In songs about grief, fear, mortality, isolation and everyday self-loathing, Chester Bennington's voice soared.
The Linkin Park singer and songwriter, who candidly talked about how his band's frequently dark subject matter was indeed inspired by his own emotional turmoil, belted out lyrics that smacked of authenticity to the young crowd that was blasting the SoCal-bred band's smash-hit 2000 debut album Hybrid Theory in their Discmans. The Grammy-winning album has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and remains the best-selling debut album of the 21st century so far.
But in the end, despite the massive success and the endless support from family, friends and fans, it didn't even matter.
Bennington was found dead at his home in Southern California's Palos Verdes Estates on Thursday morning. He had reportedly hanged himself and authorities are investigating his death as a suicide.
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Bennington had been a close friend of Chris Cornell, who committed suicide in May. They toured together in 2008 and Bennington, who sang "Hallelujah" at Cornell's funeral, was godfather to the Soundgarden singer's son Christopher.
"Your talent was pure and unrivaled. Your voice was joy and pain, anger and forgiveness, love and heartache all wrapped into one," Bennington wrote in tribute to his friend upon hearing the news of his death. "I suppose that's what we all are. You helped me understand that."
Today would have been Cornell's 53rd birthday.
Just as trying to compartmentalize can often be a futile act for anyone, there was no separating the pain from Bennington's passion and talent in the musical arena. He and bandmate Mike Shinoda co-wrote Hybrid Theory, which featured the group's most famous song, "In the End," in addition to other concise, well-crafted little punches to the gut like "Crawling" and "One Step Closer."
"Shocked and heartbroken, but it's true," Shinoda tweeted within the hour after news about Bennington's death broke. "An official statement will come out as soon as we have one."
Bennington, a native of Phoenix, was the last original member to join the band that would become Linkin Park in 1999. Shinoda and guitarist Brad Delson were friends from high school in Agoura Hills, Calif., and they initially formed a group called Xero with drummer Rob Bourdon, DJ Joseph Hahn, bassist Dave "Phoenix" Farrell and singer Mark Wakefield.
But Wakefield didn't work out and, thanks to an introduction from a record exec, they found Bennington, who got the call that a band named Xero needed a singer on his 23rd birthday. Then there were called Hybrid Theory for awhile, but eventually they passed that on to their first studio album (Farrell wasn't part of the recording but he returned in time for the tour) and became Linkin Park.
"He really was kind of the final piece of the puzzle, and he brings vocal talent that, when we were looking for a second vocalist, we didn't see anything close to his talent in anybody else," Delson later reflected to Madison.com about Bennington.
It was evident early on that they had a winning formula (they lost the 2002 Grammy for Best New Artist to Alicia Keys), but their longevity owes far more to their musicianship and the weight of their lyrics, as they're one of the few bands of note that has stayed relevant out of the glut of rap-rock hybrids that sprang up in the early '00s.
Not to mention, the group's original members (as far as the group behind Hybrid Theory went) had managed to stay together.
Linkin Park released its seventh studio album, One More Light, on May 19—and a brand-new music video for "Talking to Myself" just premiered today.
Delson talked about their decision to throw style to the wind for the new release and just go with the stories that were pouring out of them at the time and think about production later.
"We worked with vocals, lyrics and melodies first. We almost completed a full song every single day," he told Music Radar in April. "We wrote about 70 songs and they were all very naked and stripped, barebones." As always happens when bands seem to change M.O.s, which Linkin Park has enjoyed doing from album to album over the past 17 years, or go for a poppier sound, as they did on One More Light, critics and fans noticed. And Bennington brushed aside the constant comparisons.
"We were asked, 'What do you think of people who say you sold out?' I don't care," he told Music Week in May. "If you like the music, fantastic. If you don't like it, that's your opinion too. Fantastic. If you're saying we're doing what we're doing for a commercial or monetary reason, trying to make success out of some formula… then stab yourself in the face!" (He was laughing when he said that.)
