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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


Life in the Pit

written by Leah Furman

St. Martin's Griffin



here sprout the seeds of diskord
"They see me coming through the [grocery] line and think, 'What's this guy do for a living?' Since my checks are out of L.A., they run these triple checks on me. They wonder if I have been to jail," Videodrone frontman Ty Elam once observed, of the home town he shares with the members of Korn. "Bakersfield's a growing metropolis, but there's still that small-town sense at times."
Pillars of small-town U.S.A. have always been adamant about keeping out the bad element, but Bakersfield, or B-town, as the natives affectionately refer to it, is no sleepy hollow of a hamlet. With a population fast approaching the 300,000 mark, a roster of schools that numbers in the hundreds, enough local radio stations to keep you fiddling with the tuner for hours on end, and not one blue law in the bunch, the city has every right to the designation of metropolis. But the town's many movie theaters, live-music venues, and watering holes prove only that while you can take the city into the country, you can't take the country out of a city--not out of this one anyway.
For all its modern amenities Bakersfield is an agrarian mining community. Located at the nethermost point of California's bounteous San Joaquin Valley, the outskirtsof town are ripe with vineyards, almond blossoms, cotton fields, citrus groves, and dairy cows put out to pasture. Nearly a third of the city's breadwinners make their living off the land. A two-hour drive is all that separates the town from Los Angeles, but coupled with the area's entrenched rusticity, that hundred or so miles is more than enough to infuse B-town inhabitants with a sense of secluded isolation.
Comforting at its best, smothering at worst, the town lays claim to two equal and opposite types of denizen. Suffice it to say that for every "born, raised, and proud of it" Bakersfielder, there's one who's equally enamored of the "dying to get out alive" school of thought. Guess which of the two philosophies counted the future men of Korn as adherents?
"You can't make anything of yourself in Bakersfield, it's the armpit of the world and I hate it," Jonathan once railed. Another time, he got personal, referring to Bakersfield's narrow-minded townsfolk as "a lot of hicks. Crazy, white-trash people." The rest of the band was of the same opinion. As David explained, "In Bakersfield, there was not much to do. We had only two choices, making music or [going] completely crazy."
Still, Jonathan's boyhood plight was considerably more dire than that of his fellow kernels. While Munky, Brain, Fieldy, and David had somehow managed to coalesce into a garage band, and were left with a few fond memories of partying in the city's notorious "dirt-fields," Jonathan stood alone--and, true to David's assessment, went a little crazy in so doing.

As many Korn fans already know, the band's testosterone-fueled anthems of ear-splitting wrath are inspired by the early life experiences of one Jonathan Davis. The product of a broken home, an asthmatic, a victim of child abuse,and a perennial outsider, Jonathan is the force of darkness that gave the nascent Korn their razor-sharp edge.
"The normal hell-childhood" is how Jonathan sums up his wonder years. Born of an actress/dancer mother and a musician father on January 18, 1971, he was stripped of the stability afforded most three-year-olds when his parents divorced. Jonathan's mother, it seems, had taken up with a local actor who was portraying Judas in a Bakersfield production of Jesus Christ Superstar. "He was such an asshole to me," Jonathan recalled, "but it still made me cry to watch him hang by his neck." To Jonathan's chagrin, the two married shortly after the Davis divorce had been finalized.
Rick Davis, Jonathan's keyboard-player father, was too busy chasing his dream of rock stardom to spend more than the rare three days with his son. "He did fuck me over," said an older and wiser Jonathan, in reference to his dad, "but I can understand why. When he left to go on the road, he needed to put food on the table. He needed to pay hospital bills: I was asthmatic, I was in the hospital every month from the age of three to the age of ten."
Still, as Jonathan went on to say, "When you're three years old you don't think about that shit." Shuttled from his stepfather's to his grandparents' to his godparents', he felt abandoned, unwanted and cast aside. Despite the parental neglect, or perhaps as its direct consequence, the apple wanted to be just like the tree. No sooner had his parents split than Jonathan took up the drums--a Christmas present from his grandmother.
Flattered by the emulation of his young son, Rick Davis encouraged these efforts, going so far as to let the little tyke play with the grown-ups. "I started playing music when I was three, and I never lost the love of music, ever," Jonathan recalled. "My dad got me into music. He was in a band--a bunch of cover bands--disco, Top 40stuff. I wanted to play drums. By the time I was five, I [had] played a couple of gigs with him--like two or three songs of the set. They'd let me in the bar and I'd get to play."
While his father's support of such musical enterprises would soon wane, Jonathan's passion for the art would persevere, seeing him through the bitter years that were still to come. A belief in guardian angels--fostered by his own paranormal encounters with his deceased great-grandmother and great-uncle, and reinforced by the theories of his astrologer aunt--also sustained the future nihilist. He grew up seeing ghosts ("They were like translucent white flashes of energy"), nearly becoming one himself when he was felled by a critical asthma attack at five years of age. "I died when I was a little kid, because I had asthma really bad. My heart stopped, and I didn't see no damn light or hear any music," he groused, " ... maybe it wasn't my time."
The threat of physical death, however, would come to seem less ominous after Jonathan was thrown to the lions of grammar school, where he would die a million social deaths before clawing and fighting his way to freedom. From the outset of his schooling, it was apparent that Jonathan was not destined to win any schoolyard popularity contests.
Whether his alienation was due to his precarious family situation or to the introverted bent of his own personality, Jonathan found a convenient scapegoat in the form of the admittedly creepy, but decidedly innocuous Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood fame. "When I was a little kid, Mr. Rogers is all, 'You've got to be nice and be honest and be a good person.' Being that way as a kid, I got fucking picked on and I was a nerd. I never got anywhere. I always got shit on! So fuck you!"
The abuse heaped upon young Jonathan's fragile frameby the local youth was, no doubt, the source of countless hours of loneliness and despair. This all-consuming melancholia was punctuated only by the snippets of time he could spend immersed in the workings of instruments at his father's music store. Walking the aisles and watching as the music teachers gave their lessons, Jonathan was in his element.
Spotting an instructor between classes, Jonathan would immediately shift into action mode. "Would you show me how to play?" he'd ask. Not ones to turn down a request from the proprietor's progeny, the teachers would often oblige. "I would learn the basics for each instrument and then would teach myself the rest." In this manner Jonathan had become proficient in a number of instruments, including the piano, upright bass, violin, and the clarinet, by the age of twelve. If life wasn't perfect, it was, at the very least, bearable.
Then, as if to show that life would get substantially worse before taking a turn for the better, Mr. Davis remarried. The new woman in Jonathan's life was, in his opinion, the alpha and omega of wicked stepmothers, the type of woman who would yell at the boy just for coming home from school. With her arrival, picking the lesser of two evils--school life or home life--became a toss-up. "I fucking hate that bitch," Jonathan has since said. "She's the most evil, fucked-up person I've met in my whole life. She hated my guts. She did everything she could to make my life hell. Like, when I was sick she'd feed me tea with Tabasco, which is really hot pepper oil. She'd make me drink it by saying, 'You have to burn that cold out, boy.' Fucked-up shit like that."
Lying in his bed late at night, Jonathan would fixate on gruesome scenarios--picturing what he'd do if only the tables were turned--which invariably ended in his odious stepmother's drawn-out and painful demise. "In some sickway I had a sexual fantasy about her, and I don't know what that stems from or why, but I always dreamt about fucking her and killing her."

Long before Jonathan's warped visions of sex and death made Korn a household name, he was already less than two degrees of separation away from his future consorts. Despite its soaring population figure, Bakersfield was a small world where paths never failed to cross. In his days as an itinerant music man, the elder Davis had counted Reggie "Fieldy" Arvizu's dad among his bandmates. The fathers' camaraderie was not, however, to be visited upon their sons until the cruel politics of high school had turned to just so much water under the proverbial bridge. Aside from Fieldy, Jonathan was also acquainted with Brian "Head" Welch. "I knew Brian from junior high," he explained, "but I hadn't met Munky yet."
