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On December 27, 2009, the members of Avenged Sevenfold were at their friend Matt Berry's wedding reception in a park in their hometown of Huntington Beach, California. It was a fun day, a family day, a day for broad smiles and tall stories, warm hugs and cold beers. Matt and his twin brother Jason, A7X's merch guy and drum tech respectively, had bought in kegs of lager for their guests, and as the sun dipped and the day drew to a close, someone suggested wheeling a keg over to M. Shadows' house, a couple of minutes away, to continue the party. M. politely nixed the idea: he had to be up at 6am for a two-hour drive to play golf in Santa Barbara, and embarking upon that journey with a hangover wouldn't be the smartest idea. That was the cue for his buddies Synyster Gates, Zacky Vengeance and Johnny Christ to call it a night too, but drummer Jimmy 'The Rev' Sullivan – always the life and soul of every Avenged party – decided he was up for more fun, and disappeared into the night with friends, "happy as a clam" as M. recalls.
"That party may have ended early, but the party never ended for Jimmy," the singer says. "Jimmy was the kind of guy that would hang out with anybody at any time, and whatever they wanted to do he was down: he was friends with everybody. It was just one time too many…"
At 1pm the next day, as he was finishing off his golf round, M. received a phone call telling him that Jimmy was dead. M.'s best friend was just 28 years old. In the dark, distressing, damaged days that followed, the singer kept asking himself, 'What if?' What if he'd thrown open his door to his friends that fateful night? What if they'd drunk the keg dry and all crashed out on his floor as so often before, telling jokes and talking shit ’til the sun rose above the Pacific Ocean surf breaks once more? Six months to the day after his friend was laid to rest, these questions continue to nag at M.’s mind. He knows that they probably always will.
"If the keg had come to my house, Jimmy wouldn't have been elsewhere doing whatever he was doing," says M. quietly. "He'd have been with me and all of our friends, and we'd have been able to help him if anything happened. But I was like, 'I'm too tired,' and then no-one wanted to hang out, and he went off on his own and did his own thing without any of our really close friends and then… that happened. It was just insane to me. Insane."
Today, M., Synyster, Zacky and Johnny are in a plush photo studio in Newport Beach, a 20-minute drive from their Huntington Beach homes, and a city rated as the most affluent in the U.S., with half of the properties valued in excess of $1 million. It's the day before Synyster's 29th birthday – kindly the guitarist will blow out dinner with his mum and dad to take Kerrang! for sushi and beers later tonight – and he and his bandmates are in good form, swapping stories of the July 4 weekend and teasing one another about hair cuts and weight gains, as friends in bands are prone to do before photoshoots. Both M. and Synyster are sporting chunky wedding rings – the singer married his long-term girlfriend Valary DiBenedetto on October 20, 2009; the guitarist married Valary's twin sister Michelle on May 7, 2010 – and M. is also nursing a broken thumb, the result of a clash on a basketball court three weeks ago.
Every now and then, as he walks off a court with friends at the end of a pick-up game, M. will be approached by a stranger offering words of sympathy on Jimmy's death, then telling him that they know this really awesome drummer who he might wanna check out. Sometimes, he'll find CDs and demo tapes in his mailbox, accompanied by letters that inform him that he can stop the search for the 'next Jimmy' right now. On the afternoon of December 28, as news of Jimmy's death broke worldwide, the band's manager Larry Jacobson actually received phone calls from no less than five drummers, each wanting to know if they could try out for the vacant drum stool. As incredibly insensitive and tasteless as this is, the members of Avenged Sevenfold get it: they understand that some people are ignorant to the bonds that tie their band, and simply see Avenged Sevenfold as part of the showbiz world, a world where 'the show must go on'. After all, with the notable exception of Led Zeppelin, who dissolved their band in the aftermath of drummer John Bonham's death in 1980, rock bands have proved remarkably resolute in the face of tragedy, with AC/DC, Def Leppard and Metallica, for example, continuing to go from strength to strength after losing a key member. An outsider might look at what's happening today in the Vorhees photo studio, with the quartet posing for photographs and fielding questions about their imminent new album in a room adorned with framed, autographed photographs of skaters, surfers and supermodels, and conclude that this is business as usual for one of the world's premier rock bands. But for this tight-knit group, best friends since early adolescence, it isn't and will never be again.
