What Chester Bennington's death tells us about the trope of 'the troubled artist too pure for this world'
"I’d like to think you were saying goodbye in your own way. I can’t imagine a world without you in it. I pray you find peace in the next life. I send my love to your wife and children, friends and family."
This is what American rock band Linkin Park's lead vocalist Chester Bennington had to say when his dear friend and Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell died. In what may be termed eerie, Bennington committed suicide, too, on what would have been Cornell's 53rd birthday.
We don't know yet if his death has any connection to his friend's. The duo were close, and Cornell's death must have undoubtedly taken a toll on Bennington. But apart from the relationship that they shared and the pain that Cornell's demise caused Beninngton, these two deaths are telling of a larger issue plaguing the world of music — of musicians creating art out of their inner demons, and finally succumbing to them.
That Bennington was depressed is hardly a secret. He struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, and overcame a history of sexual abuse at the hands of an older male friend when he was a child. He was also deeply disturbed by the failure of his first marriage.
He would fuel Linkin Park's songs with this angst and anger. While talking about the song 'My Suffering', he said it was "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 described another song, 'Crawling', as "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."
The 'sorrow-fuels-creativity' narrative is not new.
Cornell committed suicide in his hotel room in May 2017. In his youth, he had bad experiences with substance abuse and more recently, he spoke about how he was suffering from depression because his life seemed to have been falling apart. "It [Euphoria Morning] was a pretty dark album lyrically and pretty depressing, and I was going through a really difficult time in my life — my band wasn’t together anymore, my marriage was falling apart and I was dealing with it by drinking way too much, and that has its own problems, particularly with depression," he said to Rolling Stone in 2015.
Nirvana founder Kurt Cobain was called a 'tortured genius'. His depression was diagnosed when he was in school itself. And yet, many people were surprised when he committed suicide, because he seemed outgoing, funny, charming, and most importantly, 'normal'.
Which brings me to the next point — these musicians seem to have been functioning with this sorrow, day in day out. In May, Linkin Park's latest album was released, and Bennington participated in it the way he had for past albums. Hours before Cornell committed suicide, he was performing at a show. These artists seem to have been breathing in and out these negative feelings as though it were air, until they reach a tipping point, when it became too much.
It doesn't help that this lifestyle of depression, combined with substance abuse, is glamourised and normalised, because it deters families and caregivers from actively looking for signs of danger.
Novelist Matt Haig explains it succinctly in this piece:
"Rock stars were troubled. They died young, often at their own hands. In my immaturity, I thought there was something cool about it. Tragic, yes, sure, but I didn’t really feel that tragedy. Rock and roll was youth. It resisted the world of safe compromises that getting old entails. Getting old meant mortgages and proper jobs and marriage and responsibilities. When I was 18, I had no real understanding of the pain Cobain must have been going through to get to that end-point. I just bought into the myth. The troubled-artist-too-pure-for-this-world idea."
The case of Kurt Cobain is slightly different, because he had stopped communicating for roughly a week before he allegedly committed suicide. He and his wife tried to undergo drug rehabilitation more than once. At different points of his life, his friends, too, tried to intervene and get him to turn his life around, all in vain. He still showed suicidal tendencies. Evidently, these interventions came too late.
This predicament of these musicians reminds me of 'Starry, Starry Night', a particularly beautiful song by Don Mclean, where he describes painter Vincent Vogh's psychological state and the demons that haunted him:
"How you suffered for your sanity / How you tried to set them free. Perhaps they'll listen now."
Perhaps it is time we begin listening now.