Although Jonathan had yet to meet both James "Munky" Shaffer and David Silveria, the two were well aware of the former's existence. They had both, oddly enough, dated his sister. While Jonathan eked out an existence on the fringes of the Bakersfield social scene, the four boys who would one day welcome him into their exclusive fold were already on close terms and jamming en masse.
Steeped in the tradition of Nashville and dubbed "Nashville West" in the 1960s, Bakersfield has had a country flavor ever since it gave rise to two of country music's most beloved figures. Back in the day, and even through the 1980s, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard had recorded simple, honest music for the salt-of-the-earth folk who tilled the soil from dawn to dusk, and wanted little more than a ditty to which they could have themselves a hoedown and skip to the loo come sundown. Itwas not a style that appealed to most Bakersfield teens, Munky, Brian, Fieldy, and Dave included.
In their neck of the San Joaquin, the kids wanted to groove with the latest Monsters of Rock. Heavy metal, workingman's music--that there was the thing. Anything resembling AOR or bearing the progressives' seal of approval was suspect in the land of the Korn. As the line of demarcation separating the real men from the circle-jerk instigators, rock 'n' roll was not to be trifled with.
The burgeoning musicians who were to become Korn couldn't quite reconcile themselves to this black-and-white vision of music, but understood the life-and-death import of keeping up appearances. "I listened to AC/DC, Mötley Crüe, and shit like that," recounted Brian, "but I liked everything. I'd watch MTV and want to learn a Tom Petty solo or a Cars riff. All those videos my friends hated, I'd dig, 'cause I wanted to do the solos. I never bought the record because I'd get laughed at, but I'd learn the solos."
Brian had begun on his path to musical glory by following in Tommy Lee's footsteps. His infatuation with the drum kit, much like that of Jonathan, would not withstand the test of time--thanks mostly to Mr. Welch's words of wisdom. Seeing his ten-year-old son's growing love for the drums, the elder Welch shook his head in parental concern. "Well, you can play drums, but would you rather haul around a huge-ass drum set or a guitar and an amp?" he reasoned with the lad. "Why don't you try the guitar and see if you like it?"
As chance would have it, Brian was already gaining an appreciation for guitar. He'd been listening to Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" and getting off on the powerful chord arrangements. His father didn't have to ask twice. Within a month, Brian was playing the guitar and loving every flat-picking minute of it.
In a few years' time, Brian would gladly part company with his inaugural guitar, making a black-marketer's profit on the gullibility of aspiring axman, and first-class pigeon, James "Munky" Shaffer. "Actually, he sold me my first guitar--and he ripped me off! It was a Peavey Mystic, which looked like a big tooth," recalled Munky. "He sold it to me for three hundred dollars."
Knowing nothing about guitars or the fair-market values thereof, Munky thought he'd scored a bargain. Truth was, his main interest in the instrument lay in its restorative properties. A few months prior, he'd been told of an after-hours party, and naturally made it his mission to attend. But, being only fourteen at the time, getting from point home to point kegger took some doing. Under the cover of night, Munky mounted his rickety old three-wheeler bicycle and prepared to ride like the wind. Alas, just as he was about to slip out undetected, he heard the rat-tat-tat of a bike chain slipping off its sprocket. Shit.
To silence the infernal racket, bound to alert his parents and foil his plans for the evening, Munky acted on instinct. Without stopping to think, he clamped his left hand down on the chain.
"Aaarrrggghhh!" Next thing he knew, he was howling in pain. In his race for fun and adventure, Munky had lost the use of a crucial appendage--his finger. Caught between the chain and the teeth of the sprocket, his left index finger was a severed, mangled mess.
After being driven to the emergency room and undergoing a series of shots, stitches, and bandages, Munky, along with his perplexed parents, conferred with the physician. The prognosis was promising: The boy would be okay with the aid of painkillers and a little musical therapy. According to the M.D. on duty, the sensation in the injured digit would return faster if Munky took up an instrument for physical therapy.
Taking the prescription to heart, Munky waited only for the bandages to come off before going in search of a good deal on a used piece of equipment. The pursuit led him straight to Brian's locker. There, the high-school freshmen talked shop, with Head extolling the virtues of his Peavey Mystic, trying to fleece the novice for all he was worth. Years later, Brian is still gloating over the victory. "I played it for a few years and then I made my money back, and then some, on Munky."
