Remembering the Real Chester Bennington: 1976-2017

Steve Baltin
Chester Bennington of Linkin Park performs during CBS Radio’s two-night “SPF” concerts at the Chelsea venue inside the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas on May 19, 2017. The band’s performance coincided with the release of their highly anticipated seventh studio album, One More Light. (Photo: Isaac Brekken/Getty Images for CBS Radio Inc. )

In 2006, I stood with Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington, backstage at the world-famous Whisky a Go Go, right after he’d finished playing with two legendary members of the Doors.

“We talked before about me being a fan of the Doors and how much their music inspired me growing up, and now I’m standing in the Whisky, just got done jamming with Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger, and this is right up there with the most surreal experience of my life,” he told me excitedly. “Performing with the band at the place that really got everything started for them, it’s just such an honor and it’s something I thought would never occur in my lifetime — not only to see them play again, but to be part of it is huge. This tops the greatest moments of my life.”

That is the Chester Bennington I knew — exuberant, humble, honest, and kind. Bennington died Thursday, apparently a suicide, at age 41.

In 2004, as Linkin Park’s Meteora tour neared its end, I was invited to join the band on the road to explore the possibility of writing a book with them (From the Inside: Linkin Park’s Meteora). I didn’t know them, and I arrived for the last weekend of the tour somewhere in Florida. At the time, Bennington was traveling on a separate tour bus with his family, so we didn’t really sit down to talk until the second or third day. That interview was the first of at least a dozen we would conduct over the next 13 years, and looking back now, it’s easy to see the common, recurring themes of our conversations — the two main themes being the artists he admired (Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell, Alice in Chains’ Layne Stayley) and songwriting.

Related: Chester Bennington’s Life in Photos

But I occasionally learned other surprising fact about Bennington. For instance, while it might be hard to imagine now, considering the tattooed rock god he became, he once dabbled in musical theater.

“I did some acting when I was younger, just like in high school,” he told me. “That’s what I thought I wanted to be when I grew up — and then I got the rock demon. I’m much better at this than I was at acting, though. I was like the character guy. I was never chosen for the serious role; I was always the wacky one running around, fire stick poker in my underwear, screaming things.

“I started theater when I went into high school. I remember we did Oklahoma, Bye Bye Birdie, 12 Angry Jurors,” he recalled. “There were a couple of times I did three or four characters in a play. And then between my sophomore and junior year, I auditioned for this troupe where this guy goes around and auditions kids all over the country. He would audition probably 20,000 kids, and out of the 20,000 kids he’d choose about 75 to 100 to be part of the production. I auditioned and got in, and I was one of the lead characters in this play he had written himself and we toured around the country. I went and toured the country doing that play, and it was a great experience.”

Related: Linkin Park Release New Music Video on the Morning of Chester Bennington’s Death 

Bennington actually credited his musical theater experience for his explosive onstage persona. “I started doing music, and a lot of the skills I learned in theater I took into performing,” he revealed. “I was really open to really expressing myself in a true, natural way.”

Expressing himself in a true way was the only way Bennington knew how. If one thread wove its way through our numerous conversations, it was honesty. During my time on the road with Linkin Park in 2004, I talked at length with fans about their relationship with the band, and I was given access to fan art and letters. Fans loved this group. For many of them, this was the first rock band they grew up with. And the bond they created was forged out of the candor that marked the lyrics written by Bennington and his bandmate Mike Shinoda.

Related: Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda Tweets About Chester Bennington’s Death

As the frontman for Linkin Park, Bennington felt that connection immediately. “Especially live, you can tell what people respond to the most, because when you have anywhere from 10,000 to 70,000 people coming to your shows you hear a lot of people singing some songs. But then you hit a track that everybody’s singing; you go ‘OK, we struck a chord here. Look at how many different kinds of people are out there, and every one of them is singing along to these songs,’” he marveled. “At least for me, I started noticing people were responding to songs that were really important to us: ‘Breaking the Habit,’ ‘Somewhere I Belong,’ ‘In the End,’ ‘Crawling.’ These are really mature songs on these records, very insightful songs.”

The last time I saw Bennington was in October of last year, when he played a benefit for the organization Road to Recovery, at which Social Distortion frontman Mike Ness (a fellow recovering drug addict, sober since 1985) was being honored. At the time, Bennington spoke about Ness and the power of music in general.

“That’s the great thing about music. I actually remember the first time being introduced to Social Distortion — the exact moment, the age, the year,” he said. “My memories are flooding back to me right now, what I was doing at that time. And that’s the beauty of music — it’s the soundtrack to our lives.”

To see Bennington at a charity event was not unusual. In 2011, Linkin Park played a small show at Los Angeles’s Mayan club — a benefit for the band’s own charitable organization, Music for Relief, which was founded by Linkin Park in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and went on to raise more that $9 million for survivors of multiple disasters around the globe. “Given that we’ve been dedicated to helping people who are affected by natural disasters for the last seven years or so, this is something that’s important to us,” Bennington said. “For us, we wanted to do something for Music for Relief that was beneficial and raising money and support for the people of Japan, but also to get our fans excited about doing something. We ask them all the time to do things for us, because Music for Relief is what we’re passionate about.”

This was the real Bennington, the one I was fortunate to get to know, whether I was talking to him with Robert and Don DeLeo when he joined Stone Temple Pilots in 2012, or, eerily, in July 2008, when I spoke with Bennington and Chris Cornell together — an interview that now just seems tragic, given their horrible deaths so close together nine years later. But if you truly want to get an idea of who Chester Bennington was, it’s in his lyrics — as he told me when we met in July 2009 to write the bio for his side project, Dead by Sunrise.

Related: Watch Chester Bennington Pay Tribute to Chris Cornell

“I got to the point where I was just thinking, ‘OK, I’m gonna be real on some of this stuff,’” he told me. “And when I wrote the lyrics for ‘Let Down,’ that song was about getting divorced and how painful that was. I know who I am, I know that I’m a romantic person, and I know that I like being in love and I don’t want to repeat the same things that happened to me in my previous relationship in the next relationship. That is something that was important to me, so that’s where those lyrics came from. At the same time that my life was falling apart in many ways — that I was writing about on this record in terms of getting divorced, in terms of diving very hard into alcohol and drugs throughout this process — that was one thing that was happening to me.

Talinda Bennington and Chester Bennington (Photo: John Shearer/WireImage for BWR Public Relations)

“At the same time, I had fallen in love with my [second] wife, Talinda, and life was looking very good and I was getting a lot of things I hadn’t had before. So I was writing about that falling in love; ‘Give Me Your Name’ is one of the songs I wrote for a wedding. I had never written a love song before. I’m a very doom-and-gloom kind of songwriter and I deal with a lot of angst and a lot of depressing feelings, and that’s what I’m used to writing about ‘cause that’s what I’m used to feeling. So to write a love song, for me, was something that I usually frowned upon, because I thought love songs were usually really s***ty — unless Robert Smith was singing them, and then they were great,” he added, laughing. “I wrote love songs on this record, in ‘Give Me Your Name’ and ‘In the Darkness,’ which is a song literally about the act of making love with someone that you feel deep love for. And so that was something I had never done before.”

Related: Chester Bennington’s Most Prescient Lyrics

I asked him at the time about how he was able to be so forthright in his lyrics, and he explained that he didn’t simply know any other way. “This is just who I am, this is what I write about, what I do, and most of my work has been a reflection of what I’ve been going through in one way or another,” he shrugged. “I’m a musician, I’m a songwriter. So when s*** happens to me, I write songs.”