Tommy Keene has been playing guitar hero for more than a quarter-century, both on his power-pop solo albums (his latest is In The Late Bright, out this week) and as a sideman for Robert Pollard and Paul Westerberg. Keene, apparently weary of all the critical acclaim, agreed to dole out some of his own praise. He’s guest editing magnetmagazine. com this week and compiled a mix tape for us with a free mp3.
Keene: I’ve always loved board games, trivia games, you name it. (Like Clue—I can never get anyone to play that one with me.) I started doing crossword puzzles some years ago and have gotten to a modestly proficient level. My favorite is the Los Angeles Times’—I can finish Monday’s through Thursday’s editions and Sunday’s on a good day. In the summer of 2007, I noticed an ad in the Times for contestants for a new game show about crossword puzzles. I thought, “What the heck?” and called them up. They scheduled me for an audition the very next day. I arrived early to check out my competition: a few young hipsters, some housewives and lots of nerdy bookworm types you would expect to show up at these things. I overheard a few conversations, and it seems like some of these people were actually professional game-show contestants: “Yeah, I almost got on The Weakest Link, but at the last minute they went with someone younger and prettier.” “Oh, you were on Millionaire? So was I.” “I won $12,000 on Jeopardy, though I can’t audition again for another six years. Bummer!”
They shepherded us into a room where we sat at tables and took the audition quiz, which consisted of questions flashed up on a screen in front of us: “What’s a four-letter word for nervous?” Let’s see … “edgy”? “What’s a 12-letter word for unscrupulous?” Good god, what? I wasn’t feeling too confident as they graded our papers, and sure enough I wasn’t one of the people they asked to stay behind. It was fun, though. Three weeks later, I got a call from one of the contestant coordinators: “Tom, your score was super, super close. Would you like to come back and re-audition?” So I found myself back at the studio with nothing to lose; lo and behold, this time I was asked to stay behind! The next part of the process was a videotaped interview. After trying to be as animated as I could be and telling them I was a rock musician (and had been on Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and David Letterman), they seemed impressed and booked me for the show.
Do you know when you’re watching one of these shows and the contestants always give that tired line, “Gee, this is so much easier at home”? Well, you don’t know how true that really is until you’re there. The game consisted of buzzing in and answering the correct crossword answers while you were at one of the two front stations. Those in the back, of which I was one, were called spoilers. If neither of the front two peeps could answer the question, you could buzz in—if you got the answer right, you would trade places with them and could accrue money. The person with the most money at the end of the last round in one of the front spots would then go on and try to solve the master puzzle for the big money. The clue that I spoiled, of course, ended up being rock-related, in a way: “What’s a three-letter word for German rainwear?” Everyone was stumped; I rang in: “mac.” Correct! “Tommy for the spoil, come and take the front spot!” How did I know that? The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”: “And the banker never wears a mac in the pouring rain, very strange.” (Thanks, Paul!) So I won the game and made it to the final round. I was doing really well when I got hung up on a few clues and failed to solve the big puzzle in time. I ended up winning $1,250—not bad for a day away from the rock ‘n’ roll office.
The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”: