chester re­mem­bered

Chester Ben­ning­ton’s voice sound­tracked a gen­er­a­tion and in­tro­duced them to a world of heavy music. We re­mem­ber the man be­hind the songs, and a life gone far too soon

Metal Hammer (UK) - - Contents -

We look back on the life of a man who fol­lowed his dreams, and the voice that led a gen­er­a­tion to heavy music

Saturday, 20 March, 1999. A skinny 23-year-old in Phoenix, Ari­zona, signs for a pack­age sent from Los An­ge­les. It’s his birth­day, but the pack­age is no present – more an op­por­tu­nity. In­side is a demo by a band called Xero. One side is in­stru­men­tal, the other has singing, and through­out a band is try­ing to blend hip hop with metal.

The kid in Ari­zona, Chester Ben­ning­ton, thinks: ‘Hmmm, I’m not re­ally into the whole hip hop thing. But the music is re­ally cool.’

Then he lis­tens to it again. “I knew I could do it bet­ter,” he would ad­mit years later.

The next day he goes into a record­ing stu­dio. He knows peo­ple there, hav­ing played in a lo­cally suc­cess­ful band, Grey Daze. He lis­tens to the Xero demo once more, lays his own vo­cals over the top, and then calls Jeff Blue, the LA record la­bel ex­ec­u­tive who sent it to him.

“I’m done,” he tells him. “When should I come out to LA?”

“No,” replies Jeff. “We need you to record some vo­cals on it.”

“Yes, I’ve done that,” says Chester – cocky, self-as­sured. “Dude, I’m a fuck­ing pro­fes­sional.”

Then he puts the tape in his stereo, places the tele­phone against a speaker, and blasts it down the line. “When can you be here?” asks Jeff. The next day, 9am, Chester is out­side Jeff’s LA of­fice. Within weeks, he is Xero’s singer and, af­ter they be­come Linkin Park, for the next 18 years, he will be the voice, the spirit and the tor­tured soul at their heart. His death, on July 20, 2017 from an ap­par­ent suicide, will stop a gen­er­a­tion in its tracks.

That 23-year-old in Phoenix had some prob­lems. “Grow­ing up, for me, was very scary,” he said. As a child, he was abused. It was some­thing that greatly af­fected his life and his music, and some­thing he later opened up on. “It es­ca­lated from a touchy, cu­ri­ous, ‘what does this thing do’ into full-on, crazy vi­o­la­tions,” he said. “I was get­ting beaten up and be­ing forced to do things I didn’t want to do. It de­stroyed my self-con­fi­dence.”

His par­ents split up when he was 11 years old. His mother left, as did his older sis­ter, while his other sis­ter was never much around. His fa­ther, a po­lice­man, worked dou­ble shifts to make ends meet. Which just left Chester.


“I was pretty much just left at home by my­self. It was hor­ri­ble.”

The abuse con­tin­ued un­til he was 13. “The only thing I wanted to do was kill ev­ery­body and run away,” he said. “I hated ev­ery­body in my fam­ily: I felt aban­doned. I wrote a lot, I drew a lot and I wrote a lot of po­etry.”

It was the po­etry that led him to music. Aged 15, he formed the post-grunge band Grey Daze – in­spired by his love of bands like Stone Tem­ple Pi­lots – and says he “knew that music was all I wanted to do”. But it was not the only thing. Chester, in part to relieve the demons brought on by the abuse, in part to pass the time, leaned heav­ily on drugs.

“I was do­ing a ton of LSD and a lot of drink­ing,” he said. “When we couldn’t find acid, we turned to speed. We were smok­ing it in bongs – I was do­ing bong-hits of meth. It was ridicu­lous. Then we’d smoke opium to come down, or I’d drink a lot.”

Af­ter an in­ci­dent when some deal­ers pis­tol-whipped his friends, he moved back in with his mother. He swapped speed for al­co­hol and mar­i­juana. “It kept me off the hard drugs,” he ad­mit­ted. But it would take over his life.

