I’d never heard anyone scream like Chester Bennington.
It started in Ms. Higgins’ social studies class on a fall day in 2000. These two popular kids named Kyle Colson and Miles Tharp had made an amateur music video, and for some reason Ms Higgins decided to show it to the class.
Kyle and Miles were all gangsta’d up in puffy vests and wool skull caps, lip syncing to a heavy metal song in what looked like a dimly-lit closet. Miles lip synced a part that went SHUT UP WHEN I’M TALKING TO YOU. I don’t remember much else about that fuzzy, student-produced piece, but I do remember wondering, “Who the fuck sings that song?”
Probably a week or so later, Sarah Bradbury gave me her headphones on the bus ride home, asking me if I’d heard a particular song called One Step Closer. I don’t remember when I heard the name Linkin Park for the first time, but it must’ve been right then.
I hit play and listened. It was the song from Kyle and Miles’ video. And it was incredible.
The band had my attention from the jagged, see-sawing introductory guitar riff. And the singer had my attention from the first line — I cannot take this anymore
His whole performance was everything you’ve heard about the past couple of days. Visceral. A larynx of steel. The SHUT UP WHEN I’M TALKING TO YOU breakdown was face peeling. I still remember it 17 years later — listening and looking out the window about two rows back from the driver’s seat, the bus turning west on 9 mile. The sky was grey.
I’d never heard music like this. I hit repeat all the way home. At her stop, Sarah had to tap me on the shoulder to get her Discman back.
This was before the Internet. I couldn’t just go home and look up this new band online. I didn’t even know what they looked like.
I bought the album, titled Hybrid Theory, not long after. The cover had stenciled spray-paint art of an insect-winged soldier carrying a flag. Silver and black. The CD itself was blood red.
I looked up the singer’s name in the liner notes.
I finally saw what he looked like. This skinny guy in sunglasses with bleached, gelled hair and blue flame tattoos on his arms. His nose was a neat, perfectly- shaped beak. Everything about him seemed sharp-looking, spiny — his limbs, the spikes in his hair, his chin, and the strange, forked goatee he had at the time. To me, he looked like a mad scientist or a futuristic vampire. This was a fucking rock star.
I listened to every song on that album. Over and over and over.
Chester screamed with his entire body, bent over like a slave in a pit or a blacksmith at a forge. The lyrics were pedestrian, even hokey. But when Chester sang them in his demon shriek of an upper register, they caught fire.
The sun goes down, I feel the light betray me
Crawling in my skin, these wounds they will not heal
It’s true the way I feel, what’s promised by your face
You try to take the best of me, go away
It was blistering, undeniably powerful. The screams of MYSELF on the song By Myself could strip paint.
Pictures in the album booklet showed Chester in the studio, and they were the portrait of a person venting a great anguish, a primal catharsis. Every muscle and cord in his neck bulging, open mouth bowed downward in explicit rage, showing straight white teeth, air forced out through the throat at gale force. This was the sound of a soul. It could not be faked.
(I didn’t realize it at the time, but there‘s only one other singer I could compare it to — at least in terms of the sheer self-destructiveness of the vocal — and that’s Kurt Cobain.)
Some of my classic rock snob friends absolutely hated Linkin Park. But after I convinced them to take a real listen, they admitted a begrudging respect for Chester’s abilities.
“He’s the only thing good about it,” they told me.
I remember talking about Linkin Park with other friends, ones that were as entranced as I was. We concluded if they wanted to be really huge they would release In the End as a single. It’s difficult to believe that there was a time when Linkin Park was not huge.
I remember listening to them while I played Twisted Metal on PlayStation. I remember when they played Ozzfest 2001. I remember trying to find a rare song of theirs called My December on what passed for the Internet then — I found nothing and had to record it on a cassette tape when I caught it playing on a local radio station. I remember re-designing the album cover of their first EP for a project in a computer design class.
I remember watching the music video for Crawling, where the band plays in a room of icy, shifting crystals. It was the first time I’d ever seen Chester moving around and performing. I caught it on MTV one late night and recorded it on a VHS tape in my parents basement. I watched it over and over.
I remember when Reanimation came out my junior year. I remembering being irritated that they were rehashing old songs instead of giving us new music, spoiled suburban kid that I am. I had a friend burn it for me and I listened to Krwlng featuring Aaron Lewis on repeat while I read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.
High school went on. Hybrid Theory was never far from my CD player.
Then came the slow decline.
In the spring of 2003, I heard Linkin Park were finally going to release their second album. I remember obsessively speculating on the new title until learning the new album would be called Meteora.
I remember driving in my 95 Taurus to Best Buy the day it went on sale. I remember putting it in the Discman I had plugged into a cassette adapter. I remember driving home down 8 Mile and listening to it, bursting with anticipation as I hit play on the first song. It was cloudy that day, too.
I enjoyed it, but not nearly as much as Hybrid Theory. The lyrics were bland, the songs formulaic. I’d heard all this already. I wasn’t necessarily disappointed — it was good to have Chester back. His performances on Easier To Run, Lying from You, Numb, Hit the Floor and From the Inside were all up-to-form. But that initial spark of adolescent infatuation had faded out.
Four years later, Minutes to Midnight came out. I remember my friend Franz showing it to me as we drove to Meijer to get materials to make a green screen for a film project we were working on. I didn’t even know Linkin Park was putting out an album that year. I remember the 18 second scream Chester did on Given Up. I remember talking to Franz — my first good friend who actually enjoyed Linkin Park as much as I did — about how Chester was a transcendentally good singer and easily the best thing about the band.
