It's a Friday in late March--the same night as Coldplay's show at the United Center--and former Guided by Voices front man Robert Pollard is onstage at the Metro, deep into a midset rant about the state of popular music. "Fuck Coldplay!" he yells, then walks over and throws an arm around his guitarist, Tommy Keene. "You know what else? Tommy Keene says fuck Coldplay too! You know why? 'Cause Tommy Keene likes rock!"
Truer words were never spoken--Tommy Keene has been devoted to rock 'n' roll nearly all his life. Though power pop has more than its share of shoulda-been stars, the 47-year-old Keene is its quintessential cult hero. He's never had much commercial success and still bears plenty of music-biz battle scars, but his albums--starting with the first, 1981's Strange Alliance--have earned almost universal critical acclaim. And a look at the songwriters who consider him a peer--Pollard, Paul Westerberg, Peter Buck--is perhaps the best measure of his legacy.
An Evanston native raised in Maryland, Keene has been based in LA since the early 90s, but for years he's treated Illinois like a second home, at least as far as his music is concerned: he's mixed half a dozen of his solo records at Jonathan Pines's studio in Urbana, toured and played with native talents like Jay Bennett, Adam Schmitt, and the Velvet Crush, and recorded part of his 2001 live album in Chicago. On Thursday he returns to town to play a sold-out solo show at Schubas opening for Townshend Research, a code name for the Pollard band, and next weekend he'll appear again with Pollard at the Intonation Music Festival.
Keene is supporting the recent Crashing the Ether (Eleven Thirty), his strongest solo album in at least a decade. He leavens his signature melodic crunch with touches of raga drone and synth ambience and breaks from his usual melancholy love songs for the occasional anthemic, Springsteen-style narrative. He and Pollard have also just released a disc as the Keene Brothers, Blues and Boogie Shoes (Rockathon), with Keene writing and recording the music and Pollard singing his own lyrics. Despite spending a few years as Matador labelmates in the 90s, they didn't really meet until 2003--Chicago music writer Matt Hickey, who knew both men, put them in touch--but the record feels like the product of a lifelong relationship.
Keene has been in bands since he was a teenager, and started playing professionally while at the University of Maryland in the late 70s. After a stint in New York, where he worked as a sideman for Casablanca Records artist Suzanne Fellini, he returned to Maryland and formed the first version of the Tommy Keene Group. After establishing himself on the east coast, he signed a two-record deal with the North Carolina indie label Dolphin and in 1984 put out the EP Places That Are Gone--his second release, but the first to be nationally distributed. In a year with a remarkable number of classic indie records (the Replacements' Let It Be, the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime, R.E.M.'s Reckoning), Keene's disc came in at number ten on the year-end CMJ album charts and was the number one EP in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll.
Keene made a second album for Dolphin, Songs From the Film, but the majors were calling--instead of releasing it, he signed with Geffen, recruited by A and R wunderkind Tom Zutaut. The label brought in Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, fresh off the triumph of Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom, to produce a new version of Keene's record, and the band left for George Martin's AIR Studios on Montserrat. For a Beatles freak like Keene, it seemed like a dream come true, but his relationship with Emerick quickly soured--Keene hated the mix and the Brit refused to budge. "He was like, 'That's what I'm doing and that's that,'" recalls Keene. Emerick later complained that Keene was "more difficult than all four Beatles put together."
The album tanked despite positive reviews, and label head David Geffen wouldn't pay to send Keene back into the studio. "He said, 'You're not going to make another record until you write a certified smash,'" says Keene. "So I wrote with Jules Shear. I got together with Paul Westerberg one night, but we just got drunk. I even said I'd get together with the guy who wrote the lyrics for Bryan Adams, but fortunately he wasn't available. I jumped through every hoop they wanted, and in the end they just kind of lost interest." Part of Keene's problem was the success of Zutaut's other artists. "I was the first thing that he signed to Geffen. Tesla was the second thing. The third thing he signed was Guns N' Roses. And the fourth thing he signed was Edie Brickell. So out of four signings he had three platinum records . . . and me."
The label finally relented and handed him a modest budget, and Keene headed to Memphis's Ardent Studios, where he recorded the excellent Based on Happy Times with producer-musicians Joe Hardy and John Hampton. Geffen's new president wasn't a fan, though, and the label released it in the winter of 1989 with barely any promotion. Keene was on the road with the Replacements when the other shoe dropped. "My management called me up and said, 'You've been dropped by Geffen, your booking agency has canceled the rest of the tour, and we aren't going to work with you either,'" he says. "That was quite a day."
Keene continued to write, but over the next few years a series of major-label deals fell through at the last minute. In 1992 Gerard Cosloy at Matador put out a Keene EP, Sleeping on a Roller Coaster, and the following year Alias Records released a stellar Keene compilation, The Real Underground. Matador eventually signed him for two late-90s albums, and since then Keene has bounced between several smaller indie labels, including Parasol, SpinArt, and Eleven Thirty, a subsidiary of Yep Roc. He's also developed a second career as a hired gun.
Though he's threatened to give up music in the past, discouraged by his stubbornly modest sales figures, lately Keene seems to have made peace with his status as a rock 'n' roll lifer. "I'm not a quitter. That's one thing I'm not. I'll stick it out until the bitter end, for better or worse," he says. "It's funny, someone just told me, 'You're 47--it's kinda too late for a career change.' And that's true. So I'll keep doing this as long as I can. Maybe it'll eventually come down to me pressing 1,000 copies of my records and selling them on the Web. If that's the way it has to be, then that's what I'll do."
Townshend Research, Tommy Keene
When: Thu 6/22, 9 PM
Where: Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
Price: sold out
When: Sun 6/25, 7:15 PM
Where: Intonation Music Festival, Union Park
Price: one-day pass $20
Info: 800-594-8499 or intonationmusicfest.com
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ye Rin Mok.