want to join the rest of his fans to say how sad I am to hear the news and know there wouldn’t be anymore wonderful music from this extremely talented musician. I’m very sorry that I never got to tel him in person how much I enjoyed his music. My condolensces to his friends and family. RIP Tommy.

  15. Shocked and saddened, so glad I got to talk to Tommy twice in the past couple of years to tell him how great he was. I managed not to say anything about how he should have been a Big Star! What a talent, what a friendly guy. Rest in Peace, Tommy.

  16. I just heard about this. I don’t know where I’d be without Tommy’s music. He was a fabulous guitarist and singer. I had the opportunity to meet him several times and he was always so gracious. RIP

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