Family, fortitude and Grey Daze: The making of Chester Bennington

Family, friends and Grey Daze bandmates open up on a part of Chester Bennington’s journey never previously documented, sharing stories and photographs that offer the world an understanding of the boy who would become the man that touched millions of lives…

Family, fortitude and Grey Daze: The making of Chester Bennington
Matt Allen
Grey Daze photos:
Courtesy of Sean Dowdell
Originally published:

A father is remembering his late son’s adolescent years. One chapter in a skinny teenage boy’s life would probably sound very familiar to millions of parents: that time when their kid spent weeks, months, even years, chasing the rock star dream with friends; the hope of a recording contract – just one – and a global hopscotch in support of their multi-platinum selling album. “Some chance,” says the typical dad. “Do your homework.”

Except, Lee Bennington wasn’t ‘most dads’. His son wasn’t ‘most kids’, either. Instead, Chester Bennington was on the road to realising his ambition of becoming one of the most iconic singers of a generation.

According to Lee, a former police detective, his son didn’t just possess a talent for singing as he grew up in Phoenix, the state capital of Arizona and one of the largest cities in America. Sure, he had a great voice, even at an early age, but there were other gifts, too. “He was a really smart kid and an athlete; he could have been a track star back in those days,” Lee recalls. “He was an incredible runner. In his high school freshman year, I went to watch him in a 10k run. He took off on a trail through the mountains. I’m looking up at the track where it came back around to the finish line and there he was, all by himself. He blew everybody off. The field was so far behind him that they would have needed a cab to catch up. He was running in 10ks all around the valley. He could have been Olympic material if he’d stayed with it.

“He also had a photographic memory. In his freshman year in high school he won first prize in a singing contest. He was living with his mother then [following the couple’s divorce], so I didn’t have a lot of contact with him, but he had a little rock band in high school that played on campus. And then he met Sean Dowdell.”

If the name sounds familiar, that’s because Sean Dowdell was the driving force behind Phoenix outfit Sean Dowdell And His Friends?. The quartet would eventually become Grey Daze – Chester Bennington’s opening shot band, then featuring bassist Jonathan Krause, and Jason Barnes on guitar. Grey Daze unveiled their debut album, Wake Me, in 1994; a follow-up, …No Sun Today, was released in 1997, this time with Mace Beyers on bass and Bobby Benish on guitar, before the group splintered acrimoniously a year later. Today, Amends – a selection of re-recorded cuts from their 1990s output – is finally released, though this is an updated package with a twist: following his death by suicide in 2017, Chester’s original vocals have remained untouched. Powered by hefty grunge guitars, and cameos from the likes of Korn’s James ‘Munky’ Shaffer and Page Hamilton of Helmet, the album now acts as a nu-metal time capsule; an echo of a formative voice on the verge of greatness.

“When I first heard Chester scream I said to him, ‘How are you going to keep your voice, singing like that?’” says Lee, of his son’s fledgling attempts at fronting a band. “He told me, ‘I’ve trained it so I won’t stress my throat.’ All his energy went into singing. Grey Daze was the first real start he got and he played all the local pubs around Phoenix. Then they would rock the place and pack the house. He was very intense about what he did.”

It’s the early 1990s. The teenage Chester Bennington that arrived for his sophomore year at Greenway High School on the north side of Phoenix made friends quickly, which was no easy feat. In his previous school’s classes, he’d been bullied and “knocked around like a rag doll for being skinny and looking different”, as Chester would later describe to Kerrang!. In his new set-up, grunge ruled the airwaves. And “nerdy” Chester, with his long hair, band T-shirts, and a pair of long johns worn under his skate shorts, wasn’t so much an outlier as a trailblazer. Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam were A-list acts on Arizona AM station, KUKQ. Everybody around him at Greenway High seemed to be starting bands in their garages. Chester soon befriended a crowd that shared his taste for heavy guitar music with a gloomy vibe.

Among the leading characters falling into his story was Cristin Davis, a guitar player who would go on to help shape the rebooted outsider rock of Grey Daze some two decades later. Back then, Cristin was a year older than Chester. But having spotted each other in the school halls and connected over music, the pair became friends. “He was another grunge kid,” says Cristin. “He did a little bit of theatre in school, he was an artistic soul. At Greenway, I think he’d found his place a little bit more.”

