Security was tight the day I met Chester Bennington. His band, Linkin Park, were finishing up a new album in 2010, and an amiable but serious private security guard questioned visitors at the entrance to their studio in North Hollywood. Inside, Bennington ate from a fajita bowl, minutes after driving up again from his home in Orange County, hours away on the freeway. “I spend most of my time on that fucking stretch of concrete,” he said with a laugh.
As a multiplatinum-selling band with a young, obsessive following, Linkin Park had reason to fear leaks and piracy of the album-in-progress, and the guard was a mildly threatening deterrent. But Bennington couldn’t have been more welcoming and open. Offstage, the tattooed singer-screamer wore glasses and was less the epic rock frontman than a noticeably relaxed, wiry and somehow vulnerable host. He talked about his kids.
His death by apparent suicide on Thursday was a shock for many reasons. That it landed on the birthday of his late friend Chris Cornell may be a sad coincidence or point to something deeper. Barely two months ago, Bennington sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at the Soundgarden singer’s memorial at Hollywood Forever, and tweeted the day of Cornell’s death: “Your voice was joy and pain, anger and forgiveness, love and heartache all wrapped up into one. I suppose that’s what we all are. You helped me understand that.”
Both were exceptionally powerful voices stopped at the height of their powers: at 52, Cornell’s vocals aging gracefully into new depth and subtlety; Bennington at 41 still raging through 16 years of explosive hits around the world. They were each in bands that initially rose amid a sensational musical movement of the moment (’90s grunge for Cornell, nu-metal years later for Bennington), then soared beyond them.
Linkin Park arrived late in the tidal wave of rap-metal bands, carrying many of the usual clichés of the genre. They had a rapper and a rocker at the mic. They had a DJ. They were loud and angry. But they also had more than that, rising from the SoCal suburbs of Agoura Hills with surprising depth and ideas behind the testosterone.
I saw Linkin Park the first time in 2001, when they were a young group performing at something called the Dragon Festival, hosted by Cypress Hill rapper B-Real at the Orange Show fairgrounds in San Bernardino. They were mostly unknown aside from a fast-rising KROQ hit called “One Step Closer.” They were melodic and hopeful, and despite the barely controlled angst and energy onstage, there were no macho suggestions of violence in the music.
Mike Shinoda’s raps were precise and thoughtful, but Bennington was the band’s raging soul, singing and screaming like a man searching desperately for answers while suffering gut-wrenching pain. He was no Fred Durst. You were never going to see him leap from the stage to take a swing at a fan yelling an insult. His demons were internal.
The band’s major-label debut, Hybrid Theory, was the best-selling album of 2001, and that wasn’t a fluke of the nu-metal zeitgeist. Linkin Park had staying power where so many others have since faded away. Many of the ingredients were exactly the same but the approach entirely different, connecting hard with a generation of listeners with an openness and a gift for melody that was hard to resist. (Their newest, the more pop-oriented Once More Light, wasn’t particularly well-reviewed but still easily hit No. 1 in the United States and the top 10 around the world.)
That day back at the studio, Bennington told me: “The hip-hop side, the melodic beautiful side, and this metal side we have to us — it’s like we’re schizophrenic or something musically. And there’s always this agitation to the songs, because we’re constantly trying to make music that we feel no one else is making, and that is satisfying to us creatively. Doing all those different styles in all these different ways is what keeps us interested.”
Sitting beside him was Shinoda, the band’s studio mastermind and most active spokesman. When the conversation inadvertently veered into their personal family lives, Shinoda turned noticeably cool and agitated. It wasn’t anything he wanted to discuss, maybe from protectiveness or to preserve a public image that was youthful and unattached. Bennington was happy to share his family life in Orange County, mentioning four boys at home, then ages 4, 8, 13 and 14 years.
Outside of Linkin Park, Bennington led a straight-ahead rock side project called Dead by Sunrise. And in 2013 he joined Stone Temple Pilots for live performances and a studio EP release, stepping in for the ousted Scott Weiland more like a fan living out some adolescent dreams than as a platinum-selling singer who definitely didn’t need it as a career move.
Over the years, he was open about his struggles with drugs and depression. The intense frustration and self-doubt could be heard as far back as the debut album’s “Crawling,” as his throat-ripping vocal cried out a cryptic message:
“Crawling in my skin
These wounds they will not heal
Fear is how I fall
Confusing what is real”
Whatever demons were overwhelming enough to lead Bennington to hang himself at home Thursday morning are only rumor and conjecture to most of us, though many will certainly judge this rocker who was so successful and had children still at home. It’s a pointless and self-righteous exercise. Once the rest of us move on to other cultural headlines, his family and his band will still be dealing with the sad aftermath. It’s hard to see Linkin Park continuing without him.
The band were on a break from the road, and set to return to the stage in Massachusetts next week. Bennington’s connection to fans always felt genuine, as the singer waded into crowds shouting along to his words of catharsis and pain. It’s easy to imagine him feeling safe up there, where things were somehow pure and simple and uncomplicated. He knew the fans were there for him and the band.
The band did take piracy seriously, though the security guard they hired at NRG Studios was more silly affectation than a meaningful defense. Linkin Park were also smart enough to realize that some of their biggest fans were the biggest offenders. At a packed 2003 concert at the Wiltern in connection with the release of Meteora, Bennington peered into the crowd and asked how many had already heard the new album, still a day away from release.
The response was loud cheers from the truest believers in front of him. Bennington just looked into their faces and nodded. He declared happily, “You guys are fucking champions, man!”