The sun goes down… Chester Bennington: 1976 – 2017

As the frontman of Linkin Park, for 18 years Chester Bennington helped challenge and redefine the boundaries of rock and metal. And then, he was gone.

The sun goes down… Chester Bennington: 1976 – 2017
Sam Coare
Paul Harries

Chester Bennington was the sort of person who, when he began talking, you couldn’t help but hang on his every word.

For one, he simply wouldn’t have it any other way. Chester Bennington talked not only with his mouth, but his eyes, his arms, his legs. Chester didn’t so much communicate using words as he did his entire body (and any prop that might be within touching distance).

But mainly, because when Chester Bennington talked, he talked not as a rock star with over 70 million record sales to his name, but as a regular, down-to-earth man from Phoenix, Arizona who was simply living out the dreams he fought for day in, day out.

In October 2014, Kerrang! sat down at a table in the garden of the lavish and storied Sunset Marquis Hotel, in West Hollywood, Los Angeles. Mike Shinoda, the other face of Linkin Park and the man Chester would describe as his “brother”, was the only other diner present. Across the table, an empty chair waited for the then-38-year-old Chester’s arrival, the vocalist held up in LA traffic as thick as the smog that hangs over the city. When he did finally arrive, he apologised profusely and continuously, as if he were approaching an hour late.

He was barely eight minutes behind schedule.

The Chester Bennington I met on that day, as on occasions prior, was warm, witty and charming to the point of distraction. For the next two hours, he held court over his life’s journey – as a bandmate, son, father, husband – leaving Kerrang!, Mike Shinoda and anyone else within earshot in regular fits of laughter. He made you wish he’d never stop talking. At times on this particular evening, I wondered whether he would. When he finally stood up from the table to announce his need to leave for a family engagement, he did so only after offering to continue our conversation the following day. He was the most gracious and humble of men, rockstar or otherwise.

But he was, of course, so much more than that, to so many millions more around the world, for such a long period of time. His passing on July 20, 2017 by suicide in his Los Angeles home, aged 41, leaves rock shorn of one of its most iconic, powerful voices. It leaves live music deprived of a charismatic frontman – a showman, even – who could make even the biggest stages around the world feel intimate, as if every word and note was for you and you alone. It leaves those closest to him without a husband, father, son, bandmate and friend.

It leaves the world one true original less.

“Love is the thing that makes us want to become better people”

Chester Bennington

Chester Charles Bennington was born on March 20, 1976, in Phoenix, Arizona. The youngest child of four, his mother, Susan, was a nurse; his father, Lee, a police detective. The family moved home around the state a lot. Later on, after he found fame, Chester would reveal that, from the age of seven, he was the victim of sexual assault at the hands of an older boy that would last for six years, but stay with him for a lifetime. His parents’ divorce when Chester was 11 left him in the custody of his father, but feeling like he had no-one in the world at all. “Abandoned” by his mother and unable to connect with an emotionally unstable father whose attentions and time were consumed by his work, Chester withdrew into himself. While he was “knocked around like rag doll” at Greenway High School, where he had previously shown promise as an athlete, in his bedroom he found comfort in drawing, poetry and, soon enough, music. He learned the piano, found people to idolise in the form of Depeche Mode, Led Zeppelin and Stone Temple Pilots, and soon enough started his first forays into music with his first band, Grey Daze.

Yet while his new bandmates gave the lonely young man “the first time I felt I had a connection with anybody”, it also enabled him to fast-track far unhealthier relationships with drink and drugs. By 16, Chester would be blocking out his emotional traumas with a mix of LSD, marijuana, cocaine, speed and meth. Other nights, he’d simply drink until blackout. At 17, when he moved back in with his mother, she was so shocked by her son’s appearance, which she likened to a concentration camp detainee, that she locked him in the house in a bid to save him from himself.

For the next few years, Chester would lead Grey Daze to increasing success around Phoenix, working shifts at a local Burger King around rehearsals and shows. He met his first wife, Samantha, at a time when “everything I owned was kept in a milk crate; I had a futon and a skateboard, and that’s how I got around”; the couple married in 1996. But Grey Daze’s failure to make the step up to the next level and break out of their home state meant his dreams were seemingly over at 22. Still, with many of his old addictions under control, he’d found a job, was holding down two mortgages on property, and was sneaking into business lectures at Arizona State University. “I was done with music,” he told this writer of that time. “Music was a girlfriend that I had broken up with.”

Yet, his calling nagged at him. So when, in 1999, on his 23rd birthday, a music industry acquaintance passed him the demo tape of an LA band going by the name of Xero, despite initial reservations that they “would be just another band”, Chester heard enough to “turn to [Samantha] and say, ‘This is the one.’”

