“Sometimes beginnings aren’t so simple,” Chester Bennington sings in Linkin Park’s 2007 hit “Shadow of the Day”. He’s right, as I don’t know how to start this kind of piece. None of us are prepared to write anything like this, and that’s because events like what happened last Thursday are rarely so heartbreaking. Chester, who fronted one of the biggest rock bands of the 21st century, tragically lost his battle with depression at age 41.
The truth still doesn’t make sense as I write it, nor will it ever completely settle in. Instead, it’s going to slowly chip away at me, as it will the rest of us. Anyone who’s been impacted by the music of Linkin Park understands. Our generation had many powerful voices, but there was only one voice like Chester’s: raw, relentless, and, most of all, honest.
The feeling of loss is much more spread out when a famous person dies. While the death of a close friend or family member directly afflicts the ones closest to them, the loss of a cultural icon strikes a chord in people across the globe who have never met. In fact, they don’t know anything about one another’s existences apart from the one thing they have in common: their connection to the same art. It’s left behind for us to continue to experience, examining every tiny bit to try to feel whole again.
The reason it’s so difficult to feel whole after the loss of Chester is because he brought a sense of comfort to millions of listeners — and I’m not exaggerating, as Linkin Park has had arguably the biggest and most dedicated fanbase in rock music over the past 20 years. He fronted rock and roll’s crossover kings. Linkin Park wasn’t the first band to mix rap and rock, but they effectively brought it to the mainstream. They were the gateway to both genres for millions of young people, and perhaps emotional music in general — ask anyone under the age of 35 if they listened to Hybrid Theory growing up and rarely will you get a “no.”
Often, you’ll get an artist who deeply affected many, but it’s rare when you get an artist who affected an entire generation. Over the last five days, I’ve reminisced on all of the people I know who listened to Linkin Park. I thought about my friends on my high school cross country team who were into them and had their music in their warm-up playlists. I thought about when we all listened to “New Divide” for the first time and loved it. I also thought about the girl on the team who knew every one of their songs to heart.
I thought about my metalhead friends who had moved on to As I Lay Dying and Impending Doom by freshman year, yet still had Linkin Park in their iTunes libraries. They played in local metal bands throughout high school, and it’s obvious that Chester’s tenacity helped bring them into a whole new world of heavy music. I thought about my college roommate, a Chinese international student, who has been a big fan since middle school. I thought about my co-worker who, after hearing the news about Chester, told me the story about how he secretly kept a copy of Reanimation in his sock drawer when he was younger.
Everyone has their stories involving Linkin Park, and Chester’s voice was at the threshold of their memories. My first exposure to them was similar to most people my age. When I was 13 years old, I found a copy of Hybrid Theory at a local bookstore and bought it on a whim. I may not be writing this article today if it wasn’t for that decision. If you’re reading this and are a fan of the band, I’m sure you had a similar introduction.
But the loss of Chester now brings to mind trauma that went back several decades. His struggles with depression and alcohol addiction and distress resulting from childhood abuse are now — if they weren’t before — at the forefront of his art. The reality of what happened last week, stemming from his longtime suffering, adds a dimension to Linkin Park’s music that’s been there this whole time, but now reveals itself in full to listeners. Every song speaks largely of remembrance as well as struggle, with Chester’s voice pulling no punches emotionally.
In the ninth grade, I remember showing a friend of mine “One Step Closer”, laughing when we heard Chester repeatedly yell the words “shut up.” My reaction at the time stemmed from the concern his grimness would cause to the typical mother of a 14-year-old. But now I realize it struck me so hard because the singer became unadulterated and transparent in this moment. This was a band played on the radio that had breakdowns and screams. In their heaviest offerings, Chester still stood out, his bullheadedness and all. Even hook-driven songs like “Crawling” and “Easier to Run” take on darker meanings now that we consider their brutal somberness was also brutally honest (“It’s so much easier to go / Than face all this pain here all alone”).
Chester didn’t intend to merely pound the listener, but he also reflected the pain he experienced in ways with which we could all empathize. About Meteora’s lyrics, he said, “We don’t talk about situations, we talk about the emotions behind situations.” After the connectiveness of the first two Linkin Park albums guaranteed their impact on listeners around the world, they didn’t stop. Chester wouldn’t let them, and he should be remembered for his passion as much as his vocals.
From hearing the testimonies of those who knew Chester, it’s obvious how much passion he radiated. But for everyone who never got to meet him, they still recognized it in a sonic sense. Last month, I bought a Minutes to Midnight CD at the same bookstore where I bought Hybrid Theory. Learning about the effort put into the record made me realize how much it demonstrated Chester’s passion. The band wrote over twice as many songs as before, often making dozens of changes until they had 12 solid cuts.
I still recall how frustrated when I first heard their 2007 full-length — a major departure from the sound of their first two releases. But as my musical taste has evolved over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate the album in its context: a band on top of the world, aspiring to build upon the sound that got them there.
When I heard Chester had passed, I thought about his ambition as a musician. It took years to finally strike me, but now I recognize it within the songs on Minutes. Throughout the record, he draws more comparisons to Bono than Fred Durst or Jacoby Shaddix — a true testament to his dedication to grow as an artist. I also think about it with Living Things and The Hunting Party, where his energy increased along with his progressive mindset. No matter your opinion on the records post-Meteora, you have to admire that Chester’s legacy extends far beyond it.
“Leave Out All the Rest” is an alternative rock anthem that brings to mind the vocalist’s cemented legacy. “When my time comes / Forget the wrong that I’ve done / Help me leave behind some / Reasons to be missed,” Chester sings on the hook, now showing us his desire came true. Another sentimental slow song, “Shadow of the Day” best personifies the emotions we’re currently feeling, struggling to move on as “cards and flowers” embody this tragedy.
The defining moment on Midnight, however, has Mike Shinoda at the helm, with Chester chiming in for a serene chorus. On the surface, “Hands Held High” is a protest song against the Iraq War, but at a deeper level, the track is about wanting peace in a dark world.
Chester fought for a long time against the darkness that eventually led him to take his life. I hear talk all the time about good and evil, but what I’m starting to realize is that the battle involves two different forces: light and dark. Good and evil insinuates the singularity of one or another. With light and dark, we have the potential for both inside of us, and we’re constantly trying to overcome the darkness. The message that “Hands Held High” further ingrains in us is that we need light to counteract the dark at all costs, whether the dark comes in the form of violence, addiction, or depression.
The task is a difficult one, and Chester held the burden on his shoulders throughout his career. He experienced deep darkness in his own life, put it into words, and brought light to listeners as a result. It’s a sacrifice many rock singers make. Hayley Williams (Paramore) and Lynn Gunn (PVRIS) both suggested the emptiness coming from such a process. Gunn explains this “hopeless feeling of providing “light” to others while sitting in your own darkness,” while Williams considers that “artists are always more conscious of darkness” and “maybe at times made more vulnerable by it.”
“And when you’re feeling empty / Keep me in your memory / Leave out all the rest,” Chester sings in “Leave Out All the Rest”. We’ll forever cherish our memories of Chester Bennington. But we won’t ever be able to leave out all the rest, as his tragic death will always resound with Linkin Park fans. He’ll go down like Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain, and his good friend Chris Cornell — all beloved rockstars gone too soon.
But the thing we’ll remember most about Chester is also the thing we cherish above all else: his golden voice, and the way he used it to ignite and inspire. It’ll forever remain in the music he gave us, continuing to bring light into our lives.
As listeners, we must remember that we also carry the torch, tasked with bringing light into a world that, today, seems a lot darker with him gone.