It’s not a major revelation that Linkin Park vocalist Chester Bennington, who took his life sometime between the evening of July 19 and the morning of July 20, had a dark past. In interviews, he spoke candidly about his troubled boyhood (including being sexually abused by an older male friend for six years), his adolescent addiction to heavy drugs, and his more recent battle with alcoholism. One of Linkin Park’s biggest hits, “Crawling” (“Crawling in my skin/These wounds, they will not heal/Fear is how I fall/Confusing what is real”), from their 2000 breakthrough debut, Hybrid Theory, was a blunt reflection about addiction.
“That’s one of the most literal songs I ever wrote,” Bennington told me in 2009. “It’s about being out of control, like I’m crawling in my skin, and being unable to stop taking drugs and drinking. In this band I’m able to take these desperate feelings and plug them right into the music, and that’s pretty therapeutic. That’s what a lot of Linkin Park is about for me.”
In his music, Bennington vented about bad relationships (including one divorce), childhood traumas, depression, and existential angst. Like his good friend Chris Cornell and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, he was an emotional artist, sometimes overwhelmed by the pain in his life. That’s what made his lyrics so palpable. And that’s possibly what made him feel so helpless and hopeless that he reportedly killed himself.
Linkin Park’s earliest albums were filled with self-loathing and despair, and one of the clearest examples of Bennington’s depression was another Hybrid Theory smash, “In the End,” on which he presciently belted: “I tried so hard and got so far/But in the end, it doesn’t even matter.” Songs like “Crawling” and “In the End” connected with a generation of angst-laden fans because of their easily palatable blend of hip-hop, electronic rock, buzzing metal chords, and Bennington’s melodic, Nine Inch Nails-influenced screams. Hybrid Theory sold 10 million copies, and its follow-up, Meteora, from 2003, sold 4 million, and 2007’s Minutes to Midnight sold 2 million.
But despite his massive success, Bennington was still troubled, and that came through clearly his lyrics. “I wanna heal, I wanna feel what I thought was never real/I wanna let go of the pain I’ve felt so long,” he sang on Meteora’s “Somewhere I Belong.” And many of his songs from Minutes to Midnight were about heartbreak and betrayal, likely spawned by his dysfunctional nine-year marriage to and subsequent divorce from first wife, Samantha Marie Olit. Other songs from the third Linkin Park album were cries for help that read like suicide notes. “Take this all away, I’m suffocating/Tell me what the f*** is wrong with me/ … Put me out of my misery!/Put me out of my misery!/Put me out of my/ Put me out of my f***ing misery,” he bellowed on “Given Up.”
That negativity seeped into Bennington’s side project, which, in a bit of gallows humor that no longer seems all that funny, he called Dead by Sunrise. “I went through a few different titles,” Bennington told me right before Dead by Sunrise’s album, Out of Ashes, came out in 2009. “We went by ‘Snow White Tan’ for a while because I never saw the sun and neither did any of the people I was hanging out with. I was going through a pretty dark time. I was drinking heavily and partying it up too much. I was in a bad place mentally. I had just gotten divorced and was feeling pretty unsure about myself, which is why I was drinking so much. During that phase, a lot of times I felt like if we make it till tomorrow it was a fun three days. I wasn’t sitting in my closet injecting myself with heroin, but I was sitting in my closet drinking a lot of Jack Daniels.”
The first half of the Dead by Sunrise album was harsh and desperate, with many of the tracks sounding even heavier than Linkin Park. “I’m so lost I can’t be found/It’s too late to turn back now,” Bennington sang on “Too Late”; sample lyrics from “Condemned” included “Happiness for misery, I want it/Cut me up and leave me for dead/Sacrifice a civic life no return/Kiss the wife and kids goodbye for good.”
It seemed like Bennington was reaching the end of the line, but then he met his second wife, Talinda Ann Bentley (who became the mother of three of his children), and she seemed to bring him salvation. As a result, the latter half of Dead by Sunrise’s album sounded lighter and more optimistic. “The reason I made it through that dark time was I met my wife at that time,” Bennington told me. “We had fallen in love. She’s an amazing person, and that led up to the softer side of the record. The good thing about life generally is as it’s kicking you in the balls, it’s patting you on the back and telling you it’s gonna be OK.”
However, Bennington’s newfound optimism didn’t seem to last, and on Linkin Park’s 2012 album Living Things, he continued to explore the familiar topics of depression, rejection, and demoralization. And, eerily, the songs now seem less about hopelessness and more about death. “Now in my remains are promises that never came/Set the silence free to wash away the worst of me,” he implored on “In My Remains”; “And tell them I couldn’t help myself/And tell them I was alone/Oh, tell me I am the only one and there’s nothing that can stop me,” he warned on “I’ll Be Gone.”
This year, when Linkin Park released their seventh album, One More Light, on May 19, it seemed like Bennington might have finally found a happier place. The album’s songs were more rooted in pop and rock, and almost all of the metal vestiges of the past had vanished. As Linkin Park promoted the release, the singer acted feisty and energetic. When he talked to NME about the band’s poppier new direction, he said, “We were asked, ‘What do you think of people who say you sold out?’ — I don’t care. 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.”
Perhaps Bennington was happy with One More Light. But upon a closer listen to the album, it seems he still wasn’t in a good place emotionally. He was apparently looking for a way out, singing on its opening track: “Nobody can save me now/I’m holding up a light/I’m chasing out the darkness inside/‘Cause nobody can save me.”