Rex in the Sea of Cortez, Baja Mexico 2001 Sasha Eisenman/Sun-Godz
In the early 1990’s a 22-year old surfer kid from Newport Beach hit the L.A. music scene and turned it inside out. Rex Kingsley Thompson (nickname: “Tatarex”) was a thin, cool, attractive, 6’4” tall creation that looked like he had just arrived in a time machine. His band The Summer Hits released a handful of singles between 1992-1996 and were played on BBC Radio 1 by legendary deejay John Peel. Then like a flash, Rex left southern California for Europe without a penny in his pocket where he spent twelve years exploring chic, tropical islands and castles with beautiful women of royalty. Last week the news of Rex’s passing at the age of 47 hit the internet and saddened thousands of friends and followers who recount his super unconventional lifestyle and profound cult-like influence on people everywhere he went.
Known around skateboard parks for always drinking pink lemonade, Tatarex was also somewhat of a local at “The Wedge” in Orange County, a surfing spot just off the end of the Balboa Peninsula popular for its big waves and laid-back lifestyle. As a mohawked youth back in Glendora, Rex had originally intended to be a tennis player but once he hit his 20’s and left home he began shifting his focus towards other interests such as fashion, the beach, music, and recreational drug use. “He walked around like he was this psychedelic blue blood sometimes. You know what I mean? Because he was always asking everybody about their fashion, and clothes, and hygiene, and appearance. He didn’t judge you he would just kind of point people in the direction of the finer things in life. Not just expensive things, but the things that make you live free and think that you can really enjoy life” says longtime friend Brent Rademaker.
Rex drove around in a Volkswagon bus he called “Peanut” searching local vintage stores for groovy clothes and groovy records. Brent recalls the modes of communication before cell phones existed: “He worked at the Newport Classic Inn, I’d call him there. The only way to get in touch with him would be to call him at work. He’d answer the phone ‘Good afternoon the Newport Classic Inn Hotel this is Rex speaking’ It was kind of like the thing in Quadrophenia when the Ace Face gets outed as a bellboy. I even went down there and Rex is dressed in a button-down shirt with a tie. Darren and I came from Florida and Rex really lived all things west coast and lived all things southern California. He made us honorary Californians and he didn’t treat us as outsiders.”
The Summer Hits, mid-‘90s collage courtesy of Brent Rademaker
With no prior musical experience or training, Rex picked up a left-handed bass and taught himself to play. After his first band fell apart (a C86 influenced local group called Speed Racer) Rex formed The Summer Hits by recruiting friends Darren Rademaker and Josh Schwartz (of the lo-fi “indie rock” band Further). They released a handful of 7"s on labels such as Small-Fi, Volvolo, Silver Girl, and 1000 Guitar Mania. Rex’s unique singing voice on the 8-track recordings was nearly drowned out by a wall of fuzz and feedback, with lyrics that reflected all of his most favorite things: summer, the beach, drugs, listening to music, girls, runnin’ from the fuzz, and retreating into the desert night.
In 1997 the year following the band’s split, Brent issued The Summer Hits compilation CD on his own label Xmas Records. “I took every dime I had to put that Beaches and Canyons CD together. I found all the comp tracks and all the singles and all the tapes and I took them down to Capitol (Records) tower and mastered them. The guy looked at me like I was insane when it came on. You know? And I’m like ‘Can you add even more fuzz?’ and he’s like ‘What?! I can’t clean these up,’ I said ‘I don’t want you to clean them up, I want you to make them dirtier.’”
Besides being the life of the party and a psychedelic social butterfly, Rex Thompson had been making amazing mixtapes which were then duplicated and passed down by friends and friends of friends. The more tapes Rex made the deeper the tracks got and the more extensive his handwritten linear notes became. One tape of Rex’s in particular titled Find the Sun really stood out amongst his circle of friends and focused on recordings from 1966-1973 by groups all over the world experimenting with the “west coast sound.” Rex’s personal description of the tape was “Magic hippie vibes for lost cosmic children with countrified brains.” Brent recalls, “It had a great title and it was full of obscure, beautiful, beautiful groups. One day Chris Gunst, Josh Schwartz, and I were listening to that tape and one of us just said ‘We can make a group that sounds like this.’ Slowly our clothes started changing, next thing Chris was wearing cowboy western shirts.” L.A. supergroup Beachwood Sparks was formed, they had a successful career on Sub Pop Records and were later featured on the soundtrack to the 2010 cult classic Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. “We wouldn’t have existed if it wasn’t for that tape and Rex’s influence.”