Just as Brian's double-cross didn't escalate into any crisis of conscience, it didn't cause any bad blood between him and Munky, either. On the contrary, the latter quickly took to the guitar, becoming one of Brian's closest friends and his most arch of rivals. Soon Munky had even hatched a scheme to recoup some of the funds he'd lost on that Peavey Mystic. "Brian pretty much inspired me to start playing. I used to go over to his house and eat his mom and dad's food so I could save my lunch money and then buy an amp."
With some help from his new pal and his generous parents, Munky was well on his way to mastering the guitar. In time, it was Brian who was coming over to Munky's and getting blown away by his progress. Rushing home to brush up on his licks, he'd wait for his opportunity to turn the tables and impress Munky. "It wasn't competition," explained Brian, "but he'd see me as I was getting good and that would pump him up; then I'd see him a month later and he'd pump me up. We motivated each other that way."
Brian had yet another friend to spur on his efforts. Reginald Arvizu, alias "Fieldy," was a regular fixture in Brian's garage. Having inherited his dad's proclivity for the stage, Fieldy had been Brian's partner in raucous music-making ever since they'd first met in junior high. By Bako standards, Fieldy was something of an oddity,with musical tastes that ran toward the exotic. Instead of growing out his mullet and headbanging to the sounds of speed metal, the round-faced youngster grew up vibing to the deep grooves of funk and hip-hop acts such as Afrika Bambaataa and Parliament/Funkadelic.
It was only a matter of time before Brian realized that he could bring his two friends together. United by their love of music and their distaste for the B-town music scene, the three players would soon form a band that would provide them with an emotional outlet and sustain them through the mind-numbing boredom that prevailed in Bakersfield, California.

While Jonathan's friends-to-be were laying the groundwork for his future, Jonathan was moonlighting as an amateur recording artist. After securing a job with the Buckaroos, hometown hero Buck Owens's back-up band, and closing down his music store, Mr. Davis was able to buy his country-crooning band leader's former recording studio. Once all the visiting musicians had gone home, the lights were shut off, and the studio locked up for the night, that's when Jonathan would make his move. With his portable keyboard player in hand, he'd sneak inside and take full home-court advantage. "I'd get the keys, and go in there in the middle of the night and record my own songs. I wouldn't sell them--I'd just give them out at school and stuff."
Whether there remains any trace of Jonathan's earliest recording sessions is uncertain, but there can be no doubt that these clandestine efforts were heavily influenced by Jonathan's synth-pop heroes, Duran Duran. "I loved Simon LeBon's melodies; I loved John Taylor's bass playing. They were a bad-ass band. They conquered the world. I love that Rio album--that was the best one. Arcadia. I was off my rocker listening to that shit."
His love for the band went well beyond mere admiration. Jonathan wanted to be Duran Duran, emulating their flamboyant style as faithfully as he followed their music. Raiding his sisters' stash of five-and-dime maquillage, he'd paint his nails in the splashy hues of Wet 'n' Wild and Mary Kay, and use their kohl pencils to line his eyes. While such antics may have been par for the course in NYC, they did not wash in Bakersfield. "When I was in high school, I wasn't a jock, I was into art, drama, and music and I wore eyeliner, so I wasn't accepted."
In fact, it was the lack of popular acceptance that pushed Jonathan farther and farther down the road less traveled. Having muddled through grammar school and junior high with just one friend, he'd accepted the loneliness as a way of life, seeking not to fit in but to make the most of his social exile. Still, in those days, it wasn't easy being Jonathan Davis. For wearing cosmetics, he caught flak from all camps--his parents, the administration, and the student body. "I was into Bauhaus, Ministry, Depeche Mode, the Thompson Twins. Dude, I was a New Romantic! I was a sissy la-la. They even took me to the gay [students'] counselor just because I wore makeup. All the cheerleaders would come and try and pick up on me just for laughs. That hurt."
