This story was originally published in 2010.
Nobody knew Jimmy "The Rev" Sullivan better than his parents, Barbara and Joe. They supported him as he grew from a toddler tapping on the coffee table into an inhuman drummer wowing audiences the world over; they were there as a 7-month-old kid who would reach into the fishbowl evolved into one of metal's most hilarious troublemakers. As Jimmy headed towards his teenage years, they met a kid named Brian, later known as guitarist Synyster Gates, who would jam with Jimmy in his bedroom; they knew howler M. Shadows when he was just Matt from the basketball team. They supported their son every step of the way.
But before all that, Barbara and Joe Sullivan bonded as a pair of college sweethearts at Los Angeles Catholic School Loyola Marymount. The couple took trips together to see artists like Donovan, Jethro Tull, and the Who. Shortly after getting married in 1974, they bought a roomy house in Huntington Beach, California, where the Sullivans raised three children and still reside today. On February 9, 1981, Jimmy was born to a father who spun classic-rock records and a mother who adored decorating the house for Halloween. "I remember he took his sweet time coming out," says Joe about Jimmy's first day on Earth. "He came out big and ready to rock."
Barbara recalls, "He was like that from the very beginning — at two months old. He loved to bang on things. It would be the table; it would be his sister's head; it would be the bubble-bath bottles on the side of the tub. It was why we got him his first toy drum set — to preserve my furniture." Revolver caught up with the still achingly proud parents about the days when "the Rev" was Jimmy, the class-clown middle child who terrified drum instructors, adored Metallica, and annoyed neighbors.
WHEN DID JIMMY'S INTEREST IN MUSIC START?
BARBARA SULLIVAN He had a Fisher-Price record player and had some of Joe's rock songs that he liked. He liked to sing [Edwin Starr's] "War" because he could sing "Good God, y'all" and didn't get yelled at. [Laughs]
JOE SULLIVAN What I remember is that when you put on a record and loud rock music comes out, he was so consumed by the excitement of all that. You couldn't even see him smile because it was so intense. He just loved that stuff. He started playing music from that age on, which was, like, 4 years old. Once he discovered that, it was like a disease.
BARBARA Well, he played on a series of toy drum kits every year until he got his real drums at 13. He would beat them up. He was a completely uninhibited drum player. Most kids would give it a few taps but he just played! We tried to get him lessons when he was about 5 or 6 and the guy was petrified he would break his drums. He was hitting the rims too much and you couldn't control him. So we waited until he was about 10 to really give him lessons. It was a gift from God or whatever, but we hooked up with the right drum teacher — Jeanette Wrate from Harbor College. She had him performing in a percussion ensemble called Looney Booms. They played on water bottles and brake drums that they found in the automobile junkyard. It was just wild. After Jimmy passed away, I had the group [Avenged Sevenfold] over and I showed them some of the Looney Booms footage and they all went, "Wow—this explains so much!" [Laughs]
WHEN DID HE FIRST DISCOVER HEAVY METAL?
BARBARA From the get-go. [To Joe] How old was he when you took him to that Metallica concert? 10?
JOE I believe he was 12, but the only reason we went was because he was already listening to them. He was always in his room studying the music. From Metallica, he went to Pantera and Slayer, and so on. It just got faster. He was always writing and trying to play the songs himself. Dream Theater came a little later and he loved Suicidal Tendencies. We went to see Metallica play at an outdoor festival with Suicidal opening up and when Fight was just brand new. The band Candlebox also played, and I felt bad for them because everyone threw their shoes at them… When Metallica went on, I had him up on my shoulders and he knew every song. It was a real highlight for us, because we got to share that moment. Suicidal Tendencies was more of an inspiration than anything else because Jimmy would practice all of their stuff. He later got into their offshoot, Infectious Grooves, and the more humorous, left-field kind of rock like Primus.
BARBARA I loved Primus. I remember Jimmy and I would listen to Primus going back and forth to his drum lessons. I actually took him and Brian to a Primus concert. [Laughs]
WHEN DID YOU FIRST MEET THE AVENGED SEVENFOLD GUYS?
BARBARA Well, Matt and Brian knew Jimmy when they were 10-year-old kids. They played basketball together, hung out together, and got in trouble together.
WHAT WAS THE WORST TROUBLE THEY GOT INTO AS KIDS?
JOE Well, I remember when we had the wake for Jimmy, we gathered the band and a lot of the friends from Huntington Beach who all told some stories. Matt told a story where we went, Are you kidding me? [Laughs] We knew Jimmy would sneak out of our house — and my wife would catch him all the time — to go to Matt's, which he wasn't allowed to do. The first night he went there, it was time to go to bed and Jimmy had one of those water-balloon–launching guns or something. That led into them shooting lemons onto the neighbor's roof. Then they shot apples and then potatoes. The guy eventually found it was them, and he started banging on the door and Matt's dad goes, "It can't be them, they were asleep." When he went up to Matt's room, Jimmy ran out of the house. Matt's dad went, "He's not ever allowed back in this house!" [Laughs]
BARBARA It was so hard to discipline Jimmy because we'd all end up laughing. How do you effectively discipline a kid when you're laughing your head off?
JOE In school, they would send him to the office all the time because he was just too damn funny in class! It was hard to be a teacher, a parent or a coach to discipline him because we'd all start laughing.
