Paper Words And Truths: A Look Inside The New Tommy Keene Retrospective

Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009 (Second Motion), a two-CD collection out this week, neatly documents the erstwhile former MAGNET guest editor’s legendary power-pop career. The record treats longtime fans (and, hopefully, some converts) to more than three dozen favorites in addition to a few alternate versions and unreleased tracks (including a terrific acoustic “Black And White New York” and a fine cover of 20/20’s “Leaving Your World Behind”). MAGNET contributing editor Matt Hickey had the privilege of writing the brief liner notes accompanying the best-of. To help Keene sell at least six more records, Hickey’s You Hear Me notes are below, as is a live version of “Love Is A Dangerous Thing,” one of 10 bonus tunes available when buying the collection at the Second Motion site.

“Love Is A Dangerous Thing (Live)” (download):

A few years ago, before a Tommy Keene gig at Chicago’s Beat Kitchen, I told Tommy how much I was enjoying Moon, a live album documenting a Robert Pollard and the Ascended Masters arena show the band played opening for Pearl Jam. (Tommy was lead guitarist and keyboardist for the Pollard group and has also logged time with Boston Spaceships, another Pollard offshoot.)

His response? “Did you hear all of my mistakes?”

Well, no, I hadn’t. I wasn’t surprised he said that, however. For all of his talent—so clearly evident on the tracks comprising Tommy Keene You Hear Me—he’s almost always self-deprecating. Thing is, he needn’t be. Modesty is nice, sure, and it’d be a challenging task attempting to unearth a more generous gentleman in the human cesspool known as the music business. But over the last 28 years, his run as a solo singer-songwriter, it’d also be difficult to find a more consistent one than Tommy Keene.

Branded early as a power-popper, Tommy initially disavowed that tag and its limitations, calling it a target on his back. He grew to accept it, grudgingly perhaps, once he came up with his own standard of artists that fit the genre: the Beatles, the Replacements, the Byrds, Guided By Voices, rather than the stereotypically skinny-tied bands of that ilk. Tommy’s worn a thin tie a time or three, but he’s always fit in more with the former than the latter.

This is not about me, lucky for you, but a little context: I first heard Tommy on the radio—imagine that, and it wasn’t a college station!—while studying at Ohio University in the fall of 1986. It was his live cover of Lou Reed’s “Kill Your Sons,” from the Run Now EP, which I skipped class to buy the next day. I was transfixed from the intro—“This is a song by one of America’s great heroes, Lou Reed. It’s called ‘Kill Your Sons’”—to the lengthy, face-melting solo that ends it.

By coincidence, I found myself in the Washington, D.C., area, Tommy’s old stomping grounds (he grew up in nearby Bethesda, Md.) post-graduation, so not only was I treated to a number of shows at the old, beloved 9:30 Club, I was able to procure his second LP, Songs From The Film, in a local record shop days after arrival. I’m proud to say Songs is my favorite record of all time, one of a handful of constants making up the soundtrack of my life.

When Based On Happy Times came out in 1989, I hadn’t been able to get to the store the Tuesday it was released. I had a friend buy it for me, and since he was a cheapskate, he taped it for himself and gave me the CD (which I still have, and, no, I won’t sell it) after I reimbursed him. We sat around the following Saturday afternoon, drinking beers and contemplating why Tommy wasn’t a star.

He almost was. In a story told ad nauseum (Google “Tommy Keene” and “Geffen Records” for the details), rock ‘n’ roll’s brass ring was within Tommy’s reach: He had a major-label contract, videos on MTV and a starring role in the Anthony Michael Hall vehicle Out Of Bounds. (“Starring role” is a joke, but Tommy’s brief, amazingly lifelike performance as Rock Singer is worth catching.) It’s difficult to fathom these days, but MTV even showed a one-hour concert of Tommy’s when programming was scarce and music was the channel’s focus. Given the times and the product, it’s still baffling that Tommy didn’t break through.

While stardom and riches have eluded Tommy, he’s achieved levels of critical success and peer respect that escape most. Those don’t put food on the table, but they leave something that lasts much longer: a sterling legacy. Tommy’s not particularly prolific—eight LPs, four EPs, a couple of collections and a stellar live album (Showtunes), plus Blues And Boogie Shoes, his Keene Brothers collaboration with Pollard—but that approach, whether by design or simply out of necessity, has yielded a prodigious classic-to-clunker ratio. And it wasn’t like he made Songs and descended into mediocrity. He’s yet to produce what anyone could classify as a poor record, and 2006’s Crashing The Ether is arguably Songs’ equal—who makes another classic 20 years after his first?

Perfectly crafted tunes abound on Tommy Keene You Hear Me: “Places That Are Gone,” “My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe,” “Love Is A Dangerous Thing,” “Compromise,” “Warren In The ‘60s, all with glorious melodies, indelible hooks and note-perfect guitar solos ideal for radio—at least an idealized version where songs like these would end up on playlists. He’s also penned ballads (“Down, Down, Down,” “Your Heart Beats Alone,” “Save This Harmony”) fairly begging for a smart director to include in a film montage or over end credits. It’s not too late, Hollywood.

His career has been so outstanding, one could easily compile a third record (Tommy Keene You Hear Me 2: The Unjustly Overlooked) of nuggets Tommy, for one reason or another—contractual issues or lapses in judgment—didn’t include on the discs you have in your hands: “Nothing Happened Yesterday,” that live “Kill Your Sons,” “Alive,” “On The Runway,” “Today And Tomorrow,” “Begin Where We End,” “Eyes Of Youth,” “Please Don’t Come Around.” (Anyone else appreciate the irony of Tommy ignoring some of his best songs?) And that’s not even mentioning Strange Alliance, Tommy’s 1982 debut LP that he thinks is crap. He’s wrong, by the way.

Tommy himself admits his stuff isn’t groundbreaking. “It’s just fun,” he once told me. “It’s good music and good songs.” Still, he’s attempted the occasional departure: “The Final Hour,” a nearly 17-minute rock opera that’s possibly the most brilliant thing he’s ever done; a sax solo on “The World Where I Still Live”; the druggy instrumental haze of “Elevated.” (All would make fine additions to The Unjustly Overlooked.) Well-received by fans, his other reward for these experiments has been a lukewarm reception from some lazy rock critics. It’s a conundrum: We don’t necessarily need Tommy attempting his Kid A, but we’d gladly listen to it if he did.

And, finally, to the point: The words spilled in this little essay are meant to expound the undeniable notion that Tommy is one of the finest guitar-pop singer-songwriters rock has ever produced. Those of us who cherish Tommy Keene You Hear Me’s songs already know the truth. If this collection is your introduction to Tommy, you’ll discover it’s not the only way to learn for yourself, merely the most convenient. Enjoy, but also dig into the man’s back catalog for further proof. You won’t hear any mistakes.

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