When people think of the late Jim Morrison, the names Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin inevitably come to mind.
That’s because those three rock icons – one the frontman of a chart-topping band, one a legendary guitar god and the third a gritty vocal powerhouse whose biggest success came posthumously (readers of a certain age will know which was which) – all were on major trajectories in the late 1960s before their careers were abruptly halted by tragic deaths in a 10-month span from September 1970 to July 1971.
All three were 27 years old when they died, and all three battled personal demons that have been well documented over the past 50 years, including mainly substance abuse. The deaths of Joplin and Hendrix were directly attributed to drug overdoses, while Morrison’s COD was officially listed as chronic heart failure, but followed a long battle with alcohol abuse.
All three are now enshrined in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and all three are inextricably linked to each other not only because of the sudden and tragic ways in which they died or their charter membership in rock’s “27 Club,” but because of the counterculture and rebellion they represented – even if unwittingly, as was the case for Hendrix – at a time when rock music was experiencing its biggest growth as a genre, both commercially and experimentally.
But even more disquieting was what the rock and roll world lost and what could have been had those three rock “deities” lived to see their 28th birthdays (and beyond). Who knows what rock music would have been like today had that happened?
But rock did continue. And it evolved over the ensuing decades (and century) into bands like Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots and Linkin Park – all three of whom were chart-topping groups around the turn of the century, and all three of whom have lost their famous frontmen over the past 19 months.
Chester Bennington, the lead singer of the rock-rap hybrid band Linkin Park, became the latest of those last Thursday when he hanged himself at the age of 41. His death followed that of Chris Cornell, who fronted Soundgarden (along with the groups Audioslave and Temple of the Dog). Cornell also committed suicide (by hanging) this past May.
They were both preceded in death by the late Scott Weiland, leader of Stone Temple Pilots (and Velvet Underground), who died in his sleep on a tour bus while traveling with his newer backing band, the Wildabouts, in December 2015.
Bennington, who had ties to both Cornell and Weiland while all three were living, couldn’t escape the demons that he often sang about in hits with his band Linkin Park. Those demons rose to the surface and into the mainstream when LP hit it big in 2001 with their No. 2 smash, “In The End” – a rousing mashup of hard-rock, alternative and rap which, despite – or maybe because of – its darker themes in the post-grunge early 2000s, signaled a new day for rock music in particular.
“In The End” introduced the band’s first album, Hybrid Theory, a diamond-certified ten-million seller that became one of rock’s last such blockbuster hits. That led to the follow-up, Meteora, another multi-million-seller that generated even more hit songs of darkness and introspection, like “Somewhere I Belong,” “Breaking the Habit” and the classic “Numb.”
They all featured the soaring, emotional hooks that Bennington delivered, alternated with the rap/spoken parts provided by his professional partner and fellow group member Mike Shinoda. Shinoda is just as essential to Linkin Park – if not more so – but their combination worked like a proverbial one-two punch, elevating their drama-filled vocals amidst a hard-edged musical backdrop that rarely wavered from the anger and intensity they intended to convey.
That anger and intensity was also a never-ending theme in Linkin Park’s lyrics. If they weren’t addressing depression, loneliness, pain, healing or recovery, it likely wasn’t Linkin Park’s music you were listening to.
Yet, in its own way, that music – and Bennington’s vocals in particular – spoke to and uplifted a generation of followers, mostly millennials (and some latter-day Generation Xers), who could relate to the plight of rock’s newest frontman. Unlike the genre’s previous heroes, Bennington bore his soul for the rock world to see, in a way that didn’t offend, but empathized.
His messages were well received by millions, some of whom have since provided testimony to how LP – and Bennington in particular – got them through some pretty depressing times.
Still, despite helping countless others, Bennington ultimately couldn’t help himself. His emotional venting through music just seemed to continue album after album. In the end, the only thing that mattered was that Bennington felt that the world, which included his wife and six young children, was a better place without him in it.
And so he formed that morbid eternal bond with Cornell, whom he greatly admired and took inspiration from, by choosing to take himself out (on what would have been Cornell’s 53rd birthday) the way Cornell had just two months before.
Despite the eerie connections, it was still shocking. Who knew that Bennington might have contemplated his own end when he performed the late Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at Cornell’s memorial in May, or when his band dedicated their song “One More Light” to Cornell on Jimmy Kimmel Live the night of the Soundgarden leader’s death?
Those were the kinds of gestures that typically suggested an inner resolve – one that usually portends hope for the future of the person who can muster the strength to pull off such tributes, even while dealing with the immense pain of a huge personal loss such as Bennington’s.
Perhaps Bennington may have felt the heavy burden of being one of the millennium’s last great rock and roll frontmen after Cornell’s and, earlier, Scott Weiland’s passing. After all, Weiland was one of Bennington’s biggest influences and childhood idols, and it was Weiland who had reportedly given Chester his blessing when the younger star performed as one-time leader of Weiland’s former band, Stone Temple Pilots earlier in the 2010s. Bennington had always admired STP as a kid and considered it a dream fulfilled when he got the two-year gig in 2013 (taking a break from Linkin Park in the process).
Then the news of Weiland’s death came, then Cornell’s…
Now Weiland, Cornell and Bennington (and all their demons) are gone, with all three likely succumbing to an illness – mental depression – that affects far too many people in ways that are hard to predict, harder to understand and sometimes even harder to prevent.
And now the three will likely be forever linked, just as Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison have been for nearly five decades, with the only difference being Bennington’s separation by half a generation from the other two in the current triumvirate.
And yes these three – Bennington, Cornell and Weiland – made it past that legendary “27 Club,” but not far enough past it. Their deaths at 41, 52 and 48, respectively, may have been “their time,” but their lights were extinguished far too early nonetheless.
Maybe they’ll be deified by rock journalists and fans for years to come, just as Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison have been. But it’s a rock and roll trinity in which no artist or triplicate of artists should be a part.
When all is said and done, Chester Bennington didn’t have to suffer this fate; he may have been crying for help through his music all along and we and those around him just couldn’t see it or do anything about it.
And perhaps it could have been prevented, but in the end, the loss of the others was likely too much for him to overcome… and, despite how much he may have helped others through his music, nothing he sang about could really save him from himself.
RIP Chester Bennington, March 20, 1976 – July 20, 2017.