Asked specifically about album No. 7's differing sound from Hybrid Theory, Bennington replied, "When we made Hybrid Theory, I was the oldest guy in the band and in my early '20s. That's why I guess I'm like: 'Why are we still talking about Hybrid Theory? It's f--king years ago. It's a great record, we love it. Like, move the f--k on!"
Alas, that's what happens when millions of people connect to an album. Nothing can ever really top it, and the fans want more of it, even though what they really want is to just feel the way tunes like "In the End" make them feel.
And Bennington never stopped relating to the music, either.
He grew up in Phoenix the youngest of four, and after his parents split up when he was 11 he spent a lot of time with his father, a cop who investigated sex crimes.
"He was hardened by dealing with the s--t of the world every day," Bennington said of his dad to Rolling Stone in 2002. "So he brought a lot of that home. It was a very emotional situation."
The singer acknowledged prior interviews in which he'd indicated he had been a victim of sexual abuse by an older male friend as a kid. He clarified to the magazine, "It was like, [I'd be asked questions such as] 'There's a lot of songs about depression, fear and paranoia. Are you just making it up?' And I said no."
"No one in my family molested me," he added. "It was people who were around me. Coming from a broken home, it was easy to fall into thinking, 'This is OK.'" He started abusing drugs and alcohol at 13. "I was a lot more confident when I was high. I felt like I had more control over my environment when I was on hallucinogens or drinking." (In 2014, he told Kerrang! that thinking about the horrible things going on at that time, particularly the abuse, made him "shudder.")
From the ages of 13 to 16, his drugs of choice were alcohol and LSD, but he soon progressed to cocaine and methamphetamine. He stopped using drugs by 1996, when he married his first wife, Samantha Olit, but told RS he fell back into heavy drinking on Linkin Park's first tour. By the time of the 2002 interview, he was sober.
Over a water toast with his wife, per RS, he quipped, "It's going to be more difficult for me to bitch on the new record. Because life is great."
He'd continue to battle addiction for the rest of his life, as is the case with so many who suffer from that illness.
In 2009, he and his band Dead by Sunrise (a side project he formed in 2005) released their debut album Out of Ashes in 2009. At the time Bennington confirmed that songs such as "My Suffering" were definitely inspired by his own experiences.
"My life was falling apart in many ways that I was writing about on this record in terms of getting divorced, in terms of diving very hard into alcohol and drugs throughout this process," he told Noisecreep in 2009. (Bennington and Olit divorced in 2005. They had one child together. He married Talinda Bentley in 2006 and she survives him, as do their three children. Overall he was a father of six.)
He acknowledged that his struggle with addiction had fostered him creatively, providing endless material for songs.
"I have been able to tap into all the negative things that can happen to me throughout my life by numbing myself to the pain so to speak and kind of being able to vent it through my music," Bennington explained. "'Crawling,' for example, by Linkin Park, is probably the most literal song lyrically I'd ever written for Linkin Park and that's about feeling like I had no control over myself in terms of drugs and alcohol.
"That feeling, being able to write about it, sing about it, that song, those words sold millions of records, I won a Grammy, I made a lot of money. I don't think I could've been inspired to create something like that by watching someone else go through that. So in a lot of ways that's been very constructive for me."
Bennington also didn't mind fans knowing that a lot of his songs were autobiographical.
He told Noisecreep, "I'm not one of those guys who thinks being anonymous is all that great. I don't have a problem with people knowing that I had a drinking problem. That's who I am and I'm kind of lucky in a lot of ways cause I get to do something about it. I get to grow as a person through it. It's kind of a cool thing. It's not cool to be an alcoholic, meaning it's not cool to go drink and be a dumbass. It's cool to be a part of recovery. This is just who I am, this is what I write about, what I do, and most of my work has been a reflection of what I've been going through in one way or another."
In 2014, Bennington flatly told Kerrang! that he had been a "full-blown, raging alcoholic" at one point.
"I don't drink. I choose to be sober now," he continued. "I have drunk over the last six years, but I just don't want to be that person anymore."
