I watched the HBO documentary on Elvis Presley The Searcher last night (and I highly recommend it; here’s the trailer to whet your appetite). I had read beforehand an article about Tom Petty’s contribution–a fine interview made all the more melancholy by Petty’s death last October, so I was even more intrigued than I would’ve been anyway. Both parts covered Elvis’ career in a way that was both familiar and revelatory. I already knew most of it, but it was such a joy to watch and listen to the interviews with his contemporaries and others analyzing the work itself instead of the garish personal details of his life. Elvis the man wasn’t ignored, but his personal life was only covered in respect to how it affected him as an artist. I came away with an even greater dislike of Tom Parker and the damage he did to Elvis’s career. (Yeah, yeah. Without Parker, Elvis might not have become an international superstar so quickly, but those godawful movies in the 60s and all the ways he stifled his recording & touring were just too fucking heinous for words.) But I was also struck by, as I always am, by what an amazing performer and singer Elvis was. Watching the old footage of him, even the 70s jumpsuit years, showed why he was so phenomenal. It was kind of heartbreaking
Of course then the closing credits happened. Tom Petty’s interview for the documentary came just a few months before his unexpected death last year, and as noted in the article I read, it was incredibly insightful and one of the final ones recorded. As a fellow Southerner and artist, I think Petty got Elvis in a way others interviewed didn’t; he understood where Elvis came from far more intimately than a lot of scholars and critics ever could no matter how much research they might do. But that was just kind of melancholy, like I said earlier. What killed me, made me cry out loud, was the tacit dedication the filmmakers made to Petty over the closing credits.
“Wooden Heart” is from G.I. Blues, the first movie Elvis made after being discharged from the army in 1960. The soundtrack was like that of most of the music from Elvis movies: mostly forgettable with a gem or two tucked in. The version of “Wooden Heart” in the movie is pretty wooden, too, except for Presley’s irrepressible charisma. But this gentle cover by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers is so lovely and quiet; you can genuinely believe the plea for love and compassion he makes. And I thought I had never heard it before. When I finished sobbing and pulled myself together, I hit iTunes to see if I could download it. It was available on the doc’s soundtrack, along with a whole lot of great Elvis and some other fabulous blues & rock used to tell the tale (and considering how many tracks there are, it’s kind of a bargain at $39.99 is you’re looking for a starter Elvis collection). But looking around the web for more information and something for this post, I found out I already owned Petty’s cover of “Wooden Heart” and had most likely listened to it at some point.
Back in the 90s, Petty & the Heartbreakers released a damn good box set called Playback. It’s six discs worth of some of the best music from one of the best acts ever in Rock & Roll. The first three discs are all great tracks from the various albums up to that point; the second three are b-sides, rarities, and demos. “Wooden Heart” was nestled in near the end of Disc 6 titled “Nobody’s Children” for the fact that these were tracks that were essentially orphaned–recorded but left off of any other albums for whatever reason. I remember listening to the entire box set when I got it, although I’ve mostly neglected it since. I don’t why I ignored or dismissed “Wooden Heart”; I guess I just wasn’t in the right head space for back then. But now, after Petty’s death and watching the sad end of Elvis’ life and career, this song really hits home. It’s nice to discover (or rediscover) treasure like this.