I really didn’t expect to write two posts in a row about favorite musicians, but here we are.
Tommy Keene died last week. Only 59 years old. I found out just a few moments ago and said “oh my God” out loud to no one particular because I’m sitting here alone. I’m not afraid to say tears came to my eyes because he brought back a lot of memories.
He was the greatest rock musician you’ve never heard of.
I first heard Keene back in 1986, when I was a disc jockey at WMWM, the radio station at Salem State College. I found Songs From The Film in the stack of records in the back room and liked the title and cover and decided to play “Places That Are Gone” that day. I must have played something from that album at least once every shift. I don’t know if the program director ever noticed or cared, but I just loved that album and wanted everyone else to love it too.
I think I latched onto his music because it was raw but with a strong, power pop melodic hook. Chunky riffs but with elegance. He had a way of structuring his songs so they built and built to a great chorus you knew was coming, and it would turn into the greatest guitar melody you’ve ever heard. I loved Marshall Crenshaw and Keene dabbled in that same sound. I always tried to decipher his lyrics but in a lot of ways he was like a rock poet.
Now I’m dancing in the light that’s blue
I feel for you
Nothing I could say or do
Would ease the pain
Where love has waned
A dozen roses in the rain
But, I saw you standing in
The light of love
– “The Light of Love”
Often I didn’t know what he was singing about but I felt like I had experienced it anyway.
And calendars will just spill over now
Forever here they’ll make you stay
The year has left you weak and watered down
If only for a while
You’ve got to get your feet back on the ground
Wandering through these weak and watered down days
– “Weak and Watered Down”
He’s one of those musicians where people say “why wasn’t he more well-known?” I know I’ve said that about him. If things were judged by quality we would have seen his songs on the charts and his death would get bigger notices than I’m sure it will get. But maybe Keene was exactly as famous as he should have been. We knew how good he was and what he meant to us, and he was ours. He played with people like REM’s Peter Buck, The Gin Blossoms, The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs, Robert Pollard, The Replacements, and Matthew Sweet.
I’m not even sure if Songs From The Film is his best album. It’s great but I think I like Based on Happy Times and Isolation Party even more. A lot of Keene’s songs are some of my favorites: “Weak and Watered Down,” “Hanging On To Yesterday,” “Long Time Missing,” “Getting Out From Under You.” I could listen to Keene all day long.
And I think I will.