Editor’s Note: Clay Cane is a television commentator and the author of “Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race.” Follow him on Twitter: @claycane. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Clay Cane: Many musicians like Chester Bennington relied on personal trauma to make great music, but sometimes music should take a backseat
Seeking lasting, professional help should be the first priority of artists and fans should encourage this, he writes
It’s a tragic day for the music industry. The lead singer of Linkin Park, Chester Bennington, was found dead in his Los Angeles home at 41. Sadly authorities were treating the case as a possible suicide. Eerily, Bennington died on what would’ve been his dear friend Chris Cornell’s 53rd birthday – the Soundgarden frontman hung himself on May 18, 2017. Both men are now part of a long, disturbing history of rock and roll and untimely death.
Linkin Park was a groundbreaking rock band that shattered the music industry with 2000’s “Hybrid Theory.” In an era of overly sweet pop music with boy bands and copycat starlets, the group was a refreshing mix of angst, grit and raw emotion.
Chester Bennington’s melodic but rugged voice helped spawn rock classics like “In the End,” “Numb” and “What I’ve Done.” Arguably, one of Linkin Park’s most brilliant (and unexpected) moments was pairing with Jay-Z for 2004’s “Collision Course.” The album was a mashup of Jay and Linkin Park, and launched the single “Numb/Encore.” Not since Aerosmith and Run-DMC did “Walk this Way” had people heard this perfect fusion of rock and hip hop. The six-track album was critically acclaimed and a smash hit, going to number one on the Billboard album chart and selling over two million copies.
One thing no one can deny is the significant pain in Bennington’s voice. He clearly purged his anguish through his music. Bennington was open with his history of abuse and struggles with drugs and alcohol, which he claimed helped him create some of the band’s biggest songs. When describing the song “My Suffering,” he told the music website Noisecreep.com in 2009 it’s “literally about (how) being an alcoholic and a drug addict has paid off for me in many ways. I have been able to tap into all the negative things that can happen to me throughout my life by numbing myself to the pain, so to speak, and kind of being able to vent it through my music.”
He said that another song, “Crawling,” is “probably the most literal song lyrically I’d ever written for Linkin Park and that’s about feeling like I had no control over myself in terms of drugs and alcohol. That feeling, being able to write about it, sing about it, that song, those words sold millions of records, I won a Grammy, I made a lot of money. I don’t think I could’ve been inspired to create something like that by watching someone else go through that. So in a lot of ways that’s been very constructive for me.” This sentiment is sadly familiar for many artists who are obviously struggling with pain or addiction and see the battle as a space of creativity.
Tragically, when I think about artists like Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell and so many more, I can’t help but wonder what is the price for singing the lifelong blues? Do you have to suffer for your art to create? Even back to the days of Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, all of whom died too young, these artists were living every note, lyric and chord of their music.
Sure, pain and angst create great music. But considering the phenomenal artists we have lost in the past few years to suicide and inner demons, it is long past time to prioritize real mental health over the sporadic catharsis of bars and chords. According to Health.com, musicians are fifth in the top ten professions with high rates of depressive illness.
If you make a choice to not suffer for your art, can you still be a great artist? The answer is, yes. When Adele released her “25” album, she admitted she would no longer thrive off of depression to create. When Mary J. Blige was criticized for “getting happy,” she specifically told me in an interview for BET.com, “Some of them (fans) are mad at me for making the switch, but I would’ve died over there. Literally, I’d be six feet under.” Thankfully, Mary and Adele made the switch.
I hope there is a lesson that can be learned in the deaths of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington. We need to support our artists to be healthy and loved even when they evolve out of the sadness that inspired our favorite songs. Depending on pain to create is a dangerous road to travel. I can’t help but wonder about the sonic and vocal brilliance we will, now, never get from Chester Bennington.
Long live a god of rock.