This is the tale of a troubadour who’s weathered the ups and downs of the music industry, along with the backroom dealings of labels and managers. He’s a survivor, having navigated the challenges of his chosen profession since the early 1980s … all the while continuing to make delicious rock-tinged pop for his legions of fans.
It’s a testament to tenacity, and it’s a testament to the staying power of Tommy Keene, who, just last month, was celebrated with a two-CD, career-spanning collection called Tommy Keene Can You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009.
Here’s a man who has seen every filthy corner of the music industry, yet he still comes across as a stand-up guy, with one with a heckuva story.
“They (Geffen Records) said they were going to sign me in October ’84,” Keene recalled. “The album came out in February ’86. The album was dead at the end of April 1986. It took two years for me to get in the studio. Then, a year later, they released the record and it’s immediately gone, and they drop me. That’s it in a nutshell, that’s what happened.”
Tommy Keene played his first live “solo” show on Aug. 18, 1981. Originally from Bethesda, Md., he’d built up an audience in the D.C.-Virginia-Baltimore circuit of the late 1970s playing in a band called Razz. He left a year and a half later to form his own group.
“I would say from ’81 to ’85 we (The Tommy Keene Band) were a local band,” Keene said. “We opened for The Jam at University of Maryland. We opened for the Psychedelic Furs in Baltimore. We opened for the Stray Cats in Baltimore -13,000 people sold out – that was really exciting. We opened for Modern English, Icehouse, Difford-Tilbrook, The Alarm, The Church … all these bands … it was a very frenetic, productive period.”
Keene’s first record was called Strange Alliance, a “DIY, homemade thing” that is still heralded as a pop masterpiece.
“We had all these major labels coming to see us, and in the interim, we signed with this little label out of North Carolina called Dolphin,” Keene said. “We’d been doing these songs, recording at my friend’s studio. They picked six songs and said they wanted to first put out an EP. I would say that most of the songs starting in ’82 through ’85, probably about 30 songs, came out on that first EP and second EP on Dolphin and then, eventually, that first album on Geffen.”
The first EP Dolphin put out, Places That Are Gone, landed Tommy atop of the College Music Journal (CMJ) charts. It caught everyone’s attention, including the majors.
Geffen eventually won Tommy’s favor, but first, others dangled the carrot.
“There’s a guy named Gary Gersh, who ran EMI. He tried to sign us to EMI – he brought three acts – me, Jason & the Scorchers and the Del-Lords. The guy at EMI said, ‘I’ll take these two.’ I remember the president of Capital came to see us at The Ritz in New York, opening for someone. He said, ‘You’ve got the kind of voice you love or you hate it, kind of like Dylan. I guess he didn’t like it too much but you could tell he was pondering. I remember there being from interest from Arista before Geffen came in. Actually, it was originally Elektra, our A&R guy was at Elektra and when he said he would sign us we thought we’d be with Elektra. Five months later he calls up and says, ‘I’m moving to Geffen so we have to hold on another eight months and then you’ll be at Geffen.’”
Tommy’s relationship with Geffen lasted just two albums (Songs from the Film in 1986 and Based on Happy Times in 1989).
“It ended a long time before that, that’s what is so ironic,” Keene said. “Dealing with these people for two years – saying – you’re fantastic, you’re great, we’re going to go the whole nine yards, we are into artist development, blah, blah, blah. The A&R people had good intentions but, when push came to shove …”
“They pushed that record minimally for about four weeks and here’s what really happened … right when the single, ‘Places That Are Gone,’ which was on medium rotation on MTV, was to be released to radio, there was this huge payola scandal. Basically, all the major labels had been paying these gangster people to go to radio stations and give them cocaine, hookers, money, whatever to get their records played and someone blew the whistle on these guys. For two months, in March and April ’86, all the major labels backed down. The head of radio marketing called me at home and said, ‘Tommy, I’m sorry. This is it. We have to pull the single.’ When the dust settled two months later they released the single ‘Listen to Me’ and that was it.”
Still, hope was on the horizon, and a second album was in the offing.
“They A&R’d me to death doing demos. I demoed 40 songs. Finally the A&R guy felt bad and he said, ‘Go down to Ardent. You can make a cheap record, and we’ll try to get people enthused at Geffen.’ I did that. I thought it [Based on Happy Times] was a much better record than Songs from the Film as far as production. The president of the label hated it. They barely released it and they dropped me six weeks later.”
Four years later, Tommy re-emerged from his self-imposed exile and started issuing EPs and albums on indie labels such as Alias, Demon Records, Matador and SpinArt.
“They were the biggest crooks ever. My manager at the time did this deal with them because he managed another band on SpinArt and handed them this record. I parted ways with my manager, and it was time to get paid. They sent me a one-page thing about how they’d spent $10,000 on radio and this and that … which was complete bullshit … and said, ‘We don’t owe you anything.’ I asked about mechanicals, and they were supposed to send me those and they didn’t. Indie labels are just as bad, if not worse than, major labels. They’re run by idiots with trust funds … ‘I want my own record label’ … and stuff like that. What can you do?!”
An accomplished and in-demand guitarist, Keene spent much of the 1990s as a sideman to notable artists: Paul Westerberg, Velvet Crush, Bob Pollard (Guided By Voices) and Adam Schmitt.
“I love doing my thing, but I love playing with other people. It’s less pressure, and I love playing guitar, especially if I like the songs. These are like dream gigs. I’m a big fan, and I think I can bring something to the table as far as guitar playing.”
Since 2006, Keene has found a stable home with the last three records having been put out by the same individual. And when talk turns to the new retrospective?
“We just decided that is was time to do something like this … sort of a complete package up ‘til now should come out,” Keene said.
Keene will be touring to support the retrospective, playing shows from D.C. to San Francisco and many points in between. In the meantime, he’s already started working on new material.
“I just started at the beginning of this year, sort of writing and hopefully get another record out before too long,” Keene said. “Ideally, fall of 2011 would be great…if I hustle.”