Even more candidly, he said on The Pulse of Radio, "I lived on alcohol. It was either beer, or Jack and Coke, or Jack Daniels in a pint glass with ice. And then it got to the point where my wife said to me about seven months after we got together, she goes, 'I don't think there's been a day since I've known you that you haven't drank.' And I was like, 'What are you talking about? That's crazy'—as I'm drinking a Jack and Coke. That was where my life went."
Meeting his second wife helped pull him out of a period of "absolute self-destruction," he told Bullz-Eye.com in 2009 while promoting Out of Ashes. "I don't know when to stop when I'm in that mode. I'll go through a gallon of Jack Daniels and down some antidepressants in one night and keep on going. I just hated my life at one point. I loved my band, career and friends, but when I got home from tour, I couldn't deal with stuff. I would just begin drinking."
After his divorce from Samantha, "I was wiped out and it was tough on my ego to let go of all of that. I went from living in a huge house to a tiny apartment in Santa Monica. I was so drained and bitter during that time. But I eventually learned from it and moved on. I then fell in love again and I got help facing my demons. Looking back at my first marriage, I don't know how or why we stayed together as long as we did. When I met Talinda, I knew she was the one pretty instantly.
"She moved into my place after a week and a half or something like that. But I've gone through several periods in my life of complete drug and alcohol insanity. I'm lucky to be alive after all the times I've done that s--t, man."
Shinoda told Metro magazine in 2014 that the guys in the band were 100 percent behind Bennington when it was clear he needed help.
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"When Chester had some problems, everybody jumped up to help him and tell him how supportive we wanted to be and how much it means to us that he was doing something positive," Shinoda said. "We're lucky to have a band full of guys who have their head screwed on straight. A lot of life experience goes into that, but we just support each other. We have each other's back. At the end of the day we love what we do. We're not willing to throw that away on anything."
When Linkin Park headed out on tour in 2015, Bennington broke his leg and he spiraled into a depression—but once again, he eventually channeled his heartache into music and that turned into One More Light.
"If we had started writing in 2015, when I personally was just like, 'f--k the world,' then I would've been in there singing songs like, 'F--k the World,'" Bennington told FaceCulture in an interview he gave alongside Shinoda that was posted online June 1. "I still have lyrics in my phone. One of my songs is called 'I Hate the World Right Now.' That's literally the punchline, the whole chorus."
The finished product, however, "is really a good representation of where we are now as opposed to anything else, yeah."
Shinoda acknowledged that Bennington's injury felt like more than a broken leg. "Broken life," the singer interjected. "A little bit of broken spirit, yeah," Shinoda agreed.
"A lot of the residual stress" made it into the album, Shinoda continued. "It shows up a lot in the song 'Heavy,' you know. One thing leads to another, which leads to another, and all this stressful crap is happening to you—and that's true for anybody...It's hard to have an optimistic outlook."
There's no mention of Cornell, who died May 18, the day before One More Light was released, so it's possible this interview was conducted beforehand. Cornell too had battled alcoholism and depression, and while he had a more complicated relationship with fame (loved the fans, wrestled with the scrutiny and other pitfalls) than his friend did, like Bennington he funneled his angst into his music. They both had no choice but to write songs and play.
Cornell and Bennington also publicly bonded over their devotion to the performance and the fans in the moment, once they hit that stage.
"When we toured Australia, Chester broke his wrist on like, the third song and then finished the whole set with a broken wrist. That kind of dedication and passion, like, 'This is what I'm doing, this is the most important thing there is, I'm onstage right now.' That affects me," Cornell told Rolling Stone in a joint interview with his fellow frontman in 2008, when they were on Linkin Park's Projekt Revolution tour.
Bennington added, "For me, I'm such a fan I think that's the most important aspect of why I do what I do and how I do it. I've got to play with a lot of guys that I've grown up loving; I get to sing on stage with Chris Cornell, I got to play with Metallica and Black Sabbath, and I've performed songs with Jane's Addiction, members of Guns N' Roses, did the Doors' 40th anniversary with the Doors and Perry Farrell onstage—I'm just like, "What world do I live in, 'cause this can't be real?'"
If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).