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Avenged Sevenfold remember the Rev: "He never ceased to create music that touched my very soul"

(Image credit: john mcmurtrie)

James Owen Sullivan was born in Tustin, California, on February 9, 1981 and his family soon moved  to the idyllic seaside city of Huntington Beach. He spent his early days at the beach, boogie boarding with his two sisters, practising WWE moves in his bedroom and, of course, banging the ever-living hell out of his mother’s  pots and pans. It was almost as if he felt his calling from the start...

“He was the happiest kid you ever saw in your life,” remembers his  mother Barbara. “And everything  was funny! When he was growing up, you would try to reprimand him, but he’d be laughing so hard that it would be really difficult to tell him to stop. You’d say, ‘Stop it, that’s not funny!’ and he’d say, ‘It’s funny to me!’ Ha ha ha!” This roguish charm and fiery rebellious streak would come to define the young man, who would one day  be called ‘The Rev’.

With his moppy bowl haircut and gangly figure, Jimmy (call him ‘James’ at your peril), made a strong first impression. Future Avenged Sevenfold bassist Jonathan Lewis Seward, aka Johnny Christ, was only five years old when  he first met The Rev, who was friends with Johnny’s older brothers. “He was like this skinny, long, lanky dude and he was wild!” he recalls. “Right off the  bat you could tell that he had a ton of energy and that he wanted to destroy shit! Ha ha ha!”

Jimmy had a fairly ordinary upbringing; he went to school, hung out at the beach and played sports  for most of the year. “Jimmy was  a tremendous athlete,” says his dad,  Joe. “As a kid, he really loved his basketball, man.”

Throughout his life, Jimmy enjoyed the unwavering support of his parents to an extent that’s both rare and touching. When he was five years old, his obsession with drumming on bottles in the bathtub led his parents  to sign him up for drum lessons.  More than a financial commitment,  his mum drove him an hour to and from his teacher, Jeanette Wrate, several times each week. “She was from Hermosa Beach, which was  quite a trek from here,” says Barbara. “But she was that good. You can see  the results; he was a phenomenal drummer. We stayed with her up  until the point where she looked at  him and said, ‘I have nothing more  to teach you.’”

Avenged know how to party, but The Rev could out-party them all

Avenged know how to party, but The Rev could out-party them all (Image credit: getty)

Anybody paying attention could see that Jimmy possessed a freakish level of talent. There was something about his style, even back then, that set him apart not just from his contemporaries, but from older, seasoned players as well. 

Obsessively practising snare patterns, paradiddles and complicated kickwork, Jimmy evolved into  a confident and versatile player who could effortlessly move from the neck-snapping aggression of a Slayer song to the nuanced, avant-garde stylings of Mr. Bungle

Future lead guitarist Brian Elwin Haner Jr, aka Synyster Gates, met Jimmy in eighth-grade wood shop – but it wasn’t quite bromance at first sight. “I didn’t like him at first,” Syn tells us with a chuckle. “He was loud, crazy and fucking with everybody.  But definitely a charismatic guy.”

The feeling was apparently mutual, and it was only after they fell into  a fistfight in class that they finally got to know each other – in detention. Realising they shared a love of heavy music, they wasted no time. 

“My brother was a drummer so we went back to my house and played on his  kit and I was fucking blown away,” says Syn. “I had never heard drumming that great on tape or CD at that point. This guy was next-level. I come to find out that he’s playing Dream Theater stuff and shit that I’d never heard of before – things that truly blew my mind. We just hit it off right there.”

By then, Jimmy had already forged  a reputation as a much-prized timekeeper, playing in working bands with older kids. So when his friends, guitarist Zachary James Baker (Zacky Vengeance) and singer Matthew Charles Sanders (M Shadows), formed  a band called Avenged Sevenfold, Jimmy was in no hurry to join. 

Shadows recalls, “When we were starting our band, we really wanted him to play but he was playing with guys in high school and older [ages 14+], and we were in seventh and eight grade [ages 12-14]. He had no time for us because he was so far advanced, musically. 

