The Making of An Album : A Story of Tragedy and Triumph

“Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense — The creative act.”

Kenneth Rexroth

 

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An Unexpected Turn of Events

 

The historian E.P. Thompson said that history never happens as the actors suspect, that instead, history is the “record of unintended consequences.”

Their long tour has ended, and the members of Avenged Sevenfold were back in their hometown, Huntington Beach, California, cherishing their leisure time with their friends and families. Some were getting married, some played golf, some played video games. It was a great time for the band — Their records had sold very well, their audience had grown, far larger than what they had imagined as five high school friends who knew no more than getting into trouble in school, and playing music in their parents’ garages.

They also worked on their follow-up album, “Nightmare”. They initially planned for it to be a concept record, the theme being about “the whole state of the world right now : economy, racism, schools, religion” and how the youth felt like they were powerless to change it. Their drummer, Jimmy or “The Rev” as he called himself, had always been an overt influence in the band’s songwriting. For Nightmare, it was the most he had ever written for them. His mind was teeming with ideas, and he was exhausting every ounce of his energy he had inside of him.

As months of grueling hard work had passed, the demos and the composition of the album were finally done. The only thing left was the lyrics.

Somewhere during that time, the rhythm guitarist, Zacky had a cocktail party at his home. While the rest of the band members got drunk, Jimmy was sober as a judge — Staying up until 3 in the morning, staying later than everyone, and not having even a single sip of alcohol. It was odd, because Jimmy was always the rowdiest — “If you think you have a party, now that The Rev is here, you have a real party!,”  his friends would joke. But Jimmy just wrote music, played the piano and shared a few good laughs.

“Okay, I better head home,” Jimmy finally said.
“Well, you know you can stay,” Zacky responded.
Jimmy still insisted, “Nah, nah, it’s cool, I’m gonna go home.”

Just a few moments later, Jimmy called and said, “Hey dude, I left my jacket,” — It was his favorite jacket. “I left it on your coat rack.”

Zacky ran to his door and told him on the phone, “Dude, just turn around, come grab it. You’re, like, three seconds from my house.”

“Nah, nah, don’t even worry about it.” Jimmy insisted.
“I can bring it to you tomorrow.” Zacky said.
Jimmy again insisted, “Ah, no, don’t even worry about it.”

Jimmy knew that Zacky always loved that jacket, and he let him have it.

A couple of weeks later, news spread that Jimmy was found dead in his home; an autopsy ruled that his death was the result of an accidental overdose of prescription painkillers and alcohol. It was also reported that he had an enlarged heart, a “significant condition” which may have contributed to his death. He was only 28.

“And there his favorite jacket is sitting on my coat rack right now.” Zacky later said. “I haven’t touched it.”

“It was miserable,” recounted Matt, the band’s singer. Fighting back tears, he recalled the days following Jimmy’s death. He had been playing golf when his wife called with the news. “I came home and there were probably 50 people here, just crying.”

Soon, Matt, Zacky, and their surviving bandmates — Lead guitarist Brian, and bassist Johnny were “camping out at each other’s houses.” “We’d order in food and sleep and watch videos,” Matt said. “We didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything or talk to anybody,” “Band stuff I didn’t think about for a long time,” he admitted.

Zacky remembered, “When something like that happens, you can’t think straight. Everything goes up in the air. You stopped caring about music; you stop caring about all that. All you care about is your friend and your other friends, who are dealing with this. It wasn’t just like losing a band member; it was like losing a brother, losing a best friend, and like losing your spouse, and it’s like losing your dream, all in the same moment…All you care about at that moment is the friends that you do have and watching out for them like a hawk…And it’s just a lot of crazy stuff that happens at that moment.”

Over time though, things did get a little better. As they remembered Jimmy and the many precious moments of laughter that he had shared with them, they gradually lightened up.

As Johnny described, “We were sitting around a table and somebody had the balls to tell a funny Jimmy story. One of the thousands upon thousands. We all kind of laughed a little bit. As the night went on, we just were telling all of our favorite stories of Jimmy. That was extremely therapeutic. Without the rest of my best friends, I don’t know what would have happened.”

Brian, in turn, recalled, “After his death, nobody told the same story twice and nobody stopped telling funny stories of this guy, for days. The stories just never ended. The healing process was just so expedited because everybody just  laughed the whole time. We would never want to ever show anybody that time because when we were together we were just guiltily laughing the whole time, celebrating his life. It wasn’t until we were alone, which was very rare, that we were like — Our friend is gone.”

After the shock had slightly passed, and after they had gone through the excruciating period of grieving and introspection, the band thought long and hard on whether they should finish the album.

In Zacky’s words, “We knew the music was incredible and we were just really excited… Maybe too excited. Talking about the future and everything and how this album was just going to take over — We learned a lesson real quick that everything can change in a second. The world has a funny way of working.”

After they were convinced by Jimmy’s family, they knew they couldn’t ignore their work in progress forever. To them, it was “Jimmy’s masterpiece”, and it was their mission now to release the album to honor the memory of their fallen brother.

 

 

With Their Hearts on Their Sleeves

 

In their decision to soldier on, Matt rewrote the majority of the lyrics to lay an outlet for the band’s grief. Consequently, only the lyrics of the album’s title track remained unchanged, as Jimmy loved them. It’s one of the only songs that still reflect the album’s original concept.

