Ask any rock star about what they did for work pre-fame, and you’ll likely be regaled with tales of flipping burgers or mopping floors.
But that couldn’t have been further from the case for Jonathan Davis, the distinctive frontman of nu-metal legends Korn, whose unique vocal style and emotive performances have influenced generations of musicians.
Before Davis ever roared into a microphone or played to thousands worldwide, he had a very different job – one that would deeply shape his perspective on life and art. He worked in a morgue.
After graduating from the San Francisco School of Mortuary Science, Davis became a coroner’s assistant in Kern County, California. For the uninitiated, this is not a job for the faint-hearted.
Dealing with death daily, especially in such a hands-on manner, can take a toll on one’s mental and emotional well-being.
Yet for Davis, this experience provided him with a perspective on the fragility and transient nature of life, themes that would later echo in his music.
Of his experiences working in a mortuary, he mentions Korn’s iconic track “Dead Bodies Everywhere” is about his dark time there and the unsightly things he’d see every day as part of the job (as transcribed by The Pit):
“When I worked in the mortuary, my kitchen was overflow for the morgue… “There’s literally dead bodies everywhere when the morgue was full. Then we would put some in my kitchen, which had a little apartment in the mortuary when we had too many bodies.
And literally I come out of my bedroom and there’s dead bodies everywhere.”
While many would shudder at the thought of preparing bodies for autopsy or dealing with the aftermath of violent deaths, Davis immersed himself in the work. However, it wasn’t without its impact.
He has been candid about the traumatic effects this job had on him, recounting stories of gruesome crime scenes and the emotional burden of handling young victims:
“It was like you came face to face with mortality right there. And I learned it in college that America is a death denying society. We all think we’re going to live forever. This was a car accident, and this person was pretty beat up. It really shocked me. And I’ll never forget the sound of a scalpel cutting flesh.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the visceral laying there, opening up the Y incision and seeing the visceral there. The doctor going in there, taking samples, and then me having to sew them up. It really affected me.
I did an autopsy on this little boy and we opened up his stomach and found a bag of rock cocaine in it that he ingested. I saw things that still gets to me… I had no feeling and I hated that.”
As he told Kerrang in 2018, doing this type of work, especially at such a young age, took a huge toll on his psyche:
“I had post-traumatic stress from seeing dead babies, and young kids that had died after finding a parent’s stash of drugs – shit that I shouldn’t have been seeing at 16 or 17 years old. I had to have a lot of therapy to make the nightmares go away, but I got through it and it made me appreciate life a lot more.”
As grim as this chapter of his life was, it is a testament to Davis’s resilience and capacity to transform pain into art. The juxtaposition between the sterility of the morgue and the chaotic energy of a live Korn show is profound, but it’s a stark reminder that life experiences, no matter how unsettling, can also be a rich source of inspiration (as morbid as it might sound).