“Radio Stars vol.8” mixtape courtesy of Sasha Eisenman/Sun-Godz
“Find the Sun” mixtape linear notes courtesy of Maura Klosterman
“Another thing that speaks so highly of Rex, the linear notes on his tapes are so in depth. And I’m not saying that the pre-internet world didn’t learn or share knowledge or do research. But at what he had at his disposal he really went in depth and he knew what he was talking about when he was talking about country rock, psych, folk, west coast garage, fuzz. Whatever it was, he knew it.”
Just before the turn of the millennia Rex was leading a slightly double life: he was Mr. King-of-the-cool hanging out at Noise Noise Noise in Costa Mesa, spinning records at the Three of Clubs and on the weekends and then vanishing from sight to work the graveyard shift at the Newport Classic Inn during the week. At this point Rex had perfected his persona, his style, and his “Freak-speak,” but gazing into the unknown horizon he knew that he didn’t want to become some kind of pathetic fixture on the L.A. scene, he wanted to go wanderin’. It was then he had a chance encounter that changed his life forever. Sasha Eisenman who had just moved to L.A. and had recently begun dabbling in photography approached Rex at Club Fais Do-Do one night. “I noticed this guy creep through the room and it’s Rex, he looked like a famous person. Immediately I was thinking, who is this guy? He’s either an extremely hip creative director of a magazine that I don’t know of, or is he just a weird jet-set person. He was really classically handsome mixed with this flamboyant style. I just went up to him and I was like ‘Hey man, can I take a picture of you?’ And he kind of looked at me for a second, kind of sizing me up, and said ‘Yeah man sure, go ahead’ And so I snapped a couple frames of him and then I was like ‘Thanks’ and he said ‘Right on man, I’m Rex.’ I said ‘Oh hey Rex, I’m Sasha,’ and he said ‘See you around man.’”
Sasha’s first photo of Rex, Club Fais Do-Do 1999 Sasha Eisenman/Sun-Godz
As it turned out they did see each other around, and before too long they became friends. As Sasha began getting more and more work as a photographer he starting asking Rex to be in some of his shoots. Rex quickly became the main character in Sasha’s work, although he was reluctant at first. “I convinced him to do this shoot with me, which was not easy because he was super protective of his image. And I was sort of like ‘Who are you protecting your image from? Nobody even knows who you are.’ He said ‘Well I’m not just gonna squander my cool on any jerk-off man. This is my cool, man and it doesn’t come for free.’ So it took a lot of coaxing to get him to be in these shoots.”
Rex had this manner of speaking that was hard to identify. It was part Californian beach slang, part “cool cat” speak from the ‘60s, part pimp-speak from the ‘70s, infused with a lot British terminology. Rex also had an exceptional vocabulary, an obsession that began as a kid in school. “He would read the dictionary all the time, almanacs too. He was self-taught in English vernacular,” remembers childhood friend Matt Clonts. The result became “Freak-Speak” or what Rex’s friends began referring to as “Rex-Speak.” “He liked to use words and he made sure he said things in the most flowery kind of language possible, you know?” Sasha remembers. “And it was not a put on in any way, that was him, it wasn’t an accent he was putting on. He wouldn’t say ‘cool’ he’d say ‘kewl’ and he’d also say ‘You know man, like when you were in high skewl,’ It wasn’t ‘school’ it was ‘skewl.’ But the best way to get his language is to read some of the linear notes on his tapes. Actually, one night he was hopped up high on something at four ‘o clock in the morning, we were hanging out. He was scribbling all this stuff down on a little piece of paper and for whatever reason he was basically writing like a Rex glossary, or a dictionary of his “Freak-Speak.”
“I don’t know why but I kept this piece of paper. That’s how he’d say everything, you know… if it was even just about ordering a sandwich it would be like that.” -Sasha Eisenman/Sun-Godz
“Timeless Freak-Speak: Secret Slang of the Positively Cool” by Rex
1) Bliss-out: A heady state of rapturous nature brought on by brain change chemicals
2) Silkie: A purveyor or daring fashion with impeccable flair & filthy blasé image
3) Super-Fox-to-the-Max!: A deeply alluring rock-n-roll hot thing who knows the score
4) Stain: A most unlovely chickie
5) Freak ‘n’ roll: To engage in hedonistic play with an almost perverse intensity
6) Drip Trip: A sorry gathering of chump-ass sad sacks
7) Art-noise: Experimental beat music freaked with obscene feedback interplay & filthy mod cult innuendo
Sasha scored a really good agent in 2001 and as his photography career started taking off he began spending more time in London and Paris. Rex was now 31-years-old and looked amazingly awesome. “He could totally just walk into any room and everybody would stop and say ‘Woah, who is that?’” Sasha was getting ready to go off and spend a lot of time shooting in London and Paris but this time he didn’t want to go by himself. “I already knew that Rex was obsessed with Europe, especially ‘60s London and all the music that came out at that time. So I was like ‘Hey, do want to come with me to Europe? I don’t really fit in with that world that I’m going into and it’d be good for me to have some kind of backup along with me, and I know that you’ve always dreamed of going to those places.’ I offered to buy him a ticket to come with me. And he was like ‘Fuckin’-A man that sounds amazing, I’m gonna have to really think about that man because I’d lose my gig if I come you know.’” At that point Rex, now living in Costa Mesa, had kept his Newport Beach Classic Inn job for well over a decade. “Eventually he said ‘Yeah man, let’s do it, let’s go, count me in.’”
