Ten Years Later: Remembering the Life and Legacy of Jimmy ‘The Rev’ Sullivan

As the current decade draws to a close, the 2000s now come into retrospective focus. All of what was considered “important” from that time period will soon be consensualized by pop culture and the general public into a time capsule of moments, memories, and music. The modern music landscape will undoubtedly reshape in coming years, and on the cusp of another musical and cultural shift, I took it upon myself to approach the critical pantheon with the work of one of the most underrated artists of our time, and with respect, my idol Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan on the tenth anniversary of his death.

The Rev at Ozzfest ’06.

“It is with great sadness and heavy hearts that we tell you of the passing today of Jimmy ‘The Rev’ Sullivan,” the surviving members of Avenged Sevenfold posted to their website on December 28th, 2009. “Jimmy was not only one of the world’s best drummers, but more importantly he was our best friend and brother,” the statement continued. I was 12 years old then, on holiday break and on one particular Monday morning I decided to sit down and check my favorite bands website, only to read that statement and immediately burst into tears.

On June 9th 2010, the Orange County, California coroner’s office told Rolling Stone that Sullivan died from an accidental overdose of prescription medication and alcohol. Toxicology tests determined that Sullivan suffered “acute polydrug intoxication due to combined effects of Oxycodone, Oxymorphone, Diazepam/Nordiazepam and Ethanol.” Jimmy also had a rare enlarged heart condition (Cardiomegaly), which could have played a key role in his untimely death as well.

Sullivan was born February 9th, 1981 in Huntington Beach, California. He started taking drum lessons at age 10, and immediately proved to be a natural. Within a year, he was one of the top performers in his drum teachers college percussion ensemble. He appreciated technicality and a challenge, drawing early influence from jazz and prog rock. Jimmy played with aggression and flair, by his early teens he had molded a metal style all his own, heavily influenced by Pantera, Metallica, and Slayer. At the same time, he appreciated the flash of mainstream acts including Guns N’ Roses and Motley Crue, combining them all into his multifaceted performances. “He was a truly rounded drummer that played with passion, heart, and a lot of soul,” said late Pantera and Hellyeah drummer Vinnie Paul. “The Rev was one of the most creative drummers of recent times. He put his rudimental upbringing into his style which made his music very challenging and dangerous.”

As an adolescent, Jimmy wasn’t one to follow any set rules. He centered his interests around music, and quickly developed lifelong friendships with a few of his future bandmates. M. Shadows (Matt Sanders) is quoted saying; “In second grade, I met The Reverend. He was always getting in trouble, total trouble-maker kid. He just didn’t have any respect for authority whatsoever. Like, yeah, sure it’s cool to act like you don’t care but he just didn’t get it. It was just in his nature to not give a fuck.”

Backstage at Vans Warped Tour ’04.

After he finished high school in ’99, Jimmy took his generational talent to the stage forming Avenged Sevenfold with childhood friends M. Shadows,
Synyster Gates, Zacky Vengeance, and Johnny Christ. His stage name “The Rev” was shortened from “The Reverend Tholomew Plague.”

Although they had trouble finding shows and getting accepted into the then-thriving Orange County punk/hardcore scene at first, the band wasted little time writing original songs and released their debut project Sounding the Seventh Trumpet in 2002. They followed it up a year later with their sophomore album Waking The Fallen, soon after garnering an enormous underground following, and touring the United States and parts of Europe.

Warped Tour played a key role in the early success of the band as well, taking their punk/glam-thrash metal style with them to each city sticking out like a sore thumb in the abysmal blender of trendy pop-punk bands that was Warped Tour at the time, which, in turn, exposed them to an entirely new audience.

Waking the Fallen circa 2003.

In 2005, Avenged Sevenfold reached international stardom with their major label debut, City Of Evil. According to frontman M. Shadows, “Jimmy had been held back on Waking The Fallen, so there was no way he was going to be held back on this album.” The first track, Beast and the Harlot, featured some of the most intricate and precise drumming of modern times. The thunderous double bass and machine gun style fills echoed throughout the entire album, although the project wasn’t received as warmly by fans at first. Apparently, fans had gotten so accustomed to the brash, metalcore sound that was Waking The Fallen that they weren’t ready just yet for the complete 180 style change in City of Evil. The screams had turned into harmonic, then radio-friendly choruses. Still, it wasn’t until their single Bat Country hit the charts that their new sound started to pick up.

By the time 2007 came around, the band had completed their album tours, appeared on national television several times, and even took home the “Best New Artist In A Video” award at the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards, beating out Rihanna, Chris Brown, Panic! at the Disco, James Blunt and Angels & Airwaves with their music video for Bat Country.

Avenged Sevenfold at the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards.

With their first taste of success still fresh in their minds, Avenged Sevenfold hit the studio again in 2007. Beforehand, the band took some time away in isolation to write and come up with new material before demoing out the album at home and finally recording at El Dorado studios in Los Angeles. That time away seemed to benefit Jimmy more than anyone else. According to the “Making of the Album” video, Jimmy has original writing and composing credits on every song on their self-titled release. Songs like Almost Easy, Afterlife, Brompton Cocktail, and A Little Piece of Heaven were written in their entirety by Jimmy before recording, so every lyric, guitar riff and drum fill on those songs are completely his, which also explains why they’re all widely-successful fan favorites. Jimmy was a naturally gifted singer as well. His pitched, unorthodox voice appeared time and time again throughout the album. At that time, Transformers had begun production, and the film crew reached out to the band to put Almost Easy into the soundtrack (which would’ve been a great choice with Shia LaBeouf as the lead role, IMO.) But, as the band hurried to complete the song first, it never made its way into the film although it was picked up in the sequel.