The constant gibes from the jocks at school were no less painful. Walking the halls of Highland High School, Jonathan would often find himself having to blink back his tears when confronted by the football jersey-wearing steroid brigade.
"Fuckin' faggot!"
Nothing, not even the plaintive wail of his bagpipes, could drown out the cruel sound of those homophobic slurs resounding in his head. And yet, the pipe band didendow the would-be artiste with some measure of distraction. "My grandmother's Scottish and I always wanted to learn how to play [the bagpipes]," he explained. "When I went to high school they had a band there, and I started taking lessons. They were always bitching at me to play my bagpipes so I just did it."
What started out as a perfunctory task, however, soon blossomed into a straight-up labor of love. Jonathan began by joining the Highland High School Pipe Band, and taking lessons from the band's Scottish conductor. "I took some lessons there, learned how to blow on the thing, and then I went to a real teacher, who went to Scotland and learned. He was an old Highland guy, and I started competing after that, up and down the States at established gigs."
One would think that Jonathan, with his bedroomful of prize ribbons and awards plaques, must have been a real source of pride for his parents. Such, sadly, was not the case. Despite his admitted nerdiness, Jonathan could never be mistaken for either a bookworm or computer-science geek. At home and at school, he was always the problem child and resident black sheep, or, as the clinical psychologists call it, the "identified" patient. Hanging out with the so-called freaks and misfits, Jonathan frequented gay clubs and rarely ran from a fracas. "I used to go to parties and get into trouble and fights," he recalled of his days in Bakersfield. "Everybody fights. That's what you do for fun, go beat the shit out of each other."
The young man had no shortage of reasons for engaging in all that was destructive and antisocial, and disappointing his parents in the process. All things considered, it's a wonder that Jonathan didn't end up doused by a bucket of pig's blood on prom night. As if the presence of his stepmom were not enough, Jonathan's dad suddenly found Jesus and got saved. Having been raised within areligiously lax, Presbyterian household, Jonathan had become accustomed to getting away with a certain amount of impiety, profanity, and blasphemy. When Mr. Davis became born again, the old rules no longer applied. "After that, my father became a crazy, non-denominational Pentecostal thing. You know, those crazy people who lay hands on people and they pass out and stuff? He became a Holy Roller," he recounted. "I thought it was ridiculous. When I was sixteen, the priests also made my dad burn all of my Mötley Crüe posters and tapes. That sucked! I had to start listening to my tapes when he wasn't around."
Jonathan's newfound hankering for metal was not the only thing frowned upon by his father--his penchant for music-making also became unacceptable. In this case, however, Mr. Davis was reacting as much to his own demons as to the ones expounded by the Church of Christ. Having tried and failed in his own pursuit of success, he blanched at thought of seeing his son repeat his mistakes. "He flat-out refused to let me get [into the music business]," Jonathan recalled. "He kept saying, 'No, no, no, don't do that.' I wanted to be in music so bad."
Sublimating his own needs to please his dad filled Jonathan with still more anger. A musician at heart, he had been making the two-hour pilgrimage to the L.A. club scene since he was fifteen. Ever since his first trip into the big city, when he'd gone to see Cradle of Thorns (recently renamed Videodrone and signed to Korn's record label), Jonathan had been hooked on the feeling that accompanied leaving Bakersfield in the dust. "Shit, every time I'd come over the Grapevine [a freeway pass to L.A.], I'd be shaking I was so happy."
Outside of music, life held little interest--so Jonathan decided to look into death. A high-school sophomore, obsessed with horror films, nurturing a newfound interestin Goth music and positively brimming with morbid curiosity, Jonathan was struck by a wild idea. By landing a school-sanctioned gig as an autopsy assistant, "I could cut up flesh and not have to go to jail." Hoo-wheee!
Investigating the possibility turned up a wealth of opportunity. The town's Regional Occupation Program had just the thing, a job order for an autopsy assistant from the Kern County Coroner's Office. After going in for an interview, and impressing the brass with his zeal for the craft, Jonathan got the position, rolled up his sleeves, and dug in. "At first I was queasy; I'll never forget the sound of the scalpel cutting a body open. But it was so cool trying to work out how these people died."