As far as the four surviving members of Avenged Sevenfold are concerned, everything they do from here on in is for Jimmy. Zacky recalls the day when his friend appeared with the word 'Fiction' tattooed across his sternum: when the guitarist asked Jimmy why he'd chosen this tattoo, the drummer replied, 'Because if anyone were to hear the story of my life, they wouldn't believe it.' The band's mission now, as Zacky sees it, is to ensure that the world now hears that story at maximum volume.
"The day before he died, Jimmy fucking quoted Winston Churchill, that famous quote where Churchill was asked if history would be kind to him, and he said, 'It will be kind to me, for I intend to write it,'" says the guitarist quietly. "Jimmy did it in an English accent, with a cigar in his mouth and he was right: he left us, his best friends who he put all his faith and trust in, to write the fucking book on him. The way he is going down in history is the way that we get to tell his stories. And I think that's unbelievable."
"So if we're going to be a band," says Synyster, picking up on his friend's thoughts seamlessly, as all his bandmates seem capable of doing for one another, "and if we're going to push Jimmy's legacy and tell Jimmy's stories, then we're going to have to do stuff like this: we're going to have to do press, we're going to have to do photos, we're going to have to do all the politics that go along with being a band.
"After Jimmy died, we were fucking done," he continues. "For the first week we were done. We all sat down and said, 'We gotta throw in the towel, without Jimmy there is no Avenged Sevenfold.' But when we sat and talked with Jimmy's family they were like, 'You guys have gotta do this.' His sister Katie said, 'If it were one of you guys, what would you want from the other guys? You've gotta keep going. Jimmy left you a bunch of gifts, and he'd want you to do it for yourselves, but from us, the Sullivan family, do it for him, please.' They kinda kicked us in the ass.
"So now we're getting pushed by his family, by our friends, by our own families, by the label, by management, by the press, everything. At times it's a little tough. At times it sucks. But overall, I'm glad we're being pushed to do this."
Above: The cover of the July 2010 Kerrang! issue from which this story is taken. Photo: Ashley Maile
It was Avenged's determination and desire to honour their friend's legacy which pushed the heartbroken band to record their fifth album in their darkest hour. The music for Nightmare had been concluded just before they took a two-week break for Christmas: the final piece of music for the album, an emotional piano ballad written by Jimmy and originally titled Death (later re-titled Fiction, in his honour), was completed by the drummer just three days before he passed away. The album was to be called Nightmare: by the time its creators came to record it, the title was horribly apt.
The recording process, says Zacky, was the hardest thing the band had ever done. The quartet still felt numb, traumatised, fragile, overwhelmed. There were tears and breakdowns and outbursts of anger: at times, each of them wondered whether they could get through the process. But with the help, friendship and guidance of Dream Theater's Mike Portnoy – The Rev's favourite drummer, and the band's only choice to replicate the rhythms Jimmy had written for the record – they got through it, delivering an album as dark, emotional and affecting as any you'll hear this year and one of which they're understandably immensely proud.
"When we were making the album we didn't want any photographs documenting the recording," says Synyster. "We didn't want fans to see us happy, we didn't want fans to see us sad, we didn't want anybody to be able to judge us when we had to do something that we know that we need to do to carry on a legacy. It was too much shit for us to deal with. But we finished the motherfucker for him. We did it for you, Jimmy.
"When we sat and listened to it on the last day we knew that we'd at least changed the world for ourselves," Zacky says simply. "When you listen to it, it just gives you the chills."
