Without Chester Bennington, the vocalist who hanged himself in Los Angeles today, Linkin Park would have been nothing. The other band members, with co-vocalist and producer Mike Shinoda at their head, were competent and creative without ever quite being distinctive. Though hardly immune to pain or grief, they had likely escaped any serious trauma — and even if they had suffered any trauma, there was no trace of it in the music they made. Bennington didn’t just add an extra voice to the band when he joined it, but a new sensibility. The sound of his singing and, even more, of his howls was charged with agony; his lyrics enacted an endless conflict that raged within the mind no less than against any outside power. Bennington was always too busy trying to communicate that struggle to his listeners to bother with being cool. Listen to any Linkin Park song in which he appears, particularly the early work that won them fame and a gigantic audience, and you can hear Bennington wrestling with pain. It wasn’t pretty and it was heavily processed for maximum pop saturation, but the pain, and the attempt to survive it, is palpably real.
I want to heal, I want to feel, what I thought was never real
I want to let go of the pain I’ve felt so long
I want to heal, I want to feel, like I’m close to something real
I want to find something I’ve wanted all along
Somewhere I belong
These lyrics, on their own, are anonymous and banal: It’s Bennington, with his lean but vigorous delivery, that raises them to the level of personal candor. It’s no accident that that young man desperate to get his pain across excelled at bridges, the crucial point where a rock song goes all-in, putting its last new words on the line in a final bid to be remembered. Whether it was mournful harmonies (“Papercut,” “Somewhere I Belong”) or insurgent screaming fury (“One Step Closer,” “Faint”), Bennington’s best bridges are indelibly imprinted in listeners’ minds: They are the song, or the thing the song has been conserving its energies for. What those bridges were to their songs was what Bennington was to his band — the late arrival that made them memorable, massive, and demonstrably human. Most people are in more pain than they permit themselves to recognize. What his voice opened, in brief moments, was the possibility of facing that pain directly — if it couldn’t be overcome, it could still be survived for the time being, and the time being is all that music has.
The bare grief in his voice was born from a life exposed to agony almost from the start. Sexually abused as a child and gripped by drug and alcohol dependence in his adolescence, he knew that recovery, in whatever form and to whatever degree, was halting at best and prone to endless reversals. His suffering could make for strong, cathartic, striking music, but music has to stop at some point, and suffering does not. Suicide is the product of a pain so unbearable that death seems like a relief, and much of what makes that pain unbearable is the inability to communicate it. The most one can communicate, recalling Chester Bennington’s end, is the hope (only a hope, never a certainty) that his pain did not outlive him.