That '80s Sound

With help from Wilco and the Gin Blossoms, Tommy Keene chases down the sound he was after 20 years ago

"'The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down'? Quite a loony selection for a bunch of drunken reprobates!"

Christopher Lloyd uttered those lines to said bunch of drunken reprobates as he ripped the gramophone needle off a 78 in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He was referring to that merry melody that launched a thousand Warner Bros. cartoons, but one could easily make the same observation after listening to Tommy Keene's latest CD of the same name.

Even drunken pop aficionados might go batty trying to figure out why he attempted the album's centerpiece, a 15-minute epic called "The Final Hour." The rest of the world might wonder what place an intelligently crafted collection of pop vignettes could hope to find in 2002, a year in which pop songwriting constitutes a committee activity and a clever wordsmith is someone who coins a dumb catch phrase and rams it into the ground for four and a half minutes.

Peachy Keene: The Gin Blossoms' Jesse Valenzuela and Robin Wilson guest on Tommy Keene's new album, recorded mostly at Wilson's Mayberry Studios in Tempe.
Peachy Keene: The Gin Blossoms' Jesse Valenzuela and Robin Wilson guest on Tommy Keene's new album, recorded mostly at Wilson's Mayberry Studios in Tempe.

"It's kind of sad to me," says Keene, "that a great band like Aerosmith can't have a hit anymore unless they're in cahoots with Diane Warren. Or that guy Desmond Child."

Whether it's a cruel twist of fate or a blessing that Keene never had a hit of his own is a matter for conjecture. During his five-year stint on Geffen Records, he's seen a producer who didn't like rock anymore ruin his record beyond repair. He's seen a record get underpromoted, even though the label head loved it. And he's seen that same label head be underwhelmed by an album that didn't have the hit single he'd forced Keene to come up with over and over again.

But you can't tell a generation of pop music lovers that Keene is underappreciated. R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Wilco's Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy jumped at the chance to aid in the recording of new Tommy Keene songs. Both Paul Westerberg and Velvet Crush recruited Keene to play guitar with them on tour. The Gin Blossoms' Robin Wilson recorded three of Keene's pre-Geffen efforts, including the classic "Places That Are Gone," for his Poppin' Wheelies project. And the Goo Goo Dolls recorded his "Nothing Can Change You" for their breakthrough album A Boy Named Goo.

"My only major-label cover version. Unfortunately, the song never made it on the album," chuckles Keene. "Instead, it wound up being on the B-side of Slide' in Australia and a few other places." Ironically, when Keene finally got a platinum record in 1998, it was for playing guitar on the Goo Goos' follow-up, Dizzy Up the Girl.

Keene's Gin Blossoms connection began when the Blossoms' dispirited Wilson and Doug Hopkins drove back from Los Angeles after an aborted recording attempt and listened to Keene's latest effort for Geffen, Based on Happy Times. "They decided to record at Ardent Studios in Memphis after that," says Keene, who kept up the friendship by guesting on Jesse Valenzuela's solo LP.

Both Valenzuela and Wilson guest on Merry-Go-Round, recorded mostly at Wilson's Mayberry Studios in Tempe. An anniversary of sorts, it marks 10 years since he recorded the similarly fairground-minded Sleeping on a Rollercoaster, the first recorded work with his current band and his return to the indie world from which his most-championed works sprang.

Too much time has passed for Keene to remain bitter about his experience in big-league record-making. He's more excited that the technology has caught up with his budget — and that the sound heard on Merry-Go-Round is what Keene's heard in his head since his first Geffen album.

"Before that, I was just recording to try and get the songs down the best way possible and get signed," he says. He recorded an EP and two albums for labels like Avenue and Dolphin in that 1981-'84 period. The first LP, the ultra-rare Strange Alliance, isn't even mentioned in his current bio. Like most of Keene's records, it had an immediate here-today-gone-tomorrow availability that makes it a coveted pop purchase. But unlike most of Keene's records, it's not worth hunting for.

"It's terrible," Keene says, laughing, trying to shake off his embarrassing foray into skinny-tie New Wave. "Only 1,000 copies were pressed, and they've all finally settled down somewhere. I've only got a DAT of it, but I make copies for people just so they won't waste their money. I saw one go for $100 on eBay, something ridiculous like that. Recently, I did a show in my hometown in Washington and thought it might be fun to close the show with the song Strange Alliance.' That would go over really big with my audience. But when I made copies to teach the band, I thought, Do I really want to do this?' It sounds like me trying to sing like Echo and the Bunnymen."

Things didn't break out for Keene until he rereleased that album bundled with a new single, "Back to Zero," which dean of rock critics Robert Christgau gave an "A" in his Village Voice Consumer Guide. Following that was the epochal Places That Are Gone EP, which topped many year-end best-of lists and started the majors sniffing around Keene's garage. In the end, Keene went with Geffen's Geoff Emerick to produce his next album, 1984's Songs From the Film.

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