It would be wrong to suggest that the mood in the Avenged Sevenfold camp is currently morbid or maudlin. There is much for the band to look forward to right now: aside from the stability in their personal lives, Nightmare looks set to be their most successful album to date, if the acclaim and airplay awarded to its title-track can be read as a barometer of what's to come. But the four young musicians admit that their emotions are still raw, that they have good days and bad days, and days when they still feel crippled and immobilised by their loss. The problem is that there is no defined period of mourning, no day on which the pain is scheduled to melt away, no date on which it's deemed acceptable or appropriate to smile and laugh once more, no time when everyone's emotions are in sync. They've been hurt by some especially cruel early reviews of Nightmare – not least one on a UK website which wondered aloud why the band couldn't just man up and move on – and hurt by malicious suggestions that their friend Jimmy was a drug addict, rumours which gathered pace when the Orange County Coroner's report concluded that the drummer had died from the combined effects of four prescription drugs (Oxycodone, Oxymorphone, Diazepam, Nordiazepam) and alcohol. "Jimmy wasn't fucking addicted to anything," spits Synyster, "he was addicted to life. He was a shooting star and those things fucking burn out quickly." There are moments today when different members of the look close to tears as they seek the right words to honour their friend's memory, and Zacky admits that something as mundane as seeing Jimmy's phone number stored in his contacts list can bring the brutal reality of their friend's absence crashing home again. They're also all too aware that, in a cynical industry, the events of the past year will ensure this most provocative, outspoken band are being monitored as never before in the months ahead.
"Everything we do right now is under the microscope," admits Zacky, "and every step we make is like walking through a minefield. Everyone is going to have an opinion based on every picture they see and every word they read.
"But I'm not scared of that," he insists. "Because we're not putting on a show; everyone's getting to see us how we are. People have already seen me in my weakest state, I was humbled as far as a human could be. You feel like you're on top of the world and then you're left with nothing: you're no longer a fucking rock star, you're a shell of a human being. And those feelings are documented on the album. People are going to know everything we went through, they will see our sincerity. And because we've all been through the worst, every little thing now – finishing the album, releasing our first single, watching it fucking skyrocket up the charts – means so much more. Whereas before you might take shit for granted, now I feel deserving of every little triumph we have. And we know we have thousands and thousands of kids cheering our every victory, which is an incredible feeling. Jimmy contributed so much to us and now we get to carry his legacy on our shoulders and bring it to the entire world."
"I'm looking forward to seeing our fans again," adds Synyster. "We've spent months and months not exhibiting any insight into our personal situation and it's just going to be really good to see our people again. I'm sure there's going to be crying kids in the front row, and the second row, and the 50th row, and we're going to see that, and we're going to see the signs they're holding up, and it's going to be pretty special. We always put out our hearts and who we are and we believe in that connection with our fans, so I think that's the next step for us: instead of just talking about this situation, we have an album we can go out and play for people. Talking with them and communicating is something I'm excited about."
Avenged will begin their rehabilitation in front of their loyal fans on July 25, when they play the second day of Montreal's Heavy MTL festival, on a bill which includes Korn, Alexisonfire, Airbourne and Lamb Of God, before teaming up with their old friends in Disturbed and Stone Sour for the Rockstar Energy Drink Uproar festival through August and September. They're committed to touring their new album with Mike Portnoy until the end of 2010: after that their future is unwritten. But right now, they have unfinished business, for Jimmy and for each other.
"On the day that Jimmy died I thought the band was over," says M. Shadows slowly. "Two weeks after he died I still thought the band was over. After three weeks I was open to the idea of recording, just to finish what we'd started with Jimmy. So you never know how you're going to feel a year or two from now. Nothing we decide now is going to bring Jimmy back. So now it's time to move on and do what we have to do until we get to see him again."
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On July 27, 2010, Avenged Sevenfold unleashed Nightmare – their first album following the death of drummer Jimmy 'The Rev' Sullivan in December 2009.