Fuel & Prayer: A Tribute to Chester Bennington of Linkin Park

Rest In Peace, Chester Bennington.
By    July 25, 2017

Art by Gerson Guzmán

Evan McGarvey knows not to be angry at a thousand suns. 

His voice bends like razor wire in the breeze. He’s gaunt, with his eyes down and half closed. His cries sound like a teenager’s.

Watch the “In The End” video again. It shouldn’t work: the crappy CGI, the millennial time capsule blend of electronica, nu-metal, and elementary rap that would eel into terrible action movie soundtracks for the next decade.

He’s standing on the video’s gigantic weird Giger-meets-Ozymandias statue, howling in the rain:

I tried so hard
and got so far
but in the end, it doesn’t even matter

Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington committed suicide last week.

My social media feed this weekend was a river of tributes, memories, and this-man’s-art-aided-my-life testimonials. Someone I know explained on Facebook that Linkin Park concerts were therapy for her. Not ‘like therapy.’ Therapy.

Linkin Park would have failed without Chester Bennington. His voice wasn’t a bass-heavy jet of fracking sludge; it was reedy, high and wounded. In the verses he’d often murmur and ad-lib while Mike Shinoda rapped. And then Chester Bennington would hit the chorus like a Pentecost—grief transforming into rage and then back again.  

In a 2002 Rolling Stone interview with David Fricke, he said about their hit “Crawling”: “I don’t say ‘you’ at any point. It’s about how I’m the reason that I feel this way.”

That makes sense. The inelegance and urgency of the lyrics, co-written by Bennington and Shinoda, sound like confessions told to a mirror:

I don’t know what’s worth fighting for
Or why I have to scream
I don’t know why I instigate
And say what I don’t mean

This lack of self-control I fear is never ending
Controlling I can’t seem

If the test of a lyric is the listener’s willingness to take it on, to turn their own body into an instrument for another’s words, then Bennington succeeded. Flat as the words are on paper, dated as Linkin Park sounds in 2017 (an influential thing dates quickly; it’s the pollen lost to the wind, gone to germinate new fields), the connection between his voice and our ears still pulses.

Or maybe I should take ownership and change that pronoun:  My ear still pulses.

I’m 32. Because of my age, race, gender, class, and other realities, my coming of age wasn’t paralleled by Sylvia Plath or Catcher In The Rye or Nina Simone or Nirvana or for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf or Scarface or Joy Division. As much as I admire and love those works and those artists, my adolescence was answered by Linkin Park.

I went to high school at a grand old pressure cooker of a boarding school in Massachusetts. It was the kind of place where every 11th grader had to recite the prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. On most material levels, our lives were deeply privileged.

But, like in every high school, we lived with and cared for classmates struggling with addiction, depression, and the deep, real, quotidian pains of being 16. We lived with ourselves in old clapboard colonial homes with eight other kids or in yawning 70 person dorms where you could go days with little more than a nod to your dorm mates. You’d feel like shit and then head to practice and the library and try not to fuck up everything your family had sacrificed to get you there. In a lot of ways, it was different. In the most essential ways, it was high school.

The year before I got there, a senior boy killed himself in his dorm in the winter. He was by all accounts a kid to the manor born: school president, popular, kind, already into Harvard. These sketchbook resume items things don’t matter, and shouldn’t. Suicide is suicide. Loss is loss. But—to the institution and his peers—that he killed himself changed the school. If he could do this, if he had felt so profoundly, and made this decision, what could happen with the rest of these teenagers?

I started at the school the fall after. I was already becoming the kind of desperate teen who uses music and books and other interests to sort himself and the world around him. People becoming like this, like these things, I’d tell myself. This movie means this. This shirt means this. Don’t tell people you like this. Try to get into this. Talk about Allen Iverson. Read more Yeats. Hate The Dave Matthews Band (that one was easy).  Keep playing lacrosse.

Dorm room walls in boarding school are simultaneously public and private. They’re your canvas and scrapbook and they’re open season for anyone who wanders by to inspect.

I cannot even tally how many of the dorm rooms in my year had the album cover of Hybrid Theory on their walls. The sight of that stencil spray-painted faceless solider hoisting a flag is as close to a memory palace as I have for high school. The font. The letters turned backwards. The time I spent wondering if it was a white X behind the solider or if it was insect wings.

There were days when I swear I would walk from my dorm to see a friend in another dorm and hear “One Step Closer” or “Runaway” playing from a handful of different rooms. The same whir of a guitar and whip in Bennington’s voice. I would hear the same bass lines clattering through the thin walls. The iPod wasn’t out yet and we traded songs over a LAN and played them on WinAmp. We still had Case Logic folders. And even if someone only had three jewel cases, I’d bet my eyeteeth that one of them was Hybrid Theory. It was our Gregorian chant. It was our singing bowl.

Was it the unalloyed intensity in Bennington’s voice that felt like some kind of truth? Kids into rap, kids into rock, into anything—we all listened to him. Did we love him and Linkin Park the way that we came to love Biggie or Joni or Bowie or 50 or Miles? Or did we need it to keep going? Was it fuel and prayer? Was it the counter pressure in our diving bell?

A little more than a decade later I’m at a dinner with old high school friends in San Francisco. We’re in an apartment on a hill where I can see that evening fog has knit itself around the low-rise blocks and sandstone buildings.  Everyone’s tired and has been working too much. We’re not young anymore. We’re talking about the suicide cluster among high school kids in the Bay Area. The Facebook posts about one college or another signifying some kind of failure. The same train line that they’re throwing themselves onto. The sacrifices and paths that families take to good schools and what could be American comfort. The ways in which the material life addresses so much, but still cannot solve the mysteries and pain of growing up.

In the “Somewhere I Belong” video from 2003—the year I graduated high school—Chester’s visibly older. He’s in glasses. In the video, he pulls himself up off of a white drop cloth, stumbles and sings:

I wanna heal
I wanna feel
like I’m close to something real
I want to find something I wanted all along.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Call 1-800-273-8255

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