Fol­low­ing the break-up of Grey Daze, the ar­rival of Xero’s demo was, Chester felt, his last chance. When he ar­rived in Los An­ge­les in 1999, Xero – who had changed their name to Hy­brid The­ory – were not sure about him.

“He was re­ally skinny, with glasses, and he was wear­ing this aw­ful but­ter­fly col­lar shirt that made him look like a cheesy guy from an Ari­zona night­club bar,” said Mike Shinoda, the man who wrote al­most all of Hy­brid The­ory’s music. “He was def­i­nitely look­ing for di­rec­tion. He was look­ing at us like it was his ticket.”

They were au­di­tion­ing a num­ber of singers, which did not im­press Chester: “I was think­ing: ‘You’ve got to be fuck­ing kid­ding me. Ei­ther choose me or don’t, but I’m not sit­ting about fuck­ing wast­ing my time.’ I was the best thing they were go­ing to find!”

“There was one guy who never wore shoes and told us he wanted to do stand-up com­edy dur­ing our show,” ad­mit­ted Mike, before he fi­nally re­alised: “Chester sang like a fuck­ing beast.”

Hy­brid The­ory be­came Linkin Park af­ter sign­ing to Warner Broth­ers, with the la­bel con­cerned the orig­i­nal name was too sim­i­lar to an­other act. Mike wrote the music then col­lab­o­rated on lyrics with Chester, as the new singer ex­plored the abuse of his child­hood with a man who was then a vir­tual stranger.

“There re­ally wasn’t any room for bash­ful­ness,” said Mike. “Some of his lyrics ad­dressed that stuff, so when he and I were talk­ing about the songs, he told me. It was a weird way to get to know each other.”

From those ses­sions came the jux­ta­po­si­tion at the cen­tre of Linkin Park’s first two al­bums, Hy­brid The­ory (whose name they re­cy­cled for their de­but) and Me­te­ora: the howl­ing fury and angst of Chester’s in­ter­nal psy­che, and the slick as­sur­ance of Mike’s rap­ping. It would be lit­tle short of rev­o­lu­tion­ary.

The guys in Linkin Park had a bet as to how many copies Hy­brid The­ory would sell in the week of its re­lease in

Oc­to­ber 2000. The low­est guess was a measly two, the high­est was Chester’s 8,000. It sold 47,000 in its first week alone, and has since sold 20mil­lion. “We all just went, ‘Holy shit!’” re­marked Chester later.

It was a record that came to rep­re­sent nu metal’s com­mer­cial zenith. Though Linkin Park were late to that party – and hated be­ing part of it – they came to de­fine it. Hy­brid The­ory de­liv­ered rage, fear, an­guish and para­noia in thrillingly big riffs and cho­ruses. Its com­mer­cial­ity was key: the gui­tars were heavy and the emo­tions vis­ceral, but it played to radio. Metal purists may have baulked at it as pop, but it in­tro­duced heavy music to an en­tirely new gen­er­a­tion, act­ing as a point of en­try for many who went on to dis­cover a rock and metal sub­cul­ture, as well as other nu metal bands and, per­haps more im­por­tantly, their in­flu­ences.

Chester be­came nu metal’s poster boy with his easy-on-the-ear angst, gi­ant vo­cals and re­lat­ably tor­tured im­age, even though it was largely Mike’s music (Chester once con­fessed, “If Mike could sing, I wouldn’t have a job”). It made him un­com­fort­able. “I had achieved my life­long dream,” said Chester. “And I was still not happy.”

As Hy­brid The­ory grew, so did the crit­i­cism – some ac­cused Linkin Park of hav­ing been


“grow­ing up, for me,

waS very SCary”


put to­gether like a boy band, so sus­pi­cious were they of their suc­cess. “We blew up so quickly that there was a lot of re­sent­ment,” said Chester. “‘Who’s this fuck­ing Back­street Boys rock band?’ I felt I had to de­fend my­self.”