One problem: Xero weren’t quite so set on him, so when Chester travelled almost 400 miles to LA a few days later, he was surprised that the red carpet he was expecting to be rolled out to greet his arrival wasn’t in place. Instead, he found himself at the back of a queue of auditionees. Worse still, this skinny, bespectacled wannabe was sporting not just a ‘sensible’ cut for his curly brown locks, in anticipation of a lifetime of boring office work, but a silk bowling shirt, which the industry hook-up who’d scored him the chance quietly implored him to change out of. A rockstar to pin your future on he most certainly did not appear.

Through all of that, though, Chester’s future bandmates heard a voice that would go on to echo around arenas the world over. The frontman’s temperament – “Chester was very hot and cold back then,” Mike Shinoda later told K! – was reflected in a vocal that could at one second soothe and seduce, and the next tear holes through your gut. “[His] talent stood out straight away,” Mike said. “I mean, it would be impossible to be in a situation with Chester and not be in awe of his raw talent.”

Xero had some songs; Chester, on the other hand, had his poetry and his lyrics. Changing their name to Hybrid Theory, they worked on their material, played showcases, spread the word, in the hope that their break would come. Such was the vocalist’s determination to make a success of his new gig, during this time he roughed sleeping in his car, on rehearsal room floors and, when his luck of an evening was really in, on a spare sofa. “I was just stoked to be around guys doing cool stuff,” Chester reflected on that time. “From day one, it never got stuck; it always felt exciting and interesting.”

This alone was enough for Chester to decide there was no turning back. Phoenix was in the rearview mirror; Hybrid Theory would make it, come hell or high water.

“We each made our own sacrifices, but Chester’s was unique,” guitarist Brad Delson told Rolling Stone in 2002. “Because he had so much to risk, he was extremely motivated. He would tell us, ‘Guys, I don’t think we’re working hard enough.’”

“Chester always wants to give 100 per cent to everything,” Mike would later say of his friend. “I can try to stand in his way, but he’ll just fucking run over me.”

Many thousands of words have, over the past 17 years, been dedicated to what happened next. Hybrid Theory may have wound up changing their name to Linkin Park, but those words would nonetheless leave an indelible mark on rock and metal all the same. To date, the band’s debut album, released on October 24, 2000, has sold over 30 million copies worldwide. It ranks, still to this day, as the highest-selling debut album of the 21st century.

“Love is the thing that makes us want to become better people”

Chester Bennington

Its fusing of rap and hip-hop with rock and metal may not have been groundbreaking – Korn, Deftones and Limp Bizkit had long since marked the tracks which Linkin Park would follow – yet it captured a moment in time when the mainstream embraced rock in a way perhaps never seen since; when a glossy music video (of which Hybrid Theory yielded five, albeit now somewhat dated, efforts) or a well-chosen promo single could make a career. Off the back of such opportunity, Hybrid Theory was the metal album that slipped in the mainstream’s back entrance, spiked its tea, and watched as everyone who took a sip was soon reaching for big hoodies, even bigger jeans, and wallet chains.

It offered a pop sensibility that was missing in Korn; an emotional connection with which Limp Bizkit couldn’t empathise; and a welcoming open-door where Slipknot’s ‘People = Shit’ slogan screamed of closed ranks. Upon its release, a whole new generation of metal fans were created, exposed and welcomed to our world, and artists who would go on to play in bands from Bring Me The Horizon, Beartooth, Neck Deep, Bury Tomorrow, Architects, Of Mice & Men and so many more were born in an instant. A decade on, they would perform the album in its entirety at Download; in the crowd, tens of thousands of people, from all walks of life, who wouldn’t have been at the festival at all had it not been for those 37 minutes and 45 seconds of music.

“Hybrid Theory changed everything [for us],” Chester told me in 2014. “For me, it felt like a vindication of all that time I spent in Arizona making music that wasn’t that good, for someone [in LA] to say [to the guys in the band], ‘Oh, I know a singer in Arizona, you guys should work with this guy…’ I really owe a lot of what we’ve done as a band since then, for whatever reason, to the trials and tribulations of making that record a success.”

“As our career has gone on, [its importance for people] is something I’ve heard more and more often,” Chester said in the run-up to the festival, while in conversation with Oli Sykes of Bring Me The Horizon for a Kerrang! cover story. “People who were listening to Hybrid Theory when they were kids who’ve now got to a place where I hear, ‘Your band was the reason why I got into music,’ or, ‘Your songs talk to me in ways that other people’s songs don’t.’ And it’s really cool to hear how music has affected their life; how a young fan can go to a show and be like, ‘That’s what I wanna do…’”

While the world moved with breakneck speed in finding out who Linkin Park were, it was through the band’s lyrics that the enigma of Chester would slowly be revealed – an unfolding, often abstract riddle that would begin with Hybrid Theory and play out through his lifetime of work. While in the band’s early years he developed a reputation as a guarded, defensive, often agitated interviewee – “Chester definitely mellowed over the years,” Mike Shinoda laughed in 2014 – on record he was soul-baringly open. Speaking to Spin in 2009, Chester would explain of his songwriting, “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.”

