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Chester Bennington, Linkin Park, And The Thrill Of A First Favorite Band

I studied Chester's tattoos and sketched out plans for my own (that I never followed through on)

The back cover of Linkin Park's seminal 2000 album, Hybrid Theory, is a revelation. In an industrial alleyway, five young guys stand broodily in a flying-V shape. All five sport dark clothes, Carhartt hoodies, and Dickies work shirts. The guy up front is different: He looks like an anime vampire (or maybe a vampire hunter) in black sunglasses and yellow hair, flame tattoos engulfing his skinny arms.

It was simply the coolest photo I could've seen at that point in my life as an 11-year-old. It changed things.

The spiky-haired standout was Chester Bennington, Linkin Park's resident melodic vocal force whose golden pipes could hook you before scorching you with a counterpoint scream. Yesterday, we found out he had died at 41, two months after his band released its seventh album, One More Light. I hadn't checked in with Linkin Park in a little while when I heard he was gone.

But back in 2001, shortly after I first saw Chester's image in the insert of a friend's CD case, all I did was listen to Linkin Park. They were, I've come to realize, my first-ever favorite band.

Devouring Hybrid Theory for six months straight, I'd pantomime Chester's lunging body movements and silently shout into a pretend microphone in my room, the ultimate suburban cliche. I bought their DVD, Frat Party at the Pankake Festival, to hear the then-unreleased track "High Voltage," which had taken on mythical status after what I'd read online. Mike Shinoda was the cool one in the band — probably because he rapped, or maybe Joe Hahn was cooler because he scratched records and used a synth pad. But Chester, with his full-throated yells and dynamic range, was the spirit of the entire outfit, my favorite member leading my favorite group.

This eventually extended beyond just listening to the music. I studied Chester's tattoos and sketched out plans for my own that I never followed through on. Using pieces of coiled plastic broken off from my school planner, I mouthed the words to "One Step Closer" in the mirror pretending to have Chester's lip ring. At the first guitar lesson I ever had, I told my metalhead instructor to teach me that song, which he reluctantly did, only after letting his disdain for the band's "fake metal" show through. "Oh dude, that stuff's just all power chords," he said before chugging out the eight-note riff. I tried my best to copy him.

I assumed I was not alone; young people all over the world must have had experiences just like this, and if conversations at school were any indication, plenty of my peers felt the same."In the End" endures today as a signature song because its shout-along chorus has become iconic; then, it was new and infectious as hell. It also involved exactly zero occurrences of chainsaw violence and scat vocals, which was, at that time, wildly outside of nü-metal norms.

Perhaps the band's diligent blending of genres appealed to music heads. They handily moved from boom-bap to screechy industrial to euphoric release, co-executed by Rob Bourdon's drums, Brad Delson's guitar, and Dave "Phoenix" Farrell's bass. But fans also came (and stayed) because of Chester's lyrics, which had an emotional quality that was just as intense and unapologetic as its instrumental counterpoints.

"It's easy to fall into that thing – 'poor, poor me,'" he told Rolling Stone in 2002. "That's where songs like 'Crawling' come from: I can't take myself. But that song is about taking responsibility for your actions. I don't say 'you' at any point. It's about how I'm the reason that I feel this way. There's something inside me that pulls me down."

Chester's lyrics were born from real-life turmoil: Crawling in my skin / These wounds, they will not heal. He spoke about his past battles with addiction and abuse, never revealing too directly what certain songs were meant to be "about." But it's clear there was a lot of anger and fear. "Papercut" is a terrifying song that replicates the worst fears of anxiety both real and imagined, and "By Myself" was the heaviest thing I'd ever heard. Having grown up on grunge radio, I automatically assumed rock songs were all about battling personal demons by default. Linkin Park, with its down-the-middle divide of rap and rock, took that battle and fought it with a new blend of rap and rock. That's what made them my favorite band — my first favorite band. This would not have been possible without Chester.

I followed the band through Reanimation, the 2002 remix LP, and the smash hit Meteora in 2003. And then I moved on. "Favorite" bands are fickle: Your top group can switch sounds on a new album, and if you're not into it, you may sit the next few rounds out. Or you might start exploring elsewhere. I hadn't followed Linkin Park for years at the time of Chester's death, but that time away from them didn't undo any of the connections I made as a young kid. In fact, it only made them stronger.

Fans unhappy with the lighter EDM fare of this year's "Heavy" prompted Chester to defend the band's sonic changes in a Kerrang! interview just a few months ago.

"It doesn't matter if they like it or not," he said in one of the interview's less headline-grabbing moments. "What matters is that you took the chance to do something that you felt was important to you and that's what being an artist is all about."

Here's the thing: Linkin Park was making electronic-adjacent music from the very beginning. It wasn't bass-heavy, festival-ready jams with Steve Aoki but cinematic, Grammy-nominated, hip-hop-inspired glitchy breakbeat and graffiti splatter. They were still my favorite band, even though I was a self-professed "rock" guy who ignorantly (and now, hilariously) got upset at Eminem sampling Aerosmith. Linkin Park's expansive palette led me, eventually, to Radiohead, who led me to Aphex Twin and DJ Shadow, who led me to J Dilla — and it continues today.

They were, for a very important period, my favorite band, and they helped me learn a lot about what music can do. It began easily enough, with Chester Bennington lighting a fire.