Weldon Kees: The Lost Literary Influence of Jim Morrison








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Jim Morrison: The Movie

Most Doors fans know that Jim Morrison’s ambition in life was to be taken seriously as a poet. Even his trip to the Venice Beach rooftop to write what would more or less become the lyrics for The Doors’ first two albums was more the act of the poet seeking a garrett than someone planning to start a rock band.

The Doors were a very literary band and when they became famous. They practically released a reading list for fans, mentioning as influences writers such as Jack Kerouac, Arthur Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Hart Crane to name only a few. Morrison himself befriended Beat poets Allen Ginsburg (whose influence you see in Morrison’s poems) and Michael McClure. As a teenager Morrison visited Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco when Morrison’s family lived there, and Morrison was surely aware of Kenneth Rexroth who was well-known in the Bay Area and a friend of the Beats.

A poet we have never heard in connection with Jim Morrison is Weldon Kees, a man who was as determined as Morrison himself to find new avenues of artistic expression. Kees’ death/disappearance is also more mysterious than Morrison’s own in Paris.

Weldon Kees was born in Beatrice, Nebraska in Feburary 24, 1914. On the heels of the successful release of his first book of poems, “The Last Man”, in 1943 he moved to New York and began making the social scene there, attending the parties of Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling. His writings, mostly fiction, started to appear in publications like The New York Times, The New Republic, Partisan Review, Poetry, and Furioso. Kees never felt comfortable in the literary scene and started to paint, influenced by abstract expressionists like Willem de Kooning, and Kees’ paintings hung in galleries next to Picasso. In 1947 he published another book of poems, “The Fall of the Magician”.

Weldon Kees Portrait
Weldon Kees

Dissatisfied with life in New York, he moved to San Francisco, where he started playing New Orleans-style jazz and was good enough to perform professionally. He also developed an interest in experimental filmmaking and provided soundtracks for others’ films. He maintained an interest in poetry, attending readings at places such as Kenneth Rexroth’s house, which was the Beat meeting place in the ’50s.

The story of Kees’ disappearance was recently the subject of the New Yorker article “The Disappearing Poet”. The agreed-upon facts are these: on July 19, 1955, Kees’ car was found on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge, its keys still in the ignition. Suicide is presumed, although prior to his disappearance Kees told friends that like Hart Crane he wanted to disappear into Mexico, and that “sometimes a person needs to change his life completely.” A search of his apartment turned up only his cat Lonesome and a pair of red socks in the sink; his bank account was emptied, and his sleeping bag was missing.

Besides these biographical details and similarities that would have attracted Morrison, what else is there to lead us to believe Kees was an influence on Jim Morrison? We present two poems, one of Kees’ and one of Morrison’s.

“Subtitle”

We present for you this evening
A movie of death: observe
These scenes chipped celluloid
Reveals unsponsored and tax-free

We request these things only
All gum must be placed beneath the seats
or swallowed quickly, all popcorn sacks
must be left in the foyer. The doors
Will remain closed throughout
The performance. Kindly consult
Your programs: observe that
There are no exits. This is
A necessary precaution

Look for no dialogue, or for the
Sound of any human voice: we have seen fit
To synchronize this play with
Squealing of pigs, slow sounds of guns
The sharp dead click
Of empty chocolatebar machines.

We say again: there are
No exits here, no guards to bribe,
No washroom windows.

No finis to the film unless
The ending is your own
Turn off the lights, remind
The operator of his union card:
Sit forward, let the screen reveal
Your heritage, the logic of your destiny.

-Weldon Kees, 1935

And Jim Morrison’s “The Movie”, which was the first track on “An American Prayer”:

The Movie will begin in five moments,
The mindless voice announced,
All those unseated will await the next show.
We filed slowly, languidly into the hall.
The auditorium was vast and silent.
As we seated and were darkened, the voice continued:
The program for this evening is not new,
You’ve seen this entertainment through and through.
You’ve seen your birth, your life and death,
You might recall all the rest.
Did you have a good world when you died?
Enough to base a movie on?

As you can see, the themes are identical, with the reader sitting in a movie theater seeing your life projected on the screen for you and others to watch. The ideas of no exits, locked doors, and fate are all things that would have attracted Morrison, being ideas he used time and again in his lyrics and poetry. The structure of Morrison’s poem is similar to Kees’, with Morrison’s perhaps having a more musical quality to it.

I think it’s safe to assume that we can add Weldon Kees to the list of influences on Jim Morrison, if not biographically then poetically. If you would like to know more about Weldon Kees, check out his biography “Vanished Act: The Life and Art of Weldon Kees” by James Reidel.

I would like to thank Mr. Rollo Velasco who suggested this story. Mr. Velasco is currently finishing work on his screenplay Sanctuary Sun.

Originally published September 17, 2009. This article appears in “The Doors Examined”.

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