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.

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Scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. Thursday, August 15. Tickets are $7. Call 480-966-7715.
Nita's Hideaway 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.

Emerick, onetime right-hand man to George Martin and house engineer at Abbey Road Studios, helmed some of the greatest-sounding albums ever made on four- and eight-track recorders. Revolver. Sgt. Pepper. Abbey Road. "But," snickers Keene, "he also produced Air Supply and Art Garfunkel! I learned a valuable lesson there. You don't pick a producer based on what records they've done. You pick him based on him getting the sound that you want."

It seems inconceivable that the guy who miked the massive, widely imitated drum sound of "Tomorrow Never Knows" couldn't get that sound. "Wouldn't might' be the operative word there? He didn't like the way we sounded when we rocked out; he thought we were too raucous. Basically, he heard me as a singer-songwriter and wanted to record me that way."

While opening up for the Replacements in 1989 in support of his next album, Based on Happy Times, Keene watched the label drop the ball. "Not only did they not promote it, but David Geffen said that, with all my knowledge about pop music, I should come to work for the label as an A&R man," Keene wryly recalls.

Not only did Keene not do that, he didn't record a full-length album for seven years. When he did, he called it Ten Years After. Some might have thought the title reflected his stepped-up fretwork and was some kind of homage to Alvin Lee or, at worst, a desperate bid to sell records to nearsighted hippies.

According to Keene, "It was because it had been 10 years since I recorded the first Geffen album." He denies that the Geffen relationship was sardonically reflected by the downward spiral on the cover. "Actually, I just thought it was a cool picture."

Keene's last album, Isolation Party, employed much the same cast of all-stars as the new album. This time out, he felt looser and more willing to experiment with the pop idiom. Which brings to mind the 15-minute opus "The Final Hour," which ties together five separate songs and chronicles a relationship from inception to plane crash to thoughts of suicide. Keene candidly admits the reactions to this meisterwork have been mixed.

"Some people have a notion of what pop music should be and don't feel like a 15-minute song fits into that, that it's prog rock. And then other people really go nuts for it. It was originally two distinctly different songs that linked together, but then I thought of trying to do an extended piece."

Did Keene study Yes in preparation for this herculean task?

"No," laughs Keene, "but I was toying with the idea of listing the separate songs with Roman numerals, but then we thought that would be a bit too much. I grew up listening to Yes and ELP, but actually the Who's mini-opera A Quick One was what we were going for. We also have an A Day in the Life' moment in the middle, when Jay Bennett [formerly of Wilco] recorded a piano lid slamming down with the sustain pedal. Then we looped it, and right at that point in the song, there's a plane crash."

Perhaps more controversial were his decisions to use horns in "The Man Without a Soul" and to plunk a sax solo in the beautiful "The World Where I Still Live," a song some would say is marred by a sax solo that sounds like it was lifted from a Clarence Clemons tribute album. "Basically, I just didn't want to do another guitar solo. . . . I thought it'd be amusing, but people have a violent reaction to sax since the '80s, like John Cafferty ripping off Clarence Clemons."

Strangely enough, it sounds like a song Geffen would've proclaimed a hit single in 1989. But even hit singles aren't what they used to be. A bona fide hit single sells about 300,000 copies now. Keene has managed without one for 20 years with his soul intact, thank you.

"But," he adds, "we still mix records on a small monitor to see if it'll sound good coming out of a small speaker." Just in case.

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