In July of this year, as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers arrived in Hyde Park, London, for the next leg of their 40th anniversary tour, they were joined by one of their frontman’s most famed collaborators: Stevie Nicks. The audience roared in approval as the pair performed a rendition of their iconic duet “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” with the BBC going so far as to call fans in the crowd “delirious.” While on stage, Nicks shouted out, “You know that Tom Petty is my favorite rock star!” and said she’d remember the night “for the rest of my life.”
It was hardly the first time that Petty and Nicks revived the song for a live audience. But it has, in a tragic and abrupt twist, turned out to be the last. Petty died Monday at age 66, after suffering cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu.
Nicks and Petty’s relationship as friends and collaborators spanned decades; they met in 1978 and within a few years began working closely together. In 1981, the pair created their first duet, “Insider,” as part of the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album Hard Promises. Later that year, for Nicks’ debut solo album, Bella Donna, the pair recorded “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” — that aforementioned classic — which was originally written for the Heartbreakers until Nicks’ participation was factored in. (Other Heartbreakers band members ended up contributing to Nicks’ first few solo albums.) It debuted as one of the top singles in the country — staying no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks — and to this day remains among both artists’ most successful and beloved songs. (Their other big hit was “Needles and Pins,” a Heartbreakers song released in 1986.)
Nicks performed with Petty consistently since the 1980s, including on the Heartbreakers’ concert tours for Hard Promises (1981) and Rock a Little (1986), and as part of their Highway Companions Tour in 2006. In an interview from a while back, Nicks discussed why she and Petty worked so well together on stage, calling him “a really special” artist. “It’s really easy for Tom and I to be theatrical on stage because we both like it,” she explained. “If you have a duet and one of the [people] isn’t into being theatrical, you can’t do it because they think you’re stupid.”
Petty also played a big role in one of Nicks’ most enduring songs, “Edge of Seventeen” — albeit by accident. She once asked Petty’s first wife, Jane Benyo, when the two of them met. “I met him at some point during the age of 17,” Benyo responded to Nicks, per Billboard. Nicks heard it wrong: “I thought she said, ‘The edge of 17.’ I said, ‘Jane, can I use that? Can I write a song called ‘Edge of Seventeen’?’” Nicks added that the song as written is partly about Petty and Benyo’s relationship as Benyo described it to her, specifically referencing the poignant verse, “He seemed broken-hearted/Somethin’ within him.”
On the more personal side, Petty and Nicks shared a closeness that neither was shy about discussing. Nicks has described how Petty convinced her to return to writing music again in the ’90s — and, accordingly, helped her through a bad post-rehab, post-breakup period. She recounted to Billboard: “I was still in a fragile state, after 48 days of hell in rehab, and Tom said, ‘You don’t need help to write a song — you just need to get over this experience that bummed you out so bad. The relationship you were in is over, it was over a long time ago, and you need to move on.’”
Petty, meanwhile, was once asked by the Toronto Sun to summarize their friendship. “Have you got a couple of hours?” he said. “She’s a good friend. I’ve known her since 1978 and she’s insisted on being in my life. Some of my best musical memories of her are sitting on the couch and just playing the guitar while she sings.”
But as to whether there was anything more than friendship? Petty biographer Warren Zanes told Salon in 2015, “I pushed on this question, saying to [Tom], after he told me they weren’t a couple, ‘You sure sound like a couple.’ Tom looked at me and said, ‘We had our times.’”