It started shap­ing Chester. He be­came spiky in the press, as did Mike, who ad­mit­ted to be­ing “bit­ter”. They felt they needed to prove them­selves, which they did by tour­ing re­lent­lessly. And that caused its own prob­lems.

“I re­spect us for get­ting through that time with­out killing each other,” said Chester.

“We were play­ing six nights a week. We weren’t tak­ing care of our­selves.”

He drank hard and smoked weed; the rest of Linkin Park did not. “That segregated me from the band,” said Chester later. “I didn’t feel con­nected with the guys, we didn’t feel like friends. My then-wife and I were at each other’s throats. It was a pretty mis­er­able experience. My drink­ing put up a big bar­ri­cade with the guys but I thought they just didn’t un­der­stand me.”

Me­te­ora, Linkin Park’s sec­ond al­bum, was made in the midst of this. And though it ce­mented their sta­tus as megas­tars, within the band, Chester was fall­ing apart.

as­naphot of Chester Ben­ning­ton in

2004 is not pretty. “I wasn’t leav­ing my house,” he said. “I would shack up in my closet in the dark and shake all day. I would wake up and have a pint of Jack Daniel’s to calm down, then I’d pop a bunch of pills and go back in my closet and fuck­ing freak out. I was a mess. I was fall­ing through win­dows, hav­ing seizures and go­ing to hos­pi­tal the whole time. It was fuck­ing ridicu­lous. I was a to­tal wreck.

“Be­cause I had started touch­ing on my child­hood in our songs, I felt like I was doomed to be this lonely per­son. I thought I would never have a ful­fill­ing re­la­tion­ship with any­one. All I had were the drugs and my al­co­hol.”

His band staged an in­ter­ven­tion, even­tu­ally lead­ing to his re­hab. “I had no idea I had been such a night­mare,” he said. “I knew I had a drink­ing prob­lem, a drug prob­lem and my per­sonal life was crazy but I didn’t re­alise how much that was af­fect­ing peo­ple un­til I got a good dose of ‘Here’s-what-you’re-re­ally-like.’

“They said that I was two peo­ple – Chester and then that fuck­ing guy. I didn’t want to be that guy, I wanted to be me, so I did ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to stay sober.”

By late 2005, he had di­vorced his first wife, Sa­man­tha Olit, and met Talinda Bent­ley, a for­mer model. “Talinda kept me walk­ing be­cause I couldn’t get there,” he said. “It was a very painful road for her too to watch me try to drink my­self to death. I had this amaz­ing feel­ing of fall­ing in love and feel­ing it com­ing back. I’d never re­ally felt that before. It was pow­er­ful.”

As Linkin Park re­turned to the stu­dio for their third al­bum – 2007’s Min­utes To Mid­night, in which they would be­gin to move away from nu metal – Chester was work­ing on his own ma­te­rial as a purer chan­nel for his emo­tions.

“There’s a spe­cific way we write to­gether

[in Linkin Park] and it’s not su­per-per­sonal,” he said. “Things have to take a Mike and I vibe and then the rest of the guys give you notes on the lyrics.”

So his moody, at­mo­spheric rock side-project Dead By Sun­rise be­came a means to de­tail his jour­ney through ad­dic­tion and re­cov­ery. “I was two dif­fer­ent peo­ple,” he said. “I was the guy writ­ing very per­sonal songs in Dead By Sun­rise and then I’d write Linkin Park songs. Dead By Sun­rise was a jour­nal of fall­ing in love and fall­ing apart.”

The one song that crossed the di­vide was the sec­ond track on Min­utes To Mid­night, Given Up

– in which Chester de­tails his al­co­hol is­sues.

“i pray all The Time. ThaT keepS me in CheCk”


“I’d just got­ten back from re­hab when I wrote that and the guys were like, ‘This is fuck­ing good, dude’,” he said. “They were let­ting me just vomit lyrics.”

min­utes To Mid­night was a bridg­ing al­bum that al­lowed Linkin Park to es­cape their nu metal past and pointed to a fu­ture of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion.