I didn’t dig Minutes to Midnight as a whole, although there was a U2-esque song Franz showed me called Shadow of the Day that was pretty decent. Another one called Bleed It Out was good, too. I remember this was the first time I’d ever heard Mike Shinoda sing instead of just rap. But I knew that Linkin Park’s days as one of my favorite bands were long over.
Three more years went by, and I forgot about Linkin Park. I graduated from college. I started life as an adult. The Recession hit and Obama was elected.
Then, in September 2010, out of nowhere, they were back again. I was out with Franz in his car. We were smoking weed and enjoying the night air. Franz pulled up a song on his phone and played it through the stereo. I realized it was Linkin Park. And it was really good. Excitingly good.
I heard Mike singing,
This is not the end this is not the beginning, just a voice like a riot rocking every revision, but you listen to the tone and violent rhythm and though the words sound steady something empty’s within them
This was the best material I’d heard from them since Hybrid Theory. I was smoking weed almost daily at that time, and this was the first time I’d heard Linkin Park while high.
I bought A Thousand Suns and loved the entire album. I listened to it while I worked out. Forthe first time since I’d heard them on the bus when I was 14, Linkin Park felt new to me. A decade had gone by, almost to the day.
The whole album was a cohesive whole. They weren’t just bitching about generic bad feelings and not feeling the way they did before. The song “Blackout” is the album’s epic centerpiece. It might be the best song they ever write. In my starry headbuzz, I thought that maybe this was a glorious new beginning for Linkin Park.
In hindsight, I think it might’ve just been the weed.
In August 2012, Franz had an extra ticket to see Linkin Park at The Palace of Auburn Hills. I drove there after my day job of delivering hospice equipment and met Franz and his girlfriend at the entrance.
After Incubus played their set, Franz and I went outside to the smoking area and got blazed. The tour was based around some promotional thing for the Honda Civic — in fact the tour was called the Honda Civic Tour, which was funny because both Franz and I drove Honda Civics then. They had a big screen up over the stage and they showed promotional interviews with the band. I remember Chester comparing himself to an athlete when it came to his singing. I remember Mike and Chester feigning enthusiasm at a souped-up Honda Civic that had been put together for the band.
So blatantly corporate. So corporate, it hurt. Franz and I mocked their shilling.
I remember they opened with With You. I remember hearing the song Victimized for the first time at that concert. I remember the jets of flame that shot up from the corners of the stage during Burn It Down. And I remember at the end of the show a shirtless and wiry Chester, his body glossy with sweat, coming to each end of the stage and giving a slow, deliberate salute to all the people in the stands. I saluted him back. We’d shared physical space together, even if it was with a thousand other people.
I didn’t really listen to Living Things, the album that came out that year. For the first time, I wasn’t even aware they’d put out an album. I did think the song Castle of Glass had the catchiest keys riff since In the End.
I heard Guilty All the Same on the radio another few years later and completely hated it. I was done with them. They’d put out some killer shit in their time, but now they were just a band I’d liked as a teenager. I was a grown up now. I couldn’t get down with lyrics that sounded like they were out of an angsty middle schooler’s diary. I had real, every day problems like holding down a job and paying student loans and maintaining a car. I had a serious girlfriend. And besides, aside from Franz, no one I knew had ever taken Linkin Park seriously.
But through all this, Chester’s quality and his fierce passion was the constant. He always seemed to sing with every ounce of himself. I never stopped respecting him, despite the words he was singing and despite the corporate culture of the band. He never phoned it in.
When he emptied his lungs into a chorus, it was like a battleship firing its main cannons. It was war-like, eye-widening. He excelled even on throwaway tracks. The impact to the chorus of Meteora’s “From the Inside” hits as hard as any of their top singles. It’s a hurricane, a storm surge rolling ashore.
Even when One More Light came out this past May, while I questioned the band’s decision to pursue the pop route, I never questioned Chester’s sincerity. I wanted the album to be good, but it wasn’t. The backing tracks sounded like they could’ve easily had Justin Bieber or Selena Gomez or Ed Sheeran singing over them.
I did notice that Chester’s voice was sounding like it was finally beginning to wear after years of throat-shredding abuse. He didn’t scream on this album at all and barely went into that supernova of an upper register of his. (One exception: the last song on the album, called Sharp Edges, and on the very last chorus he sings the words “find out for MYSELF” with just a hint of that old rip and tear. He still had one more in him.)
Though One More Light was a misfire, I figured that Linkin Park were still capable of at least one or two more good albums.
Then, this past Thursday, I got home from work and saw a text from Franz.
Chester Bennington hung himself, it said.
My heart pounded for a few seconds while I opened Google. It was true. I couldn’t believe it. There was a point in my life where I’d looked up to Chester almost as an older brother figure. It was as if an old friend had died, one that I’d been dearly close with as an adolescent but lost touch with as an adult.
And so just like that, Chester was gone. And with him went Linkin Park, at least in its purest form. I could see the band carrying on with Mike as the primary vocalist, aided by guest appearances from metal and hip hop artists alike, but Chester’s absence will be impossible to ignore. It will define the band as much as his presence did.
I thought about Chester and how, the older I got, the more I’d dismissed his angst and rage as an act. Lyrics like “Find a new place to hang this noose” and “It’s easier to run” would mean something completely different from now on. Now, Chester will have meant every word.
Chester gave us roughly 17 years of himself. It barely needs mentioning that the fact he took his own life adds its own levels of unique complication and grief. He died literally destroying that voice.
So Chester Bennington may be gone, but we’ll always have his voice. And in that spirit, I’ll end with his words, taken from the song “Roads Untraveled” off Living Things.
Weep not for roads untraveled
Weep not for sights unseen
May your love never end
And if you need a friend
There’s a seat here alongside me