Into the great river of American evangelical Christianity, ever-pouring, ever-replenishing, a fresh tributary flows. Nameless as yet—Freak on a Leash Ministries would be my suggestion—the new church at present has only two members. But they both make a lot of noise. With the publication last month of his memoir, Got the Life, Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu becomes the second dude from Korn to offer himself loudly and in book form to Jesus. The first was guitarist Brian “Head” Welch, whose God-drenched tell-all, Save Me From Myself, came out in 2007. Somewhere Oscar Wilde is smirking: “To drive one nü-metaller into the arms of Christ, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to drive two looks like carelessness!” Seriously, though—what’s going on with Korn?
Perhaps you’re surprised that they’re still around. It’s been 15 years, after all, since they first broke out of Bakersfield, Calif., and longevity was hardly to be expected. Korn, the album that finished grunge more surely than the suicide of Kurt Cobain, was a dead-end masquerading as a debut—a lumpy, disturbed, belligerent take on Red Hot Chili Peppers/Faith No More funk rock, produced at unstable tempos, with a hip-hop grimace. Fieldy, on bass, seemed to be playing an instrument with two necks: one that clicked and popped with nasty zealous high-end definition and another that rumbled almost subsonically, at an abysmaldepth. Amp settings were part of the trick—”I don’t use any mid-range,” he explained to one interviewer, “it’s all highs and lows, I take the mid-range and turn that shit off”—and the rest was his glowering, either-or personality. Head, meanwhile, was a guitar anti-hero, alternating between shapeless, melted-down riffs and twinges of lead that were ghostly as samples. The total sound was something you’d heard before, only now there was more of it. Fieldy had a fifth string on his bass and Head a seventh on his guitar.
Korn finished grunge because it completed it: The album’s implosive heaviness was the terminus of punk’s long dalliance with metal, and in the bipolar dramatics of singer Jonathan Davis, gnashing and mewling through piteous verses before inflating to a terrible chorus-wrecking roar, we saw the last enthronement of Cobain’s maddened inner child. Every good album is a concept album to some degree, and Korn’s concept—from the slasher-flick cover shot (nameless adult shadow looms over little girl on swing), through the growled nursery rhymes of “Shoots and Ladders,” to the 10-minute abreaction called “Daddy“—was the destruction of innocence. “You raped (I feel dirty)/ It hurt (I’m not a liar)/ My God (I saw you watchin’)/ Tell me why (your own child) …” By the conclusion of “Daddy,” Davis is wrung out, in pieces, whimpering softly to himself while the band with rather superb indifference commences a strange Goth-metallic jam. At which point the listener may well reach a conclusion of his or her own: Well, that’s the end of that.
But it wasn’t, of course. Korn’s eccentric, last-gasp noise galvanized the masses, proving to be not only commercially viable but very easy to rip off. Nü metal, they called it, and suddenly everyone was doing it—Limp Bizkit, Staind, Deftones, Godsmack. Korn hopped onto the hamster wheel of tour/album/tour; their third album, 1998’s Follow the Leader, debuted at the top of the Billboard charts. Now they sounded less like Killing Joke doing the Beastie Boys’ “Brass Monkey” and more like the disco at the end of the world. Stadiums quaked. Mega-success was theirs, an apocalypse of rock ’n’ roll cliché whipped up punctually on the after-show tour bus—drugs, women, the works. Fieldy maintained a groggy oscillatory buzz with booze and pills, while Head slipped into speed and then crystal meth. Et cetera, et cetera.
Nü metal, as a genre, was far from irreligious. P.O.D. played powerhouse Christian rock. Godsmack liked to talk about Wicca. The darker bands were possessed, as if by a nightmare, by the idea of spiritual extinction: “Must not surrender my God to anyone,” vowed Fear Factory’s Burton Bell on Digimortal, “or this body will become CARRI-ON!!!” Korn’s lyrics, while less poetic, were no less eloquent: “Sometimes I cannot take this place/ Sometimes it’s my life I can’t taste/ Sometimes I cannot feel my face/ You’ll never see me fall from grace” (“Freak on a Leash”). Abjection, numbness … how much of this stuff can you do before something gives? Head was the first to crack. Besieged by guilt about his young daughter (whom he was raising alone), exhausted by his addiction, he began to zigzag toward God: “Immediately after church, after raising my hand to accept Christ in my life for real this time, I went home, put on a movie for Jennea, and went into my master closet, opened the safe, and grabbed the best bag of meth I had in there. I snorted a line, then sat there on the floor, a rolled-up bill in my right hand, and prayed. … Then I snorted another line.” After a few nights of this the meth was all gone, but Jesus was still there.
Got the Life and Save Me From Myself are both ruggedly confessional in the best nü-metal manner; read them in tandem, and you get to know Korn quite well. The experiences they describe, though, are somewhat different. Head’s conversion, between meth benders and saturations of divine love, was a precipitous inner event which he was then obliged to manifest outwardly: He became a new man. He left Korn, got himself baptized in the river Jordan, and—no joke—founded an orphanage in India. Fieldy’s pilgrimage, begun in the wake of his father’s death, seems to be more a matter of gradual and humble atonement for years of raging asshole-ism. Got the Life includes contrite, AA-style letters to each of his band mates. (“I know now that a physical beating would have healed better than the things I said to you.”) He certainly gave them a hard time; early in the book, he and fellow Korn member James “Munky” Shaffer are pulled over in their pickup truck in L.A., and Shaffer is placed under arrest for an outstanding jaywalking ticket. “For whatever reason,” Fieldy writes, “Munky was wearing a pair of my shoes that day. … ‘Take my shoes off,’ I told him. ‘I’m serious. I don’t want you wearing my shoes to jail.’ ” The discalced Munky is duly handcuffed and hauled away, leaving Fieldy to be rebuked by the New Testament clarity of the episode’s imagery—shoes, bare feet, prison.
Korn is still operational, and Fieldy is still making that sticky, indelible sound with his bass. Head has released an album of post-Korn salvation rock; October of last year found him discussing it with Pat Robertson on the Christian Broadcasting Network’s The 700 Club. Head: “I went to church and I just felt something. And the guy was saying that Jesus was real, the pastor was just saying if you talk to him he’ll start to take things out of your life that are hurting you. … So I did drugs and I talked to Jesus.” Robertson (chuckling, curious): “What did he say?”