It also re­lieved pres­sure. No longer were

Linkin Park, and their singer, the voice of the nu metal gen­er­a­tion. In­stead, emo had changed the land­scape.

It was no­tice­able then – and on Linkin Park’s fourth stu­dio al­bum, 2010’s A Thou­sand Suns, in which they ex­per­i­mented with moody beats and at­mo­spher­ics – that they all ap­peared to re­lax. Mike, nor­mally in­tense and pro­tec­tive, be­came more laid­back. Chester, his demons in check, was easy-go­ing. Tanned, fit and healthy, he had a smile on his face in in­ter­views for the first time in years.

“Dead By Sun­rise was ac­tu­ally good for Linkin Park be­cause I got all that shit out,” said Chester. “It meant I could make a record with Linkin Park that wasn’t typ­i­cal. It wasn’t just me talk­ing about my poor, hurt lit­tle feel­ings again.”

They rein­tro­duced gui­tars on their 2012 fifth al­bum, Liv­ing Things, and there was still the sense the band were in­creas­ingly happy in their own skin. Mu­si­cally, they could ex­per­i­ment, but they could still head­line fes­ti­vals in the knowl­edge the old nu metal bel­ters would buy them lee­way from the crowds.

Chester seemed hap­pier: “I just don’t want to be that [drunken] per­son any­more. I’m a per­son of faith and I take that very se­ri­ously. I pray all the time. That keeps me in check.”

His com­plex fam­ily – he had six chil­dren with three part­ners – was work­ing. “Out of the tur­moil of my life, we now have an ex­tremely sta­ble en­vi­ron­ment,” he said.

Then in 2013, he was of­fered his dream gig of re­plac­ing Stone Tem­ple Pi­lots’ troubled singer, Scott Wei­land. Part of the rea­son he said yes was that, the more Linkin Park’s music changed, the more Chester was hav­ing to find other spa­ces in their music for him­self. Stone Tem­ple Pi­lots al­lowed him to be a front­man again.

It was a two-year ride he en­joyed, but which came to an end when tour­ing

Linkin Park’s 2014 al­bum The Hunt­ing Party be­gan de­mand­ing his time. A re­turn to the en­ergy of their ear­lier record­ings, Linkin Park found an un­likely heavy tone on it in col­lab­o­ra­tions with rage Against The Ma­chine’s Tom Morello, Sys­tem Of A Down’s Daron Malakian and Hel­met’s Page Hamil­ton.

This year’s One More Light changed the band’s sound again, mov­ing them into pop ter­ri­tory with a host of main­stream col­lab­o­ra­tions, but Chester re­mained de­fen­sive af­ter crit­i­cism that they had sold out, telling fans to “move the fuck on”. He con­tin­ued to be open about his is­sues, talk­ing of the “bad neigh­bour­hood” in his head that in­spired the song Heavy from that al­bum.

The news of Chester’s death on Thurs­day July 20,

2017, two months af­ter the death of his close friend Chris

Cor­nell and on the

Soundgar­den singer’s birth­day, was an ap­palling end to a ca­reer of rare and shin­ing bril­liance.

For a man who had, through­out his life, al­ways been able to stay one step ahead of his demons – whether through music, per­sonal strength or the love of his fam­ily – it was a des­per­ate blow that, at 41, they fi­nally caught up with him.

For many, he will be re­mem­bered for his pres­ence on­stage. In the UK, one of the most defin­ing per­for­mances was when the band played

Hy­brid The­ory in full at

Down­load in 2014. Let the cheers and rau­cous re­ac­tion serve as a mem­ory for one of the defin­ing tal­ents of

an age.

Linkin Park in­tro­duced a whole

gen­er­a­tion to metal Chester giv­ing it all on­stage in 2008 at PNC Bank Arts Cen­ter, New Jersey

The height of Hy­brid: Live­stock, Ze­phyrhills, Florida in April 2001

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