Alone In These Modern Times: A Tommy Keene Appreciation

MAGNET contributing editor Matt Hickey wrote a profile of Tommy Keene in 1998—the infamous “Tommy might retire” piece—as well as the liner notes to Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective: 1983-2009. His fandom that began in 1986 developed into a friendship; he remembers his friend, who died last week.

It’s interesting what can strike you as funny while grieving.

Legendary singer/songwriter Tommy Keene died in his sleep on November 22, the night before Thanksgiving. I was informed of his shocking, untimely demise by his dear friend Matty; I then told a couple of close pals who also knew Tommy, but otherwise I didn’t feel it was my place to break the news to anyone else.

Once word spread online, I received some condolence texts; as I was trying to deal with the utter shock and disbelief by simply talking about Tommy’s life and music with folks who cared, I said to one buddy, “And he was only 60. Way too young.”

And then I laughed.

Tommy, you see, was 59. Oh, the text I’d have received if he’d known I’d prematurely aged him: “WTF?!! I’m NOT 60!!! 😠😡”

Even if he’d been 60, it’s way too young to die, particularly for an artist who still had so much to offer. While Tommy never achieved anything close to popular success over a career that dates—it’s too soon to say “dated”—back to the early 1980s, “those in the know” about him, as our mutual friend Len (who took the photo accompanying this piece) puts it, justifiably considered Tommy an all-time great.

An underrated guitarist, Tommy wrote perfect pop songs and played them with heart and muscle. “Places That Are Gone” stands up with, say, Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” as one of the best power-pop songs ever. Recent tunes like “Out Of My Mind” or “Deep Six Saturday” (from his last two albums, 2015’s Laugh In The Dark and 2011’s Behind The Parade, respectively) would sound amazing blasting out of the radio rather than Taylor Swift’s latest steaming pile of aural dogshit.

A quick digression: Mentioning Cheap Trick reminded me that Tommy once emailed a list of his top 40 bands. Some rankings are surprising—the Replacements that low? Aerosmith above GBV?—but the selections illustrate not only his mostly impeccable taste but also his encyclopedic rock ’n’ roll knowledge:

1. The Beatles
2. The Who
3. The Rolling Stones
4. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
5. Led Zeppelin
6. The Byrds
7. Cheap Trick
8. Roxy Music
9. Jimi Hendrix
10. David Bowie
11. Big Star
12. The Beach Boys
13. Peter Gabriel
14. Elvis Costello & The Attractions
15. Aerosmith
16. Guided By Voices/Robert Pollard
17. Bob Dylan
18. The Smiths
19. The Replacements
20. Television
21. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
22. The Kinks
23. The Bee Gees
24. R.E.M.
25. 20/20
26. The Raspberries
27. Mott The Hoople
28. Iggy Pop
29. Lou Reed
30. The Sex Pistols
31. The Clash
32. The Pretenders
33. Free
34. Neil Young
35. Sparks
36. Grin/Nils Lofgren
37. Be-Bop Deluxe
38. Thin Lizzy
39. Crowded House/Neil Finn
40. You Am I

As that list maybe amplifies, Tommy was an anachronism in some ways: He made music that was no longer fashionable (if it ever really was) and clung to the old-school model of a record label putting out his albums, in a marketplace that didn’t much care and in a dying industry to boot. His final release, 2016’s live Showtunes II—a sequel of sorts to 2000’s Showtunes, a document that’s abundant proof of his onstage prowess—was sold at gigs and via his website, so he was possibly starting to get it.

Social media baffled Tommy a bit. He was pretty good about posting photos and personal musings on Facebook, but Twitter initially was beyond his grasp. He abandoned his long-dormant first account, so a couple of years ago I created an “official” TK Twitter. Full disclosure: I posted as him in the beginning, mostly to publicize shows by linking to venue information or ticket sites and the occasional interview. He’d ask me what the point of it all was—along with the password at least four times.

And then came Donald Trump. Like many of us, he loathed President Dipshit. This is how Twitter finally “took”; Tommy’s tweets were almost exclusively, and hilariously, about getting rid of the orange nightmare living in the White House. Not all that long before he died, Tommy did post a photo on Facebook (and that I tweeted for him) of an old-school tape recorder and an acoustic guitar. New music was planned for 2018; that we won’t hear it is heartbreaking.

His lack of commercial viability, thanks to his disastrous major-label days and the fact that most popular-music listeners favor garbage, was always galling, in particular because the quality of his records never declined. (Listen and you’ll know this isn’t praise-him-because-he’s-gone hyperbole.) It rightly ate at him; when I would attempt to cheer him up by talking about how respected he was, he’d say, “Respect doesn’t pay my rent.” Fair enough, but if it could, he’d be in the high-rent district. For proof, seek out the various tributes that better writers have already penned. Simply put, Tommy was beloved by the aforementioned “in the know” crowd.

Tommy was a gentleman and a friendly, generous guy. Sure, he could be … let’s say moody. But mostly he was approachable, sharply intelligent and wickedly funny, with an unequaled memory. Ask him how many people showed up for a gig at whatever club in whatever year on whatever tour, and he’d go, “43.”

“Seemed like more than that.”

“Nope, exactly 43 paying customers.”

If he’d been inclined to write it, Tommy’s memoir would’ve been brilliant; he had a story for every occasion and told them brilliantly. I brought the idea up a couple of times, but it never went past that. Yet another loss.

The last time I saw Tommy was at one of his solo shows opening for Matthew Sweet this past summer. He was in great spirits, as he generally was when he wasn’t headlining. (This is not to say he was always sour when going on last, but he generally found the stress-free nature of being an opener, or a sideman, comforting.) After Sweet’s set, we went to Reggies, a bar on Chicago’s South Side with a cool rooftop deck. It was a beautiful night, and we sat and talked about a lot of things, including his future. He’d concluded that his days as a headliner were over because getting gigs, even in Chicago, was becoming more and more difficult. I’d heard him say this before and took it in stride, but I told him we’d figure out a band for which he could open once he got around to making a new record.

Brian, a fellow fan, was at Reggies that night. I told him I was hanging out with Tommy and said he should go talk to him. Later, Tommy went to use the facilities, and Brian said—I’m paraphrasing, as beer was involved—“I can’t believe I’m at Reggies with Tommy Keene.”

Despite knowing Tommy for nearly 20 years—first as a nervous interviewer and later as someone he trusted—I honestly couldn’t believe I was there with him, either. And I honestly can’t believe he’s gone. Speed on, Brother Keene.

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