The pair often hung out at local rehearsal rooms, watching bands, drinking beers and making music. At weekends, the local kids would travel out to the desert for parties – a hundred or so teenagers sitting around a bonfire, drinking and listening to alternative rock and punk. “We were out doing all the things we probably shouldn’t have been doing,” says Cristin. “But it was great fun.” As they grew older, Chester and his crew began hanging out at the local rock clubs such as The Rebel Lounge, The Mason Jar and Electric Ballroom. When KUKQ then hosted a festival and announced Stone Temple Pilots as headliners, everybody snapped up tickets.

“When Stone Temple Pilots came on, that was a game-changing moment for all of us there,” says Cristin. “Chester was at that show – everybody was at that show – and I think that was a big imprint on every one of us. We thought, ‘These guys are so different and so amazing.’ Watching Scott Weiland onstage was amazing in itself, so I think that was a huge influence on all of us. And really, Chester loved Stone Temple Pilots. If I’d had known that Chester would go on to join the band [in 2013], I’d have never left his side.

“It was just really an amazing time for music, because it was right when Nirvana came out, right when Alice In Chains were blowing up, right when Soundgarden were happening, too,” he continues. “There’s some really defining moments in that era for a musician. For me and for Chester, that defined how we were going to play our instruments. You can really hear that grunge influence on Chester’s vocals. A lot of the phrasing and his vocal inflections are very ’90s, which I think is one of the beautiful things about Amends.”

Cristin reckons Greenway High – slogan, ‘Excellence runs green and gold’, and which today houses a mural to its most famous alumni – was a middle-class school located on the edge of the desert. “It wasn’t that nice, but it wasn’t that bad, either. Phoenix is very sprawled out, so everything’s kind of condensed, but everything’s 20 minutes away – if it’s in the next town, you’ve got to drive. When we were going to high school, the end of the Earth was essentially the road that our school was on, a couple miles north of it, and now the whole town has gone 50 miles further… Where we used to have those parties, it’s a housing development now.”

Cristin recalls Chester fitting in nicely. “I think everybody got along for the most part. I had friends that were jocks and stoners, and grunge kids, and everything else in between.” Aside from his impressive track and field ability, Chester – who loved singing and acting – also appeared in a number of school plays. When Sean Dowdell later asked him to join his band as frontman, the move surprised a list of nobody. Chester had impressed just about everyone in school with his voice.

“He sang for the first time at lunch,” says Cristin. “Then I remember listening to Sean Dowdell And His Friends?. When you’re a kid, you’re kind of an asshole, and I was in bands too, so I probably thought I was cooler than everybody else, and so I wasn’t giving it a listen like I should have done. And then they did a cover of Man In The Box [by Alice In Chains] and I heard that scream, and I was like, ‘Holy shit, I didn’t realise Chester had a voice like that…’ I think they did a bunch of other covers, like Anything, Anything by [New Jersey alt.rockers] Dramarama, and it was super-fun. So me being the asshole musician, I started at the back of the room thinking, ‘I’m better than everybody.’ By the end, I was up front.

“When Chester wasn’t singing, though, he was a regular guy and he would almost disappear in the crowd. We all did. We had long hair and I guess we dressed like we were in the [cult grunge rom-com] movie Singles. We were all just trying to get through the day so we could play our music. But once he got a microphone in his hand, he’d stand out. I actually had a friend of mine contact me and send me a video. It’s of a party Chester was at, just in somebody’s garage, and they’re playing a bunch of cover songs. I think he was 15, but you could hear that voice – he always had it.”

During his mid teens there was very little indication that Chester was experiencing any personal troubles – at least not to anyone at Greenway High. On the surface, he was a goofy, fun-loving kid. “He was always high-spirited,” says Lee Bennington. “He loved a joke. He was always clowning around. He enjoyed good times – he never had that dark side.” But a psychological wound was eating him up. His parents were divorced. More disturbingly, from the age of eight, Chester had been abused by an older friend.

“I was getting beaten up and being forced to do things I didn’t want to do,” Chester would later tell Kerrang!. “It destroyed my self-confidence… I was too afraid to say anything. I didn’t want people to think I was gay or that I was lying. It was a horrible experience. The sexual assaults continued until I was 13.” To numb his anxiety, Chester dosed up on speed, LSD, opium, weed and booze.

“On a normal day, my friends and I would go through an eight-ball of meth,” he said. “We were smoking it in bongs. It was ridiculous. Then we’d smoke opium to come down, or we’d take pills, or I’d drink so much that I’d shit my pants. It was not pretty.”

