5 Years Ago: Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington Dies
In 2017, Linkin Park vocalist Chester Bennington took his life at his home in Palos Verdes, California on what would have been his friend and mentor Chris Cornell’s 53rd birthday. After performing a triumphant concert with Soundgarden, Cornell took his life in his hotel room in Detroit on May 18, 2017. No sense can be made of either death, but they both shone a strong light on mental illness in the rock and metal world and beyond.
I first met Chester was when I traveled to a gig to conduct a magazine interview with Mike Shinoda about his obsession with DJ culture and how he traveled with a portable studio rig. While I was talking to Shinoda on the bus, Bennington came in. “Don’t listen to anything he says,” joked Chester with a sparkle in his eyes. “He just sits back there and plays video games all day.” Everyone laughed, Bennington offered me a drink and then exited the bus so we could finish the interview.
My second interaction with Bennington was during a more intimate one-on-one interview I did on camera for MTV when the band was plugging their second album, 2003’s Meteora. This time, he was all business and on a tight schedule. Nonetheless, he was friendly and candid, addressing the childhood trauma he experienced that inspired him to scream and rant in Linkin Park. “On this album, I reacted to how I dealt with a lot of pain in my life and how I was sexually abused when I was young, and what I went through after that [with drugs and alcohol]. And then I look at where I am today and take these negative experiences and turn them into positives,” said the singer.
I saw Linkin Park several times on the Meteora tour, and they sure seemed positive as they expertly combined contemporary hip-hop and angsty rock, then wrapped it with a shiny bow of irresistible pop. Even their stage choreography was immaculate – so much so that I snarkily referred to them as *NSYNC meets Nine Inch Nails. I meant it as a backhanded compliment, yet it described their perfectionistic work ethic, flawless vocal exchanges, their seamless combination of beats, guitar and scratching. In retrospect, Bennington might have taken it as a compliment.
Little did I know it at the time, but he grew up on aggro industrial music. Shortly before a video interview that I did with him and Shinoda for AOL in 2010, Bennington video chatted with his young kids via cellphone and was ecstatic about every detail of their run-of-the-mill school lives. Despite Bennington’s joy, his kids quickly got tired of the conversation and the technology they had to deal with and hung up on their dad, which seriously amused Chester. “Fans wait in line for hours and claw at each other just to meet us,” he marveled. “And my own kids get bored two seconds after we start talking. That’s okay, maybe it keeps me humble.”
That wasn’t all that kept Bennington humble. When he wasn’t in a depressive cycle, he was friendly, easily excited and devoted to those he cared for. The guys he played with were some of his best friends, whether it was the rest of Linkin Park or his side project Dead By Sunrise, which featured Orgy members Amir Derakh and Ryan Shuck, Elias Andra, Anthony “Fu” Valcic and Frank Zummo. As much as anything, Bennington loved music and fanboyed at the opportunity to meet his own heroes. He also loved talking about his favorite artists. Right before the camera started to roll, I told Bennington I was into industrial dance music from Chicago and Europe. It sparked a mutual interest and he glowed about Front 242, Frontline Assembly and My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult. I mentioned that when he screamed full-on, he reminded me of Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen. “It’s so awesome you say that!” he exclaimed. “I love that band and I used to scream along with their records. At the time, I didn’t realize that Al Jourgensen used a distortion box, so I’d just scream as loud as I could to get my voice to sound as distorted as his.”
Back in 2000, when heavy music was at a low point, Linkin Park brought distorted guitars and angst-riddled vocals back into the mainstream. Some were jealous of the band’s immense success, but it was pretty hard to hate on them. When they weren’t onstage they seemed like regular guys who always went the extra mile, whether that meant doing extra radio promos, signing autographs or goofing around backstage or at a promotional event. Live, they looked stoked just to be onstage and rarely gave the crowd less than 110 percent, even when they were playing in stifling summer heat. Bennington's voice resonated with power, range, vulnerability and barely controlled volatility.
The only time I had any indication that he still had a seriously dark side was when he was promoting Dead by Sunrise's Out of Ashes in the fall of 2009. He spoke about the stress he was under and the funk he was in when he worked on the album, which lacked rapping and was a bit heavier than most of Linkin Park's music. “We went by the name Snow White Tan for a while because I was always at home or in the studio. I never saw the sun,” Bennington said. “I wasn’t sitting in my closet injecting myself with heroin or anything, but I was sitting in my closet drinking a whole lot of Jack Daniels.”
On its own, a rock star admitting he was binging on Jack is hardly a red flag. For Bennington, who managed to beat his bouts of depression for nearly seven-and-a-half years after releasing Out of Ashes, it might have been a sign that he was dealing with some personal baggage, but no one could have imagined him taking his life.
Talinda told Anderson Cooper that during the nearly 13 years they were married, Chester had good days and bad days. With the heart-aching wisdom of hindsight, she realized that there were signs that something deadly might have been hiding under her husband’s persona.
"I am now more educated about those signs,” she said. “They were definitely there: the hopelessness, the change of behavior, isolation... that was all part of our daily life. Sometimes, some signs were there more than others. Sometimes, they weren't there at all."
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My Riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.
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