Editor’s note: Billboard car writer Brett Berk spent an afternoon with Chester Bennington, a car fan, in March test-driving the new Mercedes-AMG G63 for an article that appeared in the May 27, 2017, issue. Berk fondly recalls the time spent with the singer, who shared embarrassing car stories, talked about life with his six kids (“I don’t like anybody, so I made all my friends,” he joked at the time) and why he loved his Rancho Palos Verdes neighborhood. Bennington was found dead Thursday (July 20) of an apparent suicide at age 41.
I met up with Chester Bennington this spring near his home in Rancho Palos Verdes, on the Pacific Ocean just south of L.A. Chester loved nice cars, their power, their luxury, their capacity for providing escape — all things he spoke about lacking in his difficult Arizona childhood. “Cars can offer you either experience,” he said, pointedly. “They can show you the reality of your world. Or the fantasy.”
It was a foggy day, the marine layer hovering between the tops of the cliffs and the surface of the sea, like we were far above the earth, looking down on a blanket of clouds. Chester took great pleasure in showing off his neighborhood and was so disappointed that the views weren’t more stellar that he kept driving around to all of his secret spots until he found a site where we could take in the full panorama, one that was impossibly urban, verdant, mountainous and coastal. “Look how beautiful this is!” he shouted.
People talk when they’re in a car, they open up inside this private space in a way they can’t or won’t elsewhere. When we separated for the evening, so he could attend his son’s little league game, Chester did me the favor of doing a quick shout-out video for a friend of mine, a Linkin Park superfan. He did the usual performer’s thing of saying hey and thanks. But he ended the video with an almost guileless glee. He smiled at the camera and waved. “Maybe we can hang out some time,” he said.
Below are some excerpts from our conversation that didn’t make it into the initial story:
On getting older, as a rock musician:
“I think that if you focus on something like that, it becomes a problem. But we don’t really think about that. What helps us stay relevant is that we haven’t really set out on this musical experience to reach a destination. We consider the whole thing a journey. So it’s not like we stopped off at Rock Island and now we’re stranded there. We actually just get onboard the boat and let the winds take us where it will. And each time it’s at a new place, and we land at a new destination. And I think that because we’re fearless about what kind of sounds and songs we create, we’re able to be more malleable to people’s tastes and what people’s interests are.”
On having a large family:
“The band was recently at an iHeartRadio programmer listening party thing — they play all the new songs from all the different artists, and all the programmers from all across all the different platforms are there in one place. And so we’re in the room, and it’s a small amphitheater. A few hundred people. And [bandmate] Mike [Shinoda] was really excited because we were playing ‘Heavy,’ and this is the biggest group of people we’ve played it for, so it’s kind of like the debut of the song. And he’s like, ‘It kind of makes me a little nervous, because we haven’t played it for this many people.’ And I go, actually, it’s kind of normal for me because this is just like being in a room with my kids. You know Benihana? We get the whole table with two chefs. ‘Special occasion?’ They ask. No, it’s a f—ing Tuesday.”
On the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to him in a car.
“Before I could drive. I used to be a swimmer. I swam competitively as a kid. I had to go to Tucson for a swim meet, and my parents couldn’t go, so I had to jump on with another kid’s parents. And basically, about 30 minutes into the drive from Tucson to Phoenix — which at that time, there was only an empty two-lane highway — I had to pee. And I was too embarrassed to ask. I wasn’t the self-confident Chester that you see now. I was the very low-self-esteem Chester who’s probably, like, 11 years old, who was afraid of everything. And I didn’t want to have to say, ‘Can we pull over?’ Because if I remember, the parents were kind of cranky, and they were kind of pissed that they had to take me home, and I got thrust upon them. So about 30 minutes into the drive I had to pee. Ten minutes later, I really had to pee. Twenty minutes later, I was sweating. Eventually I just peed my pants. I just peed all over the back of the car. And I never said anything. Except ‘thank you’ as I got out of the car. The moral of the story is: Just tell them to pull over. Don’t carry around the ‘I peed in the back of someone’s car and didn’t tell them’ for the rest of your life.”
On his neighborhood, which he moved into twice, for a total of 10 years:
“It’s like living on an island, because it’s hard to get in and out of. That’s what turns people off. But that’s exactly what I like about it. I kind of jokingly say, it’s the only island connected by a land bridge. Police are really great, fire department is really great, hospitals are really good. School district up here is the best for your kid. There’s not a lot of gated communities, which is nice. And you have neighborhoods where there’s middle-class families living across from the guy who’s got the $30 million estate. So there’s a lot of diversity, which I like. I feel like it’s good for my kids.”
On singing along with the radio and guilty pleasures:
“If I know all the words to a song — or even if I know just two of them — I will sing those as loud as possible. And my wife is like, ‘Could you please stop that?’ Because I sing really loud. It’s not like I’m in the corner going [affects self-consciously quiet singing voice] ‘la la la la la.’ I’m f—ing going crazy, you know? Spit is flying all over the windshield and on the steering wheel and all that good stuff. My guilty-pleasure song? Probably Miley Cyrus, ‘Party in the U.S.A.’ Because it’s so good. But it’s Miley Cyrus. So… you know? Especially that part where she’s singing, ‘I got my Britney song on! Turn it up!’ I’m over here going, ‘Yeah Britney!’”
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