Rex “Tartarex” Thompson, lead singer and bassist of legendary lo-fi band The Summer Hits and a Promethean figure of ‘90s L.A. music, died on Thursday.
Thompson’s immediate family confirmed Friday afternoon that the singer died of heart and kidney failure. He was 47.
In the heady early ’90s, the tides of rock were turning, and there was no bigger head than the singer of The Summer Hits. Thompson was known by all as an immaculate dresser, a genius mixtape maker and a genuine embodiment of ’60s psychedelic fashion.
His music was similarly familiar yet elusive: instruments turned up so loud as to be indistinguishable; a sheen of deeply buzzed rock & roll serenity; the sound of Dinosaur Jr., The Zombies and My Bloody Valentine being tossed around together in the dryer.
Thompson formed The Summer Hits in L.A. in 1992 with guitarist Darren Rademaker and drummer Josh Schwartz. The band gigged around at indie and underground venues like Jabberjaw and put out an array of singles between 1992 and ’96, which were all released together in 1997 on the mango-colored, rarely-in-print collection Beaches and Canyons.
A note printed on the CD addresses listeners in Thompson’s half-refined, half-goof patois: “The Summer Hits group strongly recommend you groove to these songs the way in which they were laid down. That is to say, at a deafening volume while utterly loaded.”
Rademaker, like others, recalled being struck by Thompson’s appearance the first time they met. “He was almost 6 foot 4, 6 foot 5, and really thin in the early days,” he says. “He knew a lot about California and music, especially old mod and psych. And he spoke like a cross between a California dude and a sophisticated country club kid” (which he wasn’t).
His nickname, “Tartarex,” came from the title of a 1969 tune by German psych band The Petards.
The Summer Hits' songs, like “Stony Creation,” are buttressed by tape hiss and guitars that alternately chime and pour down like water in a storm drain. Thompson’s voice is nearly lost in the mix as he sings lyrics like: “My friend Kellie digs the right music/She hates the pigs but never gets busted.”
Onstage, “You couldn’t take your eyes off him,” recalls DJ and musician Jimi Hey, a friend of Thompson’s. He had no musical training, and “he was half the most incredible-looking person, and half a train wreck. It was fascinating to see this impeccably dressed, otherworldly guy get up there.
“They were playing shows with bands like Sebadoh, but they were so different,” Hey adds. “They were like a spectacle.”
Obscurity was Thompson’s natural element. He made mixtapes for friends that became legendary, compilations of psych, disco or proto-metal adorned with his own hand-drawn designs, containing long missives explaining the context of his choices. The passion and detail carried over into the way he dressed (like the cowboy Gram Parsons always wanted to be), the way he spoke (intelligently and groovily at once) and the music he made (perfectly crafted, even when it was too loud to make out the individual elements).
The Summer Hits dissolved at the end of the ’90s after releasing one more EP, the experimental Hot Skin. Rademaker’s other band, Further, also achieved moderate indie success in the ’90s, and another of his projects, The Tyde, continues to perform.
Schwartz went on to play in several other groups as well, including a brief stint in the cosmic cowboy pop band Beachwood Sparks alongside Rademaker's brother Brent.
The current L.A. rock scene is imprinted with The Summer Hits' influence. Matt Fishbeck and Ariel Pink, who formed Holy Shit together in the early ’00s, were close to Thompson, and soaked up his ironic aesthetic of impermeable lo-fi and intricate craft, warping it to their own vision. Witness Holy Shit’s brilliant 2006 debut, Stranded at Two Harbors, or Pink’s more recent Pom Pom.
In fact, bands from across the last 20 years, starting with The Brian Jonestown Massacre and trickling down to King Tuff, Ty Segall and the entire Burger Records continuum, owe The Summer Hits a debt of gratitude, whether they know it or not, for keeping the spirit of ’60s psychedelia alive by means of their lo-fi yet full-throated music.
“[Thompson] would talk about the ’60s and shake his head and say, ‘Man, what a party,’” Fishbeck, of Holy Shit, says. “But he was living it. [And] it wasn’t just a costume party every day. It was a faithfulness to a spirit that really would have been buried by time if it weren’t for his dedication to its preservation.”
After the dissolution of The Summer Hits, Thompson never pursued another serious music project. He spent a few years in Europe before eventually moving back to L.A. In later years, he struggled with alcohol abuse, friends and family say. In 2014, he performed a Summer Hits reunion show at the Echoplex with Rademaker in support of Schwartz, who has ALS.
Then, in April of this year, Medical Records, a small Seattle label, reissued Beaches and Canyons as a 1,000-run Record Store Day release. Label owner Troy Wadsworth says he’s been a fan of the record since hearing it in college, and worked with Rademaker to put together the reissue.
“Then, Rex texted me one day randomly,” says Wadsworth. “The way he talks in text messages is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Thompson insisted, for instance, that Wadsworth leave the “g” off the end of any gerunds in the liner notes. “He told me, 'It’s not writing, doctor, you dig? It’s writin’.”
The reissue gave Tartarex one last claim to fame. “That was the culmination of everything we wanted,” Rademaker says. “We wanted in 20 years for people to listen to us the way we listened to the obscure '60s and ’70s bands that we liked.”
When it came out, Rademaker says, “I texted Rex and said, ‘You did it.’”