Hybrid Theory alone touched upon themes of depression, paranoia, anxiety and abuse. On Papercut, Chester’s personal favourite song from the album, and the one he feels best sums up the band, he sang of ‘a whirlwind inside of my head’ and his inability to ‘stop what I’m hearing within’. Crawling, meanwhile, which earned the band the first of their two GRAMMYs, “[was] about feeling like I had no control over myself in terms of drugs and alcohol”. 2003 follow-up Meteora, similarly, saw Chester tackle love, loneliness and loss.

Yet more current lyrical inspiration was to come. “When I find myself not doing anything, that’s when I feel the most out of control, and… that’s when things get weird,” Chester would later say. And while on a break following 2004’s Collision Course collaboration with Jay-Z, time is exactly what he found on his hands. Divorce from wife Samantha, coupled with burn-out from the heavy workload he had shouldered for the past few years, had taken a huge toll, from which he’d sought refuge in the bottle. After remarrying at the end of 2005, his new wife Talinda and the intervention of his bandmates forced him to face up to “the choice between stopping drinking, and dying”.

The frontman later reflected on this period being one of the lowest in his life. ‘I have reached the end,’ he wrote of this time on the song My Suffering, taken from his side-project Dead By Sunrise’s lone 2009 album, ‘and I don’t know what I believe in anymore.’

“[That album] is a journal, lyrically, of what I was going through,” he told Kerrang! that same year. “Whether it was falling in love or falling apart.”

“Around [2007 album] Minutes To Midnight, for 18 months we were reinventing the band, re-learning who we were as people, and, to some degree, becoming friends for the first time, especially with Chester,” Mike Shinoda said in 2014. “He was changing so much at that time, getting sober, and divorced, and he was just this new person. It would swing wildly, but it was so awesome to see it happen. I know that that was a moment when we all recognised how incredible what he was doing was. I’d seen him spend so much energy on the band. And then he was spending that time and energy on himself, figuring his life out.”

Subsequent years, for both Chester and his band, would be marked by transformation. As Linkin Park embraced an ever-changing modus operandi, with experimentation in sound seeing them shift through nu-metal, alt.rock, electro, industrial and hard rock on A Thousand Suns (2010), Living Things (2012) and The Hunting Party (2014), Chester himself seemed to find a maturity, stability and contentment for which he’d long been searching. He became a father a further three times, including to twin girls in 2011, marking his fifth and sixth (and final) children, with parenthood continuing to be a source of joy in his life. His good friend, Chris Cornell, who would have celebrated his 53rd birthday on the day his fellow vocalist passed away, asked Chester to be the godfather to his son Christopher, born in 2005.

He’d explored film work with the Crank movies of 2006 and 2009, and in 2010’s Saw 3D: The Final Chapter. His charity commitments swelled. And, on May 18, 2013, he fulfilled a childhood dream by fronting Stone Temple Pilots, a band he had grown up idolising, for the first time. He would stay with the band, releasing the October 2013 EP High Rise and performing live, between his Linkin Park commitments, until November 2015, when he announced his departure to focus more on Linkin Park and his family life.

“Love is the thing that makes us want to become better people,” he reflected in 2012. “It’s the thing that keeps us connected to others. It’s the thing that gives us compassion. It’s the thing that gives us the drive to do really great things with our lives, and it’s the thing that you can always depend and count on when you can’t count on anything else.”

“You know, these guys [in Linkin Park] have played such a special role in my life,” he told me in 2014, when asked what the band had given him. “And not just in my career. When you grow in a relationship, you find out that the band [itself] doesn’t matter. What matters is that we all get through life in the most productive situations we can possibly be in.”

Just three weeks ago, Linkin Park took to the stage at London’s O2 Arena in support of their latest – and one might imagine, very possibly last – album, One More Light. As the final work to which Chester put his name, while on the surface its electropop textures were a “curveball to fans”, under its skin it bleeds some of Chester’s most personal songwriting. Talking To Myself, for example, found Chester attempting to empathise with “how [my wife] must have felt when I was battling my demons”. Lead single Heavy, meanwhile, was explained by Chester to Kerrang! in March’s comeback cover feature: “I never feel comfortable or satisfied, so the thing that makes things really heavy for me are my thoughts and behaviours, where I’d get caught in these cycles of negativity or substance abuse. There’s a really bad neighbourhood inside my skull, so I shouldn’t really walk those streets by myself.”

That, in his last days, Chester felt alone on those streets, with millions of people around the world loving him as much as his passing has evidenced, is a tragedy in itself.

Chester Bennington is survived by his wife, Talinda, and six children, Tyler Lee, Isaiah, Jaime, Draven, Lila and Lily. The thoughts of the entire Kerrang! family are with them at this time.

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