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Chester Bennington Taught His Fans How to Grieve Him

The Linkin Park singer and rap-metal icon, dead at 41, made rage and despair feel transcendent and comfortingly universal

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

When a famous musician dies, we immediately invoke the deceased’s name in that little Spotify search box, and find the album — or, better yet, the single song on infinite repeat — that best crystallizes that person. The one that encapsulates the grief shuddering through his or her fan base right this second. The one that underscores why there were so many fans ready to grieve in the first place.

Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington was found dead Thursday morning, of an apparent suicide, a coroner spokesman told the Associated Press, at a Palos Verdes Estates residence in L.A. County. He was 41. The truth is that right this second, one of his band’s best songs is also probably the hardest to hear.

“Shadow of the Day,” from the Southern California rap-metal group’s third album, 2007’s Minutes to Midnight, is maybe not the most obvious or fan-friendly choice, in that there’s no rap and little metal. It’s a yearning arena-rock power ballad for an era fiercely resistant to that very idea. From the moment they emerged in 2000 with the diamond-selling Hybrid Theory, Linkin Park were the future, the hooky nu-metal monstrosity that would render all previous forms of rock ’n’ roll obsolete. “Diamond-selling,” after all, means 10 million albums sold.

They had a DJ. They had, in cofrontman Mike Shinoda, a full-time rapper. And they had, in Bennington, a wailing singer radiating both a sneaky charisma and a fantastically blunt nuclear-grade angst. Few rock bands in this century got bigger, or left a wider, deeper footprint.

Whether you instantly loved Linkin Park or just loved to hate them, Hybrid Theory was a universe entire, a shiny and hooky mushroom cloud. Bennington and Shinoda had one of the best Good Cop–Bad Cop routines going — more like Bad Cop–Bad Cop, or Screaming Cop–Rapping Cop. Songs like “One Step Closer” and “In the End” are as huge and as grudgingly beloved as heavy music gets anymore. And unlike many of their rap-metal contemporaries and disciples, Linkin Park carved out a long and ambitious and fairly stable career: seven full-length records, plus multiple live albums and the 2004 Jay-Z collaboration Collision Course, among the more bearable superstar rap-rock mashups in existence.

Bangers abound, for those willing to use the word bangers unironically. Meteora, from 2003, had “Numb” and “Somewhere I Belong,” whose titles alone suggest how well these guys knew their target audience: Same deal with “Burn It Down,” from 2012’s Living Things.

But “Shadow of the Day” is the one that’s always struck me, disarmingly vulnerable and weirdly gorgeous. Bennington holds the spotlight throughout, and from the onset, the lyrics hint at the aura of personal trauma and grief that people will point to in the days ahead.

Bennington’s death is being investigated as an apparent suicide. In interviews, he’d been frank about his history of alcoholism and childhood sexual abuse. He has also struggled with mega-fame itself, including a nightmarish and bizarre years-long battle with a cyberstalker. Much has already been made of the fact that today would’ve been the 53rd birthday of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, a close friend of Bennington’s who died by suicide in May. “You have inspired me in many ways you never could have known,” Bennington wrote on social media shortly thereafter. “Your talent was pure and unrivaled. Your voice was joy and pain, anger and forgiveness, love and heartache all wrapped up into one. I suppose that’s what we all are.”

Bennington sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at Cornell’s funeral. Here they are doing Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike” together in 2010.

Linkin Park’s new album, One More Light, came out in May and proved immediately polarizing: It debuted at no. 1 but enraged some fans with its lighter, poppier sound. Bennington fired right back: “I will punch you in your fucking mouth,” he announced, to anyone with the nerve to accuse the band of selling out.

He had a point: How do you go on to sell out when your debut album sells 10 million copies? The band defined a genre, and an entire era, so effectively that they often had to fight their way out from under their own legacy, with even die-hard fans at odds about what sound or what album might represent Bennington’s truest and purest self. Maybe “Shadow of the Day” isn’t it, either. But in the moment, he sings it like he means it, and it brings me up short every single time. I didn’t think he had it in him. But millions of people already knew otherwise.