When Chester eventually came to co-write lyrics with Sean in Grey Daze, nobody outside of the quartet associated the soul-scarred wordplay on cuts such as Just Like Heroin with anything other than grunge’s cathartic MO. “All the stuff we listened to was super-dark,” says Cristin. “I didn’t realise the darkness that came out in the lyrics were as close to home as they were. After he passed away and we started listening to the lyrics again, we were like, ‘Oh, my God, I think he’s basically apologised for all this stuff 20 years before something tragic happened…’ He wasn’t a dark guy; I never saw him be bummed out, or talk about anything depressing. Like a lot of people, he battled his demons mostly on his own.”

But Sean understood. Because of their “special friendship” the drummer knew some of the personal hell his “little brother” Chester was experiencing. “He talked to me all the time. I know about all of the things,” he says. “The only thing he did not ever tell me was who the person was who molested him when he was a little kid. He would never share that with me, I didn’t ask him a ton because I think he was embarrassed about it at that time. He didn’t know how to deal with those emotions when he was young.

“I was very protective over him. He would share stuff that was going on in his life. He would ask my advice and sometimes I would give it, and other times I just listened. We could talk about anything. He was very easy to talk to and a very open guy.”

There was a fire blazing in Chester Bennington: battle-bruised teenager and rock star-in-waiting. Everyone gravitating towards him at Greenway had noticed it. Once he’d left school to concentrate on Grey Daze – where he’d sleep on Sean’s floor and follow him to college in order to grab a lift to rehearsals – it was obvious to everybody that crossed the band’s path too. To simply be the singer for Grey Daze wasn’t enough. Everything in Chester’s sightlines needed to be played at full tilt: rehearsals and shows were blasted at 100mph; cuts and bruises marked his body after performances; personal sacrifices were made in order to make the next recording session, practice or gig. Nothing was going to stand in the way of his ultimate ambition: to become point man for an arena-filling rock band.

“I was just waiting for high school to be over so I could get out and do music full time, and I think Chester was the same way,” says Cristin. “I still lived with my parents and I had some comforts that I wasn’t giving up. But Chester was the one who went 100 per cent – he really dedicated his entire life to it. He was going to live or die by making his music, and he was willing to sleep on the floor, sleep in a car, all those things. Sean and me both admitted that we weren’t going to do all that. Chester did what it took.”

Sean agrees. “He would have slept in a dumpster in order to sing,” he says.

This no-guts-no-glory drive was transferred to Grey Daze’s live shows. Mace Beyers, bassist with the band for the recording of their second album …No Sun Today in 1997, recalls the very first moment he’d watched Chester onstage, as a fan. Working as a stage manager and tour promoter, Mace was at the Electric Ballroom for a Grey Daze headline show to a crowd of “a couple of thousand people”. Chester, wearing his glasses, had become annoyed at something – no-one can remember what exactly – and took a running jump into the pit.

“He ran offstage and missed the jump,” says Mace. “He hit the ground and rolled over and did… not… stop… singing. I thought, ‘This guy’s a rock star.’ I knew he had star qualities, right back then. His energy was just amazing.”

Grey Daze had moved quickly through the gears from rehearsal space to club band. Before long, they were the support act to the likes of Bush and Suicidal Tendencies. Top billing status followed soon after, and they played to sold-out crowds of thousands, the band signing autographs for hours once the show was done. But Chester refused to slow the pace. Driven by the same competitive streak that had pushed him to track and field success, there was no way he could allow himself to fail.

“He knew he was going to be a rock star,” says Sean. “Not for the fame reasons – he wanted to be a great singer in a great band, and that’s really what his motivation was. But he was very competitive, very physical. A lot of people don’t realise what good physical shape he was in. We would work out and he would put me to the walls. He would kick my ass, and I work out like crazy. He’s the only guy who I knew that could do a plank for 18 minutes. And he only stopped because he got bored. That’s crazy. He was really in shape.”

There was humility to Chester’s fierce determination, however. As Grey Daze gathered increasing attention and radio airplay, he supported the local music scene around Phoenix. “He really appreciated other people’s music,” says Cristin. “He was always really supportive of all his friends and all the people around.” Much later, emerging bands inspired by Linkin Park were treated with respect, too. “The thing about Chester was, he was always happy for the other acts,” says his widow Talinda Bennington-Friedman. “He was a competitive man, for sure, but he never, ever tried to push other people down to feel better about himself. And he would get inspired by other people. He was always happy for them, especially when it would be a band that they’d taken on tour – support acts that then got big. He was a good spirit.”