The Rev performs during the Extreme Thing Festival at Desert Breeze Park, 2006

The Rev performs during the Extreme Thing Festival at Desert Breeze Park, 2006 (Image credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images))

He was playing Pantera and Slayer note-for-note. We didn’t even know how to get the source note on the guitar. But once we got serious and were trying to do our thing, he was like, ‘OK, let’s just play together and see what happens.’” The rest, as they say… well, you know.

As 2000 drew to a close, the band went to record their debut, decamping to the infamous Westbeach Recorders studio, owned by Bad Religion’s Brett Gurewitz and having housed recording sessions by NOFX and Rancid. For some of the guys, it was a true baptism by fire. Zacky says, “I’d never played a tuned guitar in my life! Ha ha! When they showed me a tuner in the studio,  it blew my mind.”

If there were any lingering doubts regarding the immense scale of Jimmy’s talent, they were forever squashed when he nailed his drum parts in one take. “He showed up to the studio and just let loose,” Zacky says. “I still believe those were some  of our best-sounding drums.”

Sounding The Seventh Trumpet didn’t create overnight success for the guys, but it was a confident step forward, with its raw production and its mistakes-and-all urgency. When  they needed a new bassist to finish  the supporting tour, Jimmy knew just the guy. Johnny Christ remembers getting the news. 

“I got a call from  the boys – specifically Jimmy – and  he was like, ‘You wanna try out for  the gig and come out on the road with us?’ I was like, ‘Fuck, yeah! Let’s do it.’ That was when I was 18 years old, and towards the end of that two-week run, I joined the band. Out on the road,  we all became brothers. It just clicked right away.”

An accomplished pianist, Jimmy could effortlessly translate gorgeous melodies in his head into grandiose compositions on a keyboard. It was  how he processed his songwriting inspiration. With this vision in mind, he invited Syn to collaborate on  a side-project called Pinkly Smooth, and after some initial hesitation, Syn was in. 

Pinkly Smooth released their one and only album – the badly underrated prog-metal epic Unfortunate Snort – in 2001. “Jimmy came up  with the melody for the bridge on [Unfortunate Snort track] Mezmer,” Syn says, “and it sounded fucking brilliant and I lost my mind. It excited me like nothing else had up to that point in my life. Right there I knew we had  a masterpiece on our hands. He never ceased to create music that touched my very fucking soul.” 

Always drumming: Shadows, Synyster Gates and The Rev backstage on Vans Warped Tour, 2005

Always drumming: Shadows, Synyster Gates and The Rev backstage on Vans Warped Tour, 2005 (Image credit: getty)

The one-two punch of 2003’s Waking The Fallen and 2005’s City Of Evil established Avenged Sevenfold as legitimate heirs to the heavy metal throne, and this onslaught of success brought with it all of the fabled trappings of rock superstardom. None were more suited to this lifestyle than Jimmy. 

“He was like a magnet  and he had that personality, where  you always want to take things to the edge,” says Shadows. “We’d tour with all of these other bands and they’d all say, ‘The Rev is the craziest fucking person I’ve ever met. He’s just insane.’ He was just wild.”

A typical night with Jimmy usually ended well into the next morning  and even his bandmates had trouble keeping up. “He would always make a point to bring me out of my shell,” Zacky says. “He’d pick me up in a limo and we’d go to a baseball game – he loved the [New York] Yankees – and then he’d come back to my house and it would be like, 1am, and I’d say, ‘Thanks dude, that was awesome! "

I should probably go to bed…’ and he’d be like, ‘Nope. I’m coming in.’ He’d be jamming on the piano, coming up with melodies, talking about philosophy and music, and it would always end at six in the morning with a great big hug while the limo driver sat there waiting, racking up god-knows-how-much of a bill…”

Onstage Jimmy was a tornado, sticks twirling, kick drums firing and hair swinging wildly as he bashed away at his kit. He even invented a signature technique – the double ride – where he would hit two ride cymbals in short, accelerated bursts to push a song’s tempo. You can hear it at the 25-second mark of Almost Easy, from 2007’s self-titled album, aka The White Album.