With tears and great sorrow, Avenged Sevenfold went back to work.

Nightmare is, without a doubt, the band’s most personal effort yet. More than a decade since the album’s release, the songs still tug at the listener’s heartstrings. Praising Matt’s lyrics, Brian said, “Matt has always been great at telling a story from a different perspective, be it war, familial problems or just angst-filled teenage sorrow. But now he had his own story to tell, and he poured his emotions out and didn’t hide anything.”

The album contained deeply elegiac songs, such as “Victim”, in which Matt sings,

“Nothing is harder than to wake up all alone
Realize it’s not okay, it’s the end of all you know
Time keeps passing by, but it seems I’m frozen still
Scars are left behind, but some too deep to feel.”

 

And “So Far Away” — In it, he sings,

“I love you, you were ready
The pain is strong and urges rise
But I’ll see you when He let’s me
Your pain is gone, your hands untied.”

 

Commenting on his songwriting for the album, Matt remarked, “You can sit there and write about it all day, but if you haven’t been through heartbreak, there’s just a difference. When I was writing lyrics, I didn’t really care what I was saying; I just cared about what I was feeling. And I think we made the album at such a vulnerable time that it shows.”

Avenged Sevenfold’s courage to triumph over the tragic adversity that befell them verges on the heroic. While every fiber of their being just wanted to throw in the towel, they just kept going, and gave us what is arguably their finest performance. “A lot of people were like, ‘Wow, you’re sure getting over the death fast.’ ,” said Matt. “We were like, ‘No, actually, we’re not — we’re bawling in the studio every day.’ ”

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Zacky called Nightmare “the darkest, the coldest, most numb album I’ve ever heard, because we went there during the hardest time, basically with tears in our eyes, and recorded the songs our friend had helped write.” He said, “Having to listen to the demos he played on, we put up a shield. We turned the rest of the world off, marched in there, and went to work. Looking back, I don’t even know how we did it.”

In another interview, like a boxer who had just won a match with fresh bruises and blood, he said, “I think there’s very few albums in history that captures something like this. I think it speaks a lot to just being human in general, through the music. I don’t think you need to know about Avenged Sevenfold and where we came from. I think the songs will just speak to people. And I think that’s what all the bands — The great bands that have touched me personally — Have, and a lot of them have dealt with loss. But what’s in this album is something that most bands will never have. And I don’t wish it upon them, ’cause what it takes to make an album like this is the worst experience of a human being’s life. But with that, I also believe that’s what we were put on this earth to do…We were put on this earth to make this album that honors our friend and just relates to what it means to truly be alive.”

 

 

Fiction

 

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Live in Malaysia 2012

 

When I was 14, Avenged Sevenfold played their first show in Malaysia. It was my first concert, and while it was surreal to see some of your favorite musicians on stage, I somehow felt a subtle air of tension and uneasiness in their performance. Matt was upbeat as usual, but the other guys seemed tired and quiet. This was the final leg of the Nightmare tour, and it was as if they couldn’t bear to finally lay their painful chapter to rest.

As one of their final songs of their setlist, they performed “Fiction” — Something I didn’t expect. As the opening piano riff played, I turned to my sister and said, “The Rev’s singing on this one — Their late drummer.”

Two days before his death, Jimmy wrote Fiction, a particularly chilling song on the album. He managed to record his singing parts for the song, as we could hear them today. He had the chance to play the song to his mother, and told her how proud he was of having written it — To him, it was his greatest song. It was also his way of saying goodbye to the world.

“Now I think I understand, how this world could overcome a man,” he sang. “Like a friend we saw it through, in the end I gave my life for you.”

He wished good luck, singing,

 

“I hope it’s worth it
Here on the highway
I know you’ll find your own way
When I’m not with you.”

 

Jimmy called the song “Fiction”, because he often said that his life was like fiction — Like his life was too good to be true.

Reflecting on Jimmy’s final contributions, Zacky said, “I think once we could think straight and once we could realize, this album’s written, Jimmy wrote every day more than he’s ever written because he wanted people to hear this. And Jimmy’s not playing on the album, but he wouldn’t care — He wanted people to hear what he had written, the music that he’d written. The actual performing, he couldn’t give a shit about that his entire life. He just wanted people to hear him as an artist. He left us with a gift, he left the whole  world with a gift, and it was basically up to us to show the world what we’re made of.”

Jimmy had told his story of a man who just really loved music — He breathed it, and he lived it. It’s a story that began with a young toddler who simply loved to bang on things — The table, his sister’s head, the bubble-bath bottles on the side of the bathtub. He’s the child whose parents bought him his first toy drum set so that they could preserve their furniture. He’s the class-clown child who scared away drum instructors and annoyed neighbors, who piggybacked on his Dad’s shoulders when they saw Metallica in concert, knowing every song they played. He’s the person who grew to become one of the most gifted drummers and songwriters the world has ever seen — And he knew that his story was ending, and that it needed to be carried and passed on.

While Avenged Sevenfold told the incredible story of Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan, they told their own story of resilience, of going through hell and emerging out of it stronger. Their story hasn’t ended yet, as they still march through the fields, carrying the legacy of their best friend on their shoulders.

As harrowing and yet, also inspiring as their journey was, it is only a chapter in the many stories they would tell.

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