What often seemed to set Linkin Park apart from the nu-metal pack was that they weren’t entirely dysfunctional. While Korn were in and out of rehab and Slipknot made sure every interviewer knew that they were unhinged fuck-ups who hated everyone, Linkin Park made responsible choices and championed rock’s evolution. While frontman Chester Bennington sang about feeling broken inside and trying not to lose himself, he was widely regarded as an intelligent guy who had tons of great musical ideas and was easy to get along with in the studio. From where the outside world was standing, Chester and his band were flawless.
This perception of Bennington’s stability is one of the more tragic aspects of his death by suicide five years ago today. But rather get lost in the sadness of Chester’s passing, we ought to look at it as part of his life, and his music — and the message that come with these things. The fact that Bennington seemed so powerful, when in fact he struggled with such deep feelings of helplessness, should act as a reminder to us all that projecting outward strength isn’t enough, and that looking inward and understanding our demons is key to our own happiness.
It’s easy to listen to Linkin Park’s music and wonder how we couldn’t have seen Bennington’s death coming. Every one of the band’s hits is about feeling like the world is closing in around you, with attempts to escape its clutches resulting only in agony and misery. How can one listen to a song like “Numb” or “Crawling” and not be worried for the guy?
And yet for thousands of fans, Chester was the ultimate symbol of overcoming one’s pain by venting it through art. Sure, Bennington was singing about his darkest emotions, but he was also making albums with Jay-Z and doing cameos in big-budget movies. There was never a sense that Chester was in trouble; he was never filmed punching a photographer with a smear of blow under one nostril or smashing the windshield of an ex-girlfriend’s car. If anything, he was open about his previous issues with addiction, and how his bandmates helped him overcome them. And as Linkin Park went on to incorporate pop music into their nu-metal sound, everyone assumed that they’d just settled into the contented life of rock stars.
Chester’s death obviously changed this perception. Suddenly, the hurt we didn’t see in Bennington was at the forefront of our minds. And in an unspeakably tragic way, this was important. While the rock and metal world will always miss Bennington, he made us more aware than ever that our perceptions of success and strength and what it means to come out on top can be paper-thin. These are plateaus we so often strive to obtain in our own lives without questioning whether or not they’ll truly make us happy. If Chester could have everything and still not want to exist, maybe we should take a moment to stop posting and projecting and reaching for what we think is the good life, and instead focus on what will make us happy.
When news of Chester’s death broke, I was midway through completing the Linkin Park section of the book on heavy metal I co-wrote with Axl, and my running theme was how functional they appeared as a band. Like so many others, my mind was blown by the prospect of Bennington, seemingly so put-together, would take his own life. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’d made a lot of assumptions. I saw designer leather jackets and carefully-marketed album covers, and thought, Nice work if you can get it. But maybe those things didn’t matter to Chester. Maybe there was a deep well in him that we couldn’t see, which all the money and praise in the world couldn’t fill. And I started to think, well, aren’t there wells like that in all of us? Is there one in me — and if so, what can I do to keep from falling down it?
There are so many parts of Chester’s life that should be celebrated today, his musical legacy chief among them. But on the anniversary of his death, it’s worth it to check in with your friends, with yourself, and make sure things are as stable as they might appear. It’s easy to see all of the things we envy in the people around us, and to force ourselves to ignore the cracks in our armor, lest acknowledging them make them real. But so often, our muscles are just printed on top of bandages, and unless we clean them and give them air, these wounds will not heal.