Rex was a bit fazed when he boarded his flight to London with Sasha, it was his very first time flying internationally. “There’s a line leading up to the ticket counter and some official comes up to Rex and says ‘Passport please’ and Rex says, ‘What’d you mean passport? Like, you want to see my papers? I haven’t done anything wrong, Jack!’ When I saw what was going on I tried to help out by explaining to Rex that it was nothing about him specifically, that this was just a part of the process. From the security’s perspective he was acting completely strange, any question anyone would ask him such as ‘Aisle or window seat?’ he’d say stuff like ‘Well what’s it your business? I’ll make up my mind later man’ Between his wild behavior and flamboyant clothing Rex continued to attract the attention of the airport security staff. Two guards approached and asked permission to check his carry-on which happened to be Rex’s DJ record bag. “‘What do you have in your bag?’ Rex responded, ‘Well, I’ve got some soulful seventies, and some silkie freakbeat.’” The security guard, completely baffled, responded ‘What are you talking about? I need to know what’s in your bag.’ Rex said ‘Well I just told you Jack, this is all wax.’ The security guards, slightly older, were probably young guys in the seventies, and all of a sudden they finally get it. ‘Oh he’s got records, alright… real records!’ and Rex said ‘Yeah that’s what I told you, it’s wax Jack.’”
Sasha remembers being in London shortly before this trip and the only music Brits seemed to care about was electronic music, house music, and trance. Being such a trend-conscious city, that had all changed drastically when he arrived in late 2001 with Rex. Perhaps triggered by bands such as The Strokes and The White Stripes, London had suddenly returned to a band type culture. “We got to London at precisely the right moment in time when the people there were really primed to appreciate what Rex was all about and it was crazy. People were just like ‘Oh my God, these Californian Sun-Gods are here.’ And in particular Rex really, really stood out because he’s this big 6’4” guy dressed crazily, like someone who’d just stepped off of Carnaby Street at the height of the swinging ‘60s except he’s got all this Californian cool. So, everywhere we went we were just constantly meeting anybody who was making any kind of music scene happen in London and they were inviting us to every party. And Rex was instantly snagging the most impossibly beautiful girls out in that scene (who all the guys were probably pining away trying to get into bed for years) and Rex just came in and had them all within like probably two weeks. So he kind of caused like a huge commotion, the initial impact of his arrival in London was like a bomb going off. So it was incredibly, incredibly fun and we were just having the best of times.”
Meanwhile, as Sasha went about his photography, he scored some major campaign gigs and included Rex in most of his work. Back in L.A., friend Brent Rademaker began hearing of Rex’s newfound career as a fashion model. “It wasn’t modeling work so much as Sasha liked documenting Rex,” Brent said. “I mean they put him in big fashion spreads and he was in H&M windows all over the world. Big, giant, sunset canyon images of Rex surrounded by beautiful women and everybody’s dressed like it’s 1967 right before the Summer of Love. There’s a photo of Rex in London posing in front of a fifteen-foot-image of himself blown up on a billboard.” When it came time for Sasha to return to the United States, Rex didn’t want to leave. Rex had been extremely successful in London, he was having the time of his life experiencing groovy happenings with various way out cool cats every single night of the week… so he decided to stay in Europe, for the next twelve years.