Grey Daze, once the secret history of Chester Bennington, is now being retold though the release of Amends as an audio insight into his early life story. But the music only tells half the tale. The band’s break-up in 1998 – a litany of collapsing record deals, swelling egos and backstage bickering – was followed by Linkin Park’s emergence as one of the biggest bands on the planet. But the interim period was racked with doubt. Chester, determined to find a band that could match his ambitions, took on a jobs in “restaurants and coffee shops” to pay the bills.

“He spent a year-and-a-half or so trying to find something else to do,” says Lee Bennington. “He’d call up the local rock people and go to their studios. I asked him one day, ‘What are you gonna do if you don’t find something?’ He said, ‘I’m gonna give it another six months and then I’ll get a real job.’ And that’s when he was contacted by the guys that were putting Linkin Park together. The rest of it is history. If music had not happened for him, he was capable of doing anything he wanted to do. He was very smart. He could been a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer.”

Despite Linkin Park’s staggering success, Chester maintained the goofy personality that had marked his teenage years at Greenway High and then with Grey Daze. “On tour, everybody was going to hang out with him,” says Sean. “It wasn’t because it was the singer, it was because he was the funniest guy in the room.” Grey Daze’s drummer even tells stories of Chester in his later years, then a multi-platinum selling artist, working front-of-house in their tattoo and piercing business Club Tattoo, where selling a T-shirt to a star-struck customer was all part of the fun.

“He’d be trying to sweep up, or something,” says Sean. “I’d always laugh. Customers would be like, ‘Is that Chester Bennington?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, it’s Chester! Let me get the broom out of his hand so he can say hi…’ I’ve been around a lot of rock stars in my life and it seemed like he was one of the few guys that fame never touched. It never changed him.”

The pain left by his passing still feels raw, though. For Sean and Cristin, the re-recording of Grey Daze’s back catalogue has carried a heavy emotional burden. The vocals left behind by their friend and former bandmate are very much of a time; the music, when it was re-recorded, had to match to vocal power presented by one of the most distinctive voices of his era.

“I started listening to the songs to learn them,” says Cristin of the updated material. “I hadn’t listened to those records in a long time, and just hearing his voice, it brought me right back to the early ’90s or mid-’90s. I could really hear all the talent that I might have missed before. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, he was exactly the superstar that he is now, 20 years ago.’ But I tell people all the time, I never met ‘Chester from Linkin Park’. I only know ‘Chester, my buddy from high school’, so he never changed, from the time I met him ‘til he passed away. He was just such a sweetheart.”

Much in the same way that Sliver – The Best Of The Box uncovers old Kurt Cobain demos for fans of Nirvana, so Amends delivers a peek into Chester Bennington’s teenage years. Both records have something in common: all the material was constructed amid the 1990s grunge boom, after all. But the texture of Amends has been rebooted and crafted in such a way that the songs carry a 21st century upgrade with their heavy synths and scattershot drums. The vocal tones couldn’t be anyone other than Chester Bennington, however: a soulful scream full of catharsis and rage, the harmonious despair offset with heavy-hearted tenderness. The experience of revisiting Amends has been a little too raw for Chester’s family.

“For me and my kids, none of us can listen to this,” says Talinda. “Because it’s hard, because it’s not just a song – we have actual memories. We all have our own memories of him singing that in our own way. There are memories attached to these songs that are deeply personal. Although I wasn’t around during that time, I didn’t know him then, he shared that with me. He shared every song. He would sing them to me; he would sing them to our kids. It’s not like listening to a record for me, it’s not like listening to a song; it’s literally living with these videos in my head, these moments in time, that I’ll never have again.

“In our home, with my kids and my new husband, we keep Chester’s memory alive. We talk about him, my kids love telling my husband now about their dad. They look at photo albums. We have our own personal ways of keeping his spirit alive. His pictures are all throughout the house, he’s not forgotten, and right now, that’s how we do it.”

For a father remembering his late son’s adolescent years, the pain runs just as deep.

“Chester was his own personality,” says Lee. “He liked to have fun. He was very dedicated to what he was doing. How do I feel when I listen to Linkin Park or Grey Daze? I have not listened to his music since he passed. I don’t listen to any rock music anymore.

“I just can’t. It’s too emotional for me.”

Grey Daze's album Amends is out now via Loma Vista Recordings.

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