Their self-titled release in 2007 still proves to be a great body of work to this day, and depending on who you ask, it’s Avenged Sevenfold in their purest form. The album was one of, if not the very first modern hard rock project to feature hip-hop elements as well like we know them today. 808s, the use of autotune, hip-hop style cymbal work, and melodic, experimental cadences are prevalent throughout the album.

Just before the dawn of the 2010s, the band began working on their next project, Nightmare. Coming home from two years of touring in support of their previous album, the follow-up had been planned a concept album to take the listener on a “very dark journey,” utilizing components of world issues at the time to portray a nightmarish storyline. By mid December 2009, all the music for the record had been written and demoed, and the band was excited to get in the studio again.

Then, on December 28th, tragedy struck. Jimmy ‘The Rev’ Sullivan was found dead in his Huntington Beach home as result of an accidental overdose. He was just 28 years old. Needless to say, the band was crushed. Only after an intense lengthy grieving process and introspection, they felt they were finally ready to deliver what they call “Jimmy’s masterpiece” and release the new album as a tribute to their fallen brother.

Synyster Gates and The Rev.

“[The concept of the record was] the whole state of the world right now: economy, racism, schools, religion. All these crazy things I was going to try and pack into it,” M. Shadows stated in an interview with Revolver Magazine. “Jimmy was writing more on this album than he had ever written. His mind was just flowing. He had all these ideas. If you played something for him, he would add something to it, or work his ass off to make sure that we could use the part. He was just on fire. He’d go to Matt’s house and lay down drums every day, or he’d go over to Brian’s house, you know, they’d get drunk, write and then at fucking 4 in the morning he’d come over to my house and fucking play on the piano and we’d just sit there and hang out. He was just, literally, exhausting every ounce of what he had left. That’s what I really truly believe. He was laying it down, and like, just putting it out there for the world.”

Before the recording process took place in 2010, the band made it very clear that they weren’t looking for a permament replacement. Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater agreed to record drum tracks for the album and support the band on their tour endeavors. Portnoy was one of Jimmy’s biggest influences, as he was to everyone in Avenged Sevenfold. He fit seamlessly into the mix, playing every part of every song as he felt Jimmy would want it played, according to the demos Jimmy had written. The album featured some of the darkest, and adventurous twists and turns in modern music history.

From the foreboding opening sequence in the title track Nightmare, the second half of Buried Alive, to the eleven minute masterpiece Save Me, Nightmare just may be the greatest metal album of all time. The most interesting turn comes near the end of the album, though.

“Three days before he died, Jimmy went and wrote Fiction.
He finished laying everything down, hummed the entire melody and sang parts of it, and told Matt that he wanted the song to be called Death. And he told Matt that he was going to help him with the lyrics, and then he died. He wrote one of the most haunting songs, unlike anything I’ve ever heard, that goes into the saddest, most foreboding ending in probably the history of music. I’ve never known someone to write something like that and leave the world three days later.” Zacky Vengeance stated. “I mean, like, when does that ever happen in history? A guy dies, pretty much predicts his death in a song, and says goodbye in the song, and the song gets released with his vocal on it and sings a lyric that’s supposed to be a demo from scratch.” The song was originally titled Death, but later given the title Fiction because Jimmy always said his life was like a work of fiction, and he had the word tattooed down his torso.

Nightmare debuted at #1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 after its release on July 27th, 2010. The Rev and Mike Portnoy were the recipients of the Golden Gods award for best drummer for their work on the album. Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance won best guitarists, M. Shadows grabbed best vocalist, and the album won the Golden Gods award for album of the year. Nightmare was certified platinum in Canada, and gold in the United States and United Kingdom.

Synyster Gates (Brian Haner Jr.) said in an interview with Revolver; “We all have our weird little things to help with coping and mine is that Jimmy had this master plan. Maybe he didn’t prefer to go out when he did, but he had said some wild shit really alluding to it. He knew that he lived a crazy life. I think all of this shit is part of the guy’s master plan and nobody took control from that guy. Nobody controlled Jimmy. Jimmy controlled himself – or lost control of himself. Either way, it was all ridiculous. Having said that, I think having his idol play in his stead… I mean, hopefully, he’s up there seeing Mike Portnoy’s approach to his music. I think that would be an incredible, incredible gift for him.”

What people don’t get about Jimmy, he wasn’t only an artist, he was a beautiful human being with an extraordinary heart. He lived life on the edge of his own world and inspired a generation of kids after him to do the same – myself included. Ahead of his time. A brilliant musician and songwriter with a heart of gold, that demanded love and wasn’t afraid to give it back. A career cut too short to establish a “proper” legacy, and too quiet of a death for immediate posthumous superstardom. Still, the impact Jimmy had on those that were dear to him is immeasurable, he is deeply loved and missed and his life and musical legacy will continue to be studied for generations. Ten years after his death, I could find little to no serious critical writing on the legacy and work of Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan. This is my attempt to rectify that and secure his place in modern music history.