Several months later, Sasha was back in Europe finishing up a fashion shoot in Rome and called Rex in London to come meet him. Rex cobbled together a little bit of money deejaying and had just enough bread to meet Sasha in Italy. Sasha’s fashion world contacts had invited him to a volcanic island in the Mediterranean called Panarea where a chic summer scene was happening, Sasha asked if it was cool to bring a buddy along. “We eventually arrive in Panarea which turns out to be this incredibly exclusive, really isolated, exotic island off the coast of Sicily. It’s very small, everybody comes there by mega-yachts, just like out of the movies, incredibly idyllic. And we caused this huge stir, this huge sensation on this island cause they’re cool people, they are those jet-set people that Rex kind of imagined. They’d never seen anything like either of us and we were quickly known within a matter of 24-hours as ‘the Californians.’ So we’re going to all these great dinner parties and lunches on boats and things like that and Rex is totally at the height of his powers, he’s like a true Adonis. One particular woman on the island that caught Rex’s attention was a very beautiful and wealthy contessa. They spent a lot of time with each other over the next several days, which caused a stir because she was married and everyone knew that her husband was going to arrive on the island very soon. Rex and Sasha’s guide Antonio (a gay man with a very thick Italian accent) convinced Rex with great urgency that he must leave the island with the contessa as quickly as possible.
Rex in Panarea, Sicily 2002 Sasha Eisenman/Sun-Godz
It was getting close to sunset the following afternoon when Sasha arrived at the dock to sneak Rex and his Italian countess off to Saint-Tropez before her husband arrived. Their guide Antonio was totally inches deep into the drama of the story, he really wanted to make sure that Rex and the contessa got onto that ocean liner. As the arriving ship was docking Rex told everyone that he was going to run up the street and get some snacks. Much to everyone’s dismay, Rex leaves. The countess boards the ocean liner and is now awaiting Rex on the upper deck. Antonio began having a panic attack, “Oh my god, where is Rex, where is he? He’s going to miss the boat. This is impossible!” So Sasha offers to run back up the street to try and find him. He runs into some little shoppe and sure enough, there’s Rex looking at postcards and fidgeting with a bag of peanuts. “Dude! What the hell are you doing? Like, the ship’s leaving… do you not want to go?” Rex said “Oh no man, I totally want to go,” “Well then, you gotta go! You gotta go now!” Rex and Sasha scrambled back down the street as fast and they could and sure enough the ocean liner was pulling away, it had left the dock and was sailing off into the sunset. Rex exclaimed, “Aw Fudge man, I really wanted to go with her too.”
Despite his misadventures with the wealthy countess in Panarea, Rex went on to have a succession of different girlfriends that essentially took care of him and paid for him. Rex had no money coming from his family, he only had his mom and his brother, and they didn’t even really know where he was most of the time. “That was a great skill he had and I’ve never come across anyone else who could pull that off to the degree that he did where he was literally able to travel all over Europe without a penny.” Sasha remembers, “It really is amazing, especially in the modern times. It’s a testament to how much people loved him and how much they were willing to like pay for the guy just to have him around.” No longer the swinging fox-chaser he was when he arrived in London, Rex found himself in more serious relationships with women for longer periods of time, he was there for the long haul. Every girl that had ever been in a serious relationship with Rex ended up receiving the title of “Lady.” So in Los Angeles there was Lady Yvonne, then later in London it was Lady Jenny whom he spent several years with. Eventually, he moved on and there was Lady Emily, so every girl he really fancied had bestowed upon them this honorary title.
Rex cooling off with Model Tina Leon, Baja Mexico 2001 Sasha Eisenman/Sun-Godz
Years later Rex found himself in a relationship with Lady Maya, a French woman who lived in a castle outside of Paris. Literally, a castle straight out of a fairy-tale complete with a moat and a drawbridge in the beautiful countryside, and Rex had been living there for a while in one of the wings. Lady Maya came from a theatre family, her parents were both playwrights and her mother began directing a play called “Hercules, a Teenager.” She wanted the production to have a multi-national cast so they asked Rex if he would be interested in playing the role of Zeus. Rex accepted the role and was cast alongside some very well known theatre actors including an older veteran actor from Britain. Having never acted before in his life, Rex expressed his frustrations during the first few weeks of rehearsals because he didn’t like some of the theatre routines. During a session of breathing exercises, Rex decided to split “I’ll catch up with you cats later, I’ll come back for the interesting parts, you dig?” He’d make his way across the field to the local cafe where he’d get loaded on red wine and then return when the actors finally got to running their lines. In spite of everything, Rex made it to the theatre on opening night and he played his role as Zeus for the entire duration of the production, reciting his lines in both French and English.
