Places That Are Gone: Tommy Keene 1958-20017

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I first heard Tommy Keene back in 1986 when my radio partner and best pal David Fieni taped me Songs From The Film on a Maxell XLII.

There was no film, but good god, there were songs.

“Places That Are Gone,” “My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe” and “Underworld” had me hooked instantly. I rewound and fast-forwarded to get to those when I wanted and I did this so much, I started to hear the threads of the tape thinning out in the gears of my boombox. I imagined the shiny black magnetic strip turned to shredded, diaphanous strands that were surely soon to be snagging themselves inside that plastic metal case, where they would be lost forever.

But I couldn’t stop doing it.

Tommy Keene was one of the first artists that I had to hear when I needed to hear him.

And I needed to hear him a lot.

I would leave class in 11th grade to go to my car and play tracks like “In Our Lives” and “As Life Goes By” and then I’d slink back into the room, feeling somehow better about everything.

Keene had all the angst of Paul Westerberg and the literary sophistication of Steve Wynn, and the combination of those two elements added up to a kind of profound pop wisdom that provided some kind of aural roadmap to get through all the choppy waters of the world.

Keene sounded like he’d seen it all, weathered it all, shouldered it all, and internalized it all and sang it back to let us know the path had been forged and all we had to do was take that first step forward and everything would be okay.

The fact was, Tommy Keene made me feel comfortable in a world that wasn’t.

I listened to him forensically. I marveled at how this quiet guy from Maryland wrote such catchy pop songs that were filled with such wisdom and heart.

Tommy Keene made it look easy.

In 1996 I saw Westerberg play the Fillmore in San Francisco and it took me about 3 seconds to realize his guitarist was Tommy Keene.

And I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was in the pocket, swaying back and forth while Westerberg laid it down. When Tommy sang back-up on “Never Mind” it was the most thrilling moment of the entire night.

The manic pop thrill–those three minutes of emotional acceleration we get when we hear something that makes our hearts sing, our blood race, our souls stir–is something we never catch but never tire of chasing. Listening to Tommy Keene made me feel like I had that thrill in my grasp–I could touch it, I could feel it, I could possess it.

And then, as always, it was gone.

And now he’s gone.

And everything doesn’t feel like it’s going to be okay anymore.

The day my Songs From The Film cassette got devoured in my boombox, I watched the tape fill up that plastic case, knowing there was nothing I could do. I watched the slow motion rupture of black ribboning away in a gashy bloom and I felt my heart sink.

But it was too late for the material world to rob me of anything.

Because for me, Tommy Keene was unassailable–he was part of my psyche, part of my heart and part of my soul.

And I have to keep reminding myself tonight that that’s still true.