For Jonathan, working at the coroner's was, at the very least, cooler than trying to scare up a good time in Bakersfield. "The only things to do there are get fucked up on drugs, join gangs, get arrested, fuck and have a kid," he declared. "There's no music scene at all."
Of course, his socially adjusted, soon-to-be bandmates had a different perspective. David Silveria, for one, felt that "the music scene in Bakersfield goes in peaks and valleys, but when it's on a high, there's a lot more happening there than people would think." David's induction into the agonies and ecstasies of band life came when he was just fourteen.
The chance to join a real rock outfit presented itself through word of mouth, which had a way of spreading like wildfire through the brush of Bakersfield. Head, Fieldy, and Munky had finally decided to form a band, putting out feelers in their search for the missing link--a drummer. Despite the fact that he was still a freshman, and the three guys were all upperclassmen, David decided to vie for his shot at playing with the big boys.
What David lacked in years, he made up for in skills. He'd been banging away at his drums since he was nine years old, joining the school bands and jamming with any friend with an instrument. Without so much as one lesson, he'd developed into quite an expert drummer. "I started at around nine years old," David said. "I remember starting up the drums on my own and not being able to get my mind off them. I just listened to music and kept beats to it, and made up some of my own beats in my head. I didn't get my first kit until I was thirteen. I started playing in the school bands then, too, but I picked up the drum set on my own. Even then, I never really liked playing on my own--like sitting in the garage and practicing to records like other guys do. I was always more into playing with other people."
Social and outgoing by nature, David had no qualms whatsoever about calling the older guys to arrange an audition. All business, and professional beyond his years, he left a message expressing his interest in joining the ensemble on Fieldy's answering machine. "I get this message on my answering machine," Fieldy recounted on Korn's Who Then Now? video, "David's like fuckin' thirteen. It's like [raises his voice], 'Hey guys, looking for a drummer?' This little kid on my answering machine!"
While the guys may have entertained some doubts about the maturity and commitment of their would-be percussionist, when it came to drummers, Bakersfield's pickings were slim-to-nonexistent. Like Brian and Munky, most of the town's musicmen had eschewed the drum kit, modeling themselves, instead, after the gods of the screaming lead guitar.
They had to check out every lead. Piling into the car, the threesome and their gear hied on over to David's house, and set up their amps in his garage studio. Afterlistening to the skinny wisp of a drummer wail away, it was obvious to all and sundry that David was as serviceable a player as they were ever going to find. He was in.
Fieldy still remembers the first day young David arrived at his house for band practice--he was riding shotgun in the family truckster. "When shall I pick you up, honey?" Playing with a kid barely out of junior high school seemed almost laughable at the time. Of course, there was nothing funny about the band's much-improved rhythm section, which proved once and for all that David's recruitment had in fact been a master stroke. "I kind of developed naturally as I went along, without worrying about it," he recalled. "I wasn't trying to copy anybody's songs or sounds. I just played my own way. I think I probably improved a lot mentally, just in the way I think about playing--coming up with ideas and then being able to play them on the drums."
The four-way collaboration would endure for the remainder of the crew's high-school years. The names of the bands and the musician rosters may have shifted here and there, but time after time, the quartet would find themselves reconvened. Together, they would make a rebellious brand of funk-metal that reflected their common need to bust out of Bakersfield. "We felt really limited," Munky explained. "We had this musical talent inside us that was hard to express in Bakersfield. It became this bottled-up anger. We decided to make music that captures that anger. Even after we moved away, we remembered how shitty it was to grow up there, and we draw on that for motivation."
Beckoned by the siren song of L.A.'s thriving club circuit, the guys felt like prisoners of small-town life. Paradoxically enough, they called their band LAPD. Coming of age in captivity had saddled them with enough pent-uptension to live up to their infamous name (which actually stood for Love and Peace, Dude), and each was counting the minutes until such a time as he could unleash his fury upon the unsuspecting ears of L.A.'s hardcore audiences.
KORN: LIFE IN THE PIT. Copyright © 2000 by Leah Furman. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.