There was a period in Rex’s European journey when he did not have a lady and he fell on hard times. Since he was essentially in the country illegally without a visa, any sort of legitimate employment was out of the question. Rex was forced to join an eastern European laboring crew demolishing buildings. In return for the work they allowed him to live in the demolished buildings with basically no walls and no roof. Despite the heinous conditions, Rex still had his records and a small bag of clothes, and he continued to “make the scene.” Rex relocated, and spent the last few years of his European adventure couch surfing in Malmö, Sweden. “He was willing to keep it up in order to maintain his extremely bohemian lifestyle,” Sasha explains. “It would’ve been better if he just got a job, but he would just not conform. He would never conform to anything that was within the norm of society and he was willing to put himself through really harsh things where he would like sleep on couches, benches, and chairs. As he got a little bit older and stuff he found that his looks were fading, he was still incredibly handsome but he wasn’t like the Adonis Sun-God that he was back on Panarea. This was now probably like 2011 so a lot of time had passed since he was back on Panarea back in 2002.”
As Rex’s situation in Malmö became increasingly precarious Rex was forced to sell off his precious collection of 45’s one by one just to keep enough money in his pocket. Sasha remembers the e-mail he received from Rex when he was finally ready to come home, “Do you think that the California sunshine and those golden waves of memory would do me really well right now? Do you think you can find it within your heart to help me out just one last time, can you send me a plane ticket so we can have one last ride for old times’ sake?” When Tatarex returned to Los Angeles for the first time in twelve years he was immediately awarded the honorary status of “Legend.” Many disciples and musical protégés in the scene were eager to be around Rex and absorb his vibe: Ariel Pink, The Allah Las, Jennifer Herrema, DJ Johnny Basil, DJ Jimi Hey, and the Burger Records crew.
Tatarex and Spencer Dunham of the Allah Las on location in Baja, Mexico (2014)
Rex stars in the unreleased & unofficial music video for The Allah Las “Better Than Mine” (2014) directed by Sasha Eisenman/Sun-Godz
In December 2014, Rex reunited with The Summer Hits for the first time in eighteen years at a benefit for Josh Schwartz who was diagnosed with ALS. Brent Rademaker (who filled in for Josh on the drums) remembers an unforgettable night at the Echoplex. “I think it was a total rush for Rex. We didn’t have to twist his arm. There were many times where it was like ‘Hey Rex, do some more Summer Hits’ and he was like ‘No man, its run its course’ but this time it was exciting. He was thrilled to be asked, he really wanted to help out Josh, it was a worthwhile cause. I think he was excited that there was a whole new crop of kids that wanted to see him play, I couldn’t have been more proud. It took him a while and it was a little bit hard, I’m not gonna lie, it was rough, but when we got on stage he nailed it. We had really inspired him and after that he bought a new bass and he texted me constantly about buying it. He had a bunch of new songs and he wanted me to record them for him. I can’t believe I kept putting him off. He sang me a couple songs in the desert a couple years ago and they were just beautiful, it was kind of a new direction. It was a little bit heavier, I know it just could have been amazing, and of course we could have gotten everybody involved. It really breaks my heart that I didn’t do it.”
When Rex got sick it came out of the blue, and his friends and family were there to help out any way they could. “Basically he hadn’t been to the doctor in like 25 years,” Sasha explains. “He would say things like ‘No man that’s not for me, that’s bummer stuff. I don’t need to know what they say cause that’s just gonna bum my ride.’ So any problems that he might have had physically from all his years of partying, he was basically just trying to outrun that.” Most of his last month was spent in the hospital. “He still was, even though he had his illness, he still was Rex,” Brent said. After the news of Rex passing away from heart and kidney failure turned up on the internet hundreds of people from all over the world reached out to share their condolences. Tatarex disciples we never even knew about are now coming out of the woodwork and that’s a great testament to how many people he reached over the course of his life. “He was like a walking hit of acid or a mushroom, when you were in a room with him it was like you were on him.” Brent says. “Rex was the coolest guy I’ve ever met in my life, the biggest influence on me, there’s no two ways about it. And it was only ten years that he was around, you know? That says a lot.” Brent explains that right before Rex passed away he came out of consciousness for a short period time, enough to make peace. “This is me quoting someone who quoted his brother, but basically his last words were ‘I loved my life.’”
“If you look close at that belt that he’s wearing on The Summer Hits record. He’s got no shirt on, he’s got striped trousers, he’s got some pointy Cuban heeled boots. But that belt is a red, white and blue belt and it doesn’t say “love” it says “VOTE.” And that says everything to me, you know?”
Medical Records reissued Beaches and Canyons on vinyl as a 1,000-run Record Store Day release in 2016. It is presented on high-quality 180gram, two tone colored brown and black vinyl and it includes bonus flexi disc as well as a bonus insert with lyrics and liner notes.
Extra special thanks to Brent Rademaker, Sasha Eisenman, Matt Clonts, and Maura Klosterman