Looking back on his overall contributions to Avenged Sevenfold, it beggars belief that his greatest talent was not his drumming but his songwriting. Ironically, though regarded as the band’s resident rebel, there’s agreement among the guys that initially, Jimmy felt nervous about composing for Avenged. 

“He was always insecure about writing for the band,” says Syn. “It was the only insecurity I never noticed in him. Finally he started writing, and obviously A Little Piece Of Heaven is reminiscent of Pinkly Smooth and the other stuff, like Afterlife and Almost Easy and Brompton Cocktail – those were heavy rock smash hits to me. They were brilliant! The guy could do anything.”

By all accounts, The Rev (a shortened version of his self-given nickname, ‘The Reverend Tholomew Plague’), was a fiercely loyal friend without a mean bone in his body, but he wasn’t an angel, either. 

“I would constantly worry about his drinking,” says Barbara. “He drank too much. And I worried about him getting in bar fights, which he did.” One such infamous example involved Jimmy getting arrested after a brawl at the legendary Crobar pub following Avenged’s London debut in 2004. The band would later warmly recount how Jimmy had to play a show in Germany the very next day – fresh out of jail and still covered in mace.

Shadows and The Rev: best buds

Shadows and The Rev: best buds (Image credit: john mcmurtrie)

But, with fame and financial success comes new responsibility, and in the wake of The White Album the guys began tapering down their hedonistic ways. Which is not to say that they stopped raging, but that they did so a bit less. Jimmy, however, kept his foot on the pedal and it showed.  

“We saw him gaining a lot of fucking weight,” Syn explains. “So number one, we knew he wasn’t doing cocaine, you know? And number two, we were a little uneducated on the exact drugs that he was taking. Nobody in the band was ever into that, so he was living in a different world. We still saw each other all the time, but we were concerned, you know?”

Johnny recalls, “He was acting differently. He wasn’t just fun-loving Jimmy. We knew there was something different but I’d be lying if I said, ‘Oh yeah, he was doing this or that.’ We didn’t know all of it.”

The band tried get Jimmy the help he needed. Shadows reveals that Jimmy entered rehab more than once. “He went to rehab multiple times. I was hounding him all the time about the drugs and I was to be avoided, in a way, because I’d call him out and so would my wife. A lot of people that we really looked up to were really supporting him and helping him. 

"Then one time we were out to dinner with him and  a bunch of stuff fell out of his pocket right in front of us. So we had an intervention with him and we sent him away again, and it was just one of those things. You can only do it so much and eventually something like this was going to happen.”

Yet even as he spiralled deeper into his addictions, he made significant contributions – both drumming and songwriting – to what would be the Nightmare album. “During those sessions he was fine,” says Syn. 

“He was always such a creative monster that that was never an issue.” Towards the end of the Nightmare sessions, Jimmy delivered a new song to the band called Fiction, which was a nickname that he gave himself. Hauntingly, the original working title had been ‘Death’.

On December 27, 2009, the band attended the wedding reception of their good friend Matt Berry. Jimmy had just undergone laser eye surgery and joked with all of the guys about how nice it was to finally “see” them. The evening wore on and, one by one, each of the guys called it a night and left. None of them realised that it would be the last time they saw their friend.

Lifelong friends, Avenged were more like brothersv

Lifelong friends, Avenged were more like brothersv (Image credit: getty)

The next morning, Jimmy’s girlfriend Leana woke up and found him unresponsive. She reached out to Shadows’ wife, Val. “My wife called me,” Shadows says, “and she was just crying and she told me what happened and that she was with him. I guess his girlfriend Leana called Val before she called anyone else, and Val went over and had to identify him to the police. So I had to call his parents and then sit in traffic for about four hours because it was rush hour. So it was pretty brutal.”

