The Bob interviews Tommy Keene
"Can You Hear Me?" - The Bob, Fall 1996
In the fall of 1996, Jud Cost of The Bob (a great music mag named after a Roxy Music song and which used to include rare flexi-disc singles) conducted one of the best-ever interviews with indie rocker Tommy Keene. The piece, entitled "Can You Hear Me?" (interestingly, a recent Keene CD career retrospective used the imperative statement title You Hear Me), was particularly enlightening about his early pre-solo days playing with Nils Lofgren's little brother Mike Lofgren as a drummer in the high school circuit band Blue Steel, working with Richard X. Heyman in The Rage, and his brief involvement with Suzanne Fellini and Pieces during his New York City period. I ran across this issue while doing a little cleaning in my den and scanned it in as best as I could below.
The Bob interview, left side page
The Bob interview, right side page
The Bob: I've heard you got into pop music at a tender age.
Keene: Yeah, I'm from Bethesda, Maryland, outside of D.C., and I saw a lot of shows at a very early age. My dad took my brother and me to my first concert when I was eight, the Dave Clark Five in 1967, and the opening act was Neil Diamond. Then we saw the Buffalo Springfield and the Beach Boys. I saw the Who in 1968, with the Troggs opening, on the night that LBJ announced he would not run. I remember Townshend doing his spiel when they did [the anti-cancer song] "Little Billy" and people throwing hundreds of cigarettes on the stage. Soon, as my older brother got his license, we were off and running, driving to New York and Philadelphia to see everybody.
The Bob: Did you pick up the guitar as a kid too?
Keene: I started playing classical piano when I was about five. I was better than I am now. When my piano teacher had a heart attack I got disinterested and picked up the guitar and the drums. And I wound up playing drums from age 11 to 17. We had a three-piece called Blue Steel, and we played a lot of Rory Gallagher, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, and the Who. We did a condensed version of Quadrophenia, complete with tapes of the rain [laughs]. And we'd do "Obscured by Clouds" by Pink Floyd, with two little tape recorders running through the PA, each playing one droning note. We made a lot of money when I was in high school, playing dances. Victor Coelho was a pretty amazing guitar player for being 14 years old. He sang lead and I sang backup vocals. We got into the English glam thing totally, did lots of Mott the Hoople. We even had the outfits.
The Bob: Did you get to open for any of your heroes?
Keene: The original Blue Steel had a guitar player named Mike Lofgren, whose older brother was Nils Lofgren. I saw Grin very early. Nils, about a decade before me, had been a great athlete and had dropped out of high school. He organized this benefit to send the soccer team from Walter Johnson High School to Europe for the summer. That was the big gig for Blue Steel, opening for Grin.
The Bob: Any other interests in high school?
Keene: I was getting into theatre. Couldn't decide if I wanted to be an actor or a musician. I'd done some plays in high school, like Bye Bye Birdie and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and they looked on me as more of an actor than a singer. Then I went to University of Maryland and started playing more guitar in bands, doing cool stuff like New York Dolls. Around 1977 I met Richard X, Heyman, a great songwriter from New Jersey, and that was the start of the Rage. We were only around for about eight months. We'd play '60s things like "Lies" by Knickerbockers and Richard's originals. He'd written about fifteen-hundred songs by then.
The Bob: Who was the top dog in D.C. at the time?
Keene: The big band in town was the Razz. I saw them in this bar on Wisconsin Avenue called The Keg. They'd take obscure covers like "Have Your Seen My Baby" by the Flamin' Groovies or "Our Car Club" by the Beach Boys, or medleys of things like Them's "Mystic Eyes" and "It's Not True" by the Who - and make them part of their own. I befriended their bass player, Ted Niceley, in a parking lot outside the bar one night, and asked if we could open for them. And they were blown away. They said "Where'd you guys come from?" We had this whole shtick down with our Beatle-y outfits. We were different. Nobody in D.C. was that, although in L.A., the Pop, 20/20, and the Knack were happening simultaneously.
The Bob: How did you jump from the Rage to the Razz?
Keene: The guitar player for the Razz quit, and they asked me to audition. It was a hard choice to make because the Rage was really getting good, but I joined the Razz. They were the biggest local band around, played Max's and got written up in Trouser Press. We opened for the Ramones, Patti Smith, and Devo, and had some major-label interest. It lasted about a year-and-a-half. Before I was in the band, they were supposed to open the first U.S. Sex Pistols show, in Alexandria, Virginia, but it was canceled because of visa problems.
The Bob: What happened after the Razz ran its course?
Keene: Richard Heyman called me about backing up Suzanne Fellini - me on guitar and him on drums; she had the song "Love on the Phone," kind of Blondie meets Pat Benatar - for a six-week European tour. So I got the job, and he didn't. They put me up in the Gramercy Park Hotel. This is really exciting - I'm in New York - and a little frightening, because I didn't know anybody. The music wasn't really my scene, but hey, I'm making money and I'm traveling.
The Bob: You stuck around New York for a while?
Keene: Yeah, I went to Hurrah one night to see this band called the Urban Verbs and met a guy named Matt. We wound up forming a group called Pieces, which meant I stayed in New York for another year. We did a few showcases, but once again, I wasn't that happy with the music - mainly his trip. The Rage had done a couple of my songs, but that was Richard's vehicle. I'd had a crash course in songwriting with the Razz when I replaced the songwriter. And I started aat the beginning: "Like, how do you write a song?"
The Bob: Time to do your own thing?
Keene: When Pieces was winding down, this guy who worked for management and really liked my voice asked if I'd heard the Big Star stuff. And I said, "Well, sort of." So he gave me the two records and told me to go back to D.C. and form my own group. And in 1981 that's what I did with Ted Niceley and Doug Tull from the Razz and a guitar player named Michael Colburn. I did a bunch of demos that became the Strange Alliance album, which came out in '82 on our own label, Avenue Records. By our third show we opened for the Jam on their last tour. Then a North Carolina label called Dolphin who wanted to broaden their base put out my EP Places That Are Gone.
And so began the Tommy Keene solo years. Or as Paul Harvey Jr. used to say...
"And now you know the rest of the story. Good day!"