BARBARA I remember when he was a little kid, and we would tell him, "That's not funny," and he would say, "But it's funny to me!" [Laughs]
JOE That was his classic line, even when he was only three years old. [Laughs] He was pretty obsessive, too, so when he discovered that he could climb trees, he just climbed trees. He would read his schoolbooks but on top of a tree. When he found out he could swing on them, he'd do it until he broke both of his arms. [Laughs] As soon as he discovered he could do something, he had to do it excessively.
BARBARA I heard from multiple people that if you thought you were having a good party, but when Jimmy walked in, now you had a party! [Laughs]
DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME YOU THOUGHT, OH, WOW. OUR SON'S KIND OF FAMOUS?
BARBARA I think the most exciting one for him and for me was the first time they played "Bat Country" on the radio. He called me, like, instantly, "Mom, we're on! We're on! You've gotta listen." To hear your son's band on the radio for the first time is really something… I don't think for a second Jimmy took any of it for granted. Or felt like they "made it." It was always a work in progress to him. He was excited. He called, "Guess who I'm with?" He was always so excited to meet the guys in Metallica, to hang out with Axl Rose. All these people he had listened to growing up. It was exciting to him.
JOE It was always a wonderful next surprise, a wonderful next step.
BARBARA Jimmy had "Fiction" tattooed on his chest because he said, if anybody was following his life, they'd think it was fiction. It's too good to be true.
TATTOOS WERE AN IMPORTANT PART OF HIS LOOK. WHEN DID HE GET HIS FIRST ONE?
JOE Ha! Jimmy always dressed really differently. He'd go to high school with the blue shorts, orange and pink socks, a funky polka-dot hat on his head. He looked ridiculous. He went to Hollywood one time, and tourists were taking pictures of him. [Laughs] But he never had any tattoos. And we thought maybe that's his way of being different in the music industry — not having any tattoos. I was kind of hoping he wouldn't have any tattoos. He went the longest time with no tattoos, and then one day he came home and on the one inner forearm, he had this tattoo of a coffin full of eggs and the Easter Bunny laying dead on top of it… We were hoping he'd stay clean. Because once he comes home with one, one looks stupid. You gotta have a bunch of them… Then I think he came home one day with these handcuffs on his neck.
BARBARA I think as parents, you're more concerned with, how are they gonna go out and get a full-time job somewhere with all those tats that they have to cover up? But at the point that he really started getting them there was a confidence there that he was gonna be in the music world the rest of his life, so it wasn't as jarring or disturbing to me as I thought it would be.
DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN PEOPLE STARTED CALLING HIM THE REV?
BARBARA That was from the get-go. They started off with stage names instead of their real names. To me, it was more memorable when people started calling him Jimmy Sullivan.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO GO TO THE REVOLVER GOLDEN GODS AWARD SHOW AND ACCEPT HIS BEST DRUMMER AWARD?
BARBARA It was a fabulous experience to see that side of Jimmy's life. We didn't go to that kind of stuff with the band. The parents don't do that. I can't thank Revolver enough for giving me that taste of Jimmy's life.
JOE Going to their shows, as parents, we all hang out way at the back, way up high somewhere. But everybody in that metal genre takes care of people.
BARBARA Yeah, that whole group with goth looks and tats and piercings, they are the nicest people. They really are.
JOE I remember we went to watch Jimmy play once. So there were a couple of bands that went on and Jimmy comes by, just materializes out of the crowd, to see if we're OK at the back. And I made some comment like, "Oh, these guys weren't that good." And he just kind of looks at me, took both shoulders in his hands, and said, "Dad. You never say anything bad about another band." It was like, slap my face, you idiot, I'm judging people and here he's not. That's just cool.
WHAT ARE YOUR IMPRESSIONS OF THE FIRST AVENGED ALBUM WITHOUT HIM, NIGHTMARE? HE WROTE SOME OF IT, AND DREAM THEATER'S MIKE PORTNOY PLAYED DRUMS.
JOE Well, it's dark. [Laughs] It's got a lot of his soul in it. The guys had a real difficult time recording it. He's just so present there. They'd been writing it for 10 hours a day for weeks and were just about ready to record when he died. But they said that they needed to do it.
BARBARA And we encouraged them, too… The last two tracks on there, one of them ["Fiction"] is just cool because they managed to use some of the garage recording of Jimmy's voice. His last song, he was so proud of it. He played it for me. He called it his masterpiece.
JOE It's just grand Avenged Sevenfold music with lots of double bass, and thank you, Mike Portnoy, for being able to do it. He said, "I want to do this for you guys, because I wanna do it the way he would have done it. It's not gonna be about my ego."
BARBARA It's a good album. There's some darn good songs on there.
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE WE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT JIMMY?
JOE He was a great friend. It seemed like he'd go days without sleeping because there were friends to see.
BARBARA There are literally 30 guys to come up who genuinely look you in the eye and genuinely were his best friend. We had people telling us that he was the only person to visit them in prison. We had people from airlines calling us, saying they knew him because he took the time to talk to them since he flew so much.
JOE We're all blessed to have had him around. I think he lived 50 years worth in his 28. He did all he set out to do, and I guess he finished. He finished big.