“It was awful,” Barbara remembers. “I got the call from Matt. Val called Matt and Matt called me, and I honestly thought he was pulling my leg. I kept telling Matt, ‘Quit screwing around.’ By the time his voice was cracking, I knew that he meant it. Jimmy had passed.” 

Joe adds, “I was at work in LA and so I was just thinking about it quietly  on the drive all the way back to Huntington Beach, just thinking, ‘Man, what does this mean? What are we going to do?’ Then I had to call our girls.”

One by one, Shadows called his bandmates. “I got a call from Matt,” Zacky recalls, “and I said, ‘Hey man, what’s up? All good?’ And he said, ‘No,’ and then he said, ‘Jimmy’s dead.’ Yeah… it was fucked…” Zacky’s voice begins to crack with emotion before he continues. “It’s crazy… It’s still hard to talk about.”

The band and their friends, along with Jimmy’s parents, camped out at Shadows’ place that evening, sharing stories and lots of teary-eyed laughs. “The silver lining – if there was one  at all – was how close it brought us,” Johnny says. 

“We were already brothers, but the bond that it created was something even stronger. With everything going on, we posted up at Matt’s house or Brian’s house or my house for a night. For a solid two or three weeks, we didn’t leave each other’s houses. We’d just get together as people came by to share their condolences and swap Jimmy stories.”

The coroner’s report stated that Jimmy had died of a drug overdose, specifically, ‘acute polydrug intoxication due to combined effects of Oxycodone, Oxymorphone, Diazepam/Nordiazepam and ethanol’. On January 6, 2010, Jimmy was laid to rest in  a simple, private ceremony, with Syn delivering the eulogy. It was attended by his friends and family, as well as members of the metal community, including Vinnie Paul and Matt Tuck. 

The Reverend Tholomew Plague playing Leeds Festival on August 22, 2008

The Reverend Tholomew Plague playing Leeds Festival on August 22, 2008 (Image credit: getty)

While the band struggled with the idea of continuing without Jimmy, they ultimately realised that disbanding would be the last thing their friend would have wanted. 

They released Nightmare that summer, which reached No.5 in the UK charts and No.1 on the US Billboard charts. Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy – a longtime hero, influence on Jimmy and stand-in on the record – filled in on the ensuing tour as a heartfelt tribute to The Rev and the legacy that he created. 

Arin Ilejay drummed for Avenged on Hail To The King and its ensuing tour, and former Bad Religion sticksman Brooks Wackerman has been the band’s full-time drummer since 2015.

The band honour Jimmy’s memory during a video tribute in their live shows – a practice that Syn hopes they will always continue. “I’d like to keep it there,” he says. “That was our best fucking friend. That was our brother. We’ve known each other forever, and we couldn’t have been any closer, and we can’t be any closer as a band. That’s who Avenged Sevenfold was.”

The guys would all like to think that Jimmy would be proud of the band today. “I think he’d be stoked,” says Shadows. “He always took pleasure in putting crazy stuff out there; crazy records that divide fans. He got a kick out of that. I know he always got a kick out of trying to push the envelope and we’ve continued to do that.”

Jimmy Sullivan was an absurdly talented musician, the most lovable  of rogues and a deeply passionate friend, son and brother. And to his fans, he was larger than life itself – a captivating and wildly talented rockstar of the highest order. 

But his bandmates believe that he would have wanted to be remembered not for what he did, but for who he was. “He was compassionate, emotional and just a really smart kind of guy, and he’d always be so positive,” says Shadows. “Even though he had his own demons, he was always such a good friend and a guy that you’d want to be around.”

“I don’t think he’d want to be remembered for his accomplishments,” says Johnny. “I think he’d want to be remembered for his stories and for his wild nature and for all of those things that we remember him for, as brothers. Jimmy was that personality that could light up any room and hang, and stay bright. That’s the thing - his star shone very brightly; it just went out a little too soon.”