WASHINGTON – Tommy Keene, whose 1984 hit “Places That Are Gone” established the Bethesda-born singer-songwriter as one of new wave’s most promising stars, has died at 59.
Keene died in his sleep, according to a post on his website.
“He had the perfect name to be a superstar, and the talent to back it up,” said Skip Groff, owner of Yesterday & Today Records. “When I was growing up, the word ‘keen’ was analogous to boss and groovy, and I thought that had to be a fake name.”
With movie star looks and a quiet demeanor, Keene graduated from Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.
“All of his records sold a ton at Yesterday & Today,” said Groff.
Keene was a mainstay of the D.C. new wave scene in the early 1980s before gaining acclaim as a consistent singer and songwriter.
“I remember Tommy from The Rage, with Richard X. Heyman, and what a great pop tour de force they were,” said Abaad Behram, guitarist in The Razz. “Razz was excited to have them on the bill with us at the Varsity Grille,” in College Park.
When Behram and his Rolling Stone stylings left Razz, he was replaced by Keene.
“After I left Razz, I went to see them with Tommy, and was blown away with the new songs which were now being driven by Tommy’s pop sensibilities,” Behram said. “Tommy and I were always a mutual fan club till the end.”
“When Tommy came in, we certainly became a lot more popular,” said Ted Niceley, who played bass in Razz, and Keene’s solo efforts. “The songs were more commercial.”
After Razz ended, Keene, along with Niceley and Razz drummer Doug Tull recorded what became Keene’s first album release, “Strange Alliance.”
“That got a lot of airplay on WHFS,” recalled Niceley.
Keene’s “Places That Are Gone” EP got a 4-star review in Rolling Stone, and was hailed by music fans for its bittersweet, melodic sound.
“His sound was exactly the right fit for musicians we liked to champion on WHFS,” said Cerphe Colwell. “He had the gift of writing unforgettable, beautiful songs that became a huge component of the late 70s and 80s D.C. music scene.”
Poised on the brink of stardom, Niceley, Tull, and guitarist Billy Connelly formed the Tommy Keene Band.
“It was really exciting,” said Niceley. “We had something going.”
Keene and company were signed to Geffen Records, and released “Songs from the Film” in 1986.
The album, produced by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, got to #148 on the Billboard 200 chart.
“All of us at WHFS loved his music – for me, it was pure rock ‘n’ roll,” said Colwell, who can now be heard on Music Planet Radio. “He was very under-publicized and underrated, but he was a superb songwriter and the stuff of legend.”
Niceley recalled hearing, “You don’t have a hit, you don’t have a hit, you don’t have a hit,” from Geffen Records and described the experience with the major label as “frustrating, disappointing, all of the above.”
However, Keene continued playing and recording his music, and working with other bands.
“It was his passion,” said Groff. “You can tell by the number of artists he played with, including Gin Blossoms and Paul Westerberg.”
Keene recorded 11 full-length albums, four EPs, three compilations, and a live album.
Recently, Keene had been playing with Matthew Sweet, and done a tour with Ivan Julian, guitarist in seminal New York punk band Richard Hell and the Voidoids.
“This was his life – he never complained about anything,” said Niceley. “He loved going on tour.”
“He liked what he was doing and he was going to do it as long as he could – and that’s exactly what he did.”