When rock pioneer Tom Petty died on October 2, the music world mourned a soulful troubadour, a fiercely original and melodic songwriter, and a quietly affecting frontman. A committed writer, performer, and musician to the core, Hall of Famer Petty’s was a legendary career that married consistency with invention.
His loss is huge – for the Heartbreakers, for his legions of fans, and the rock stars that have followed in his wake – but there’s another hero in his musical lineage that suffers from the loss, and that is frequent collaborator Stevie Nicks.
It’s rare that two rock stars huge in their own right, and in their own respective bands, meet and regularly collaborate but Petty and Nicks’ musical relationship has been one of the most unique and lasting in rock. What began as a meeting between two stars established in the California rock fraternity in 1978 became an enduring friendship, a musical meeting of minds, and the genesis of some of the most memorable rock music of the past four decades.
During breaks in Fleetwood Mac’s mammoth tour in support of 1979’s magnum opus Tusk, Nicks, frustrated by the limitation on the amount of songs she could contribute to each new Fleetwood Mac LP as one of three leading songwriters in the group, set to work on some rough sketches of new songs with Petty. Among them were “Starshine,” “Outside the Rain,” and an early version of “Gypsy,” written in Petty’s basement in 1980 and rehearsed with The Heartbreakers.
What began as rough sketches became full-fledged songs that married Nicks’ delicately powerful mysticism with a sound that recalled Petty’s unique brand of melodic rock and roll, and the result was 1981’s seminal Bella Donna. Petty had been unable to produce Nicks’ first solo LP owing to recording commitments with The Heartbreakers for 1981’s Hard Promises, so Nicks enlisted the next best thing – Hard Promises’ co-producer, Jimmy Iovine. As she told the audience at a show in Youngstown in September, Nicks had informed Atlantic Records’ president Doug Morris that “what [she’d] really like to do is be in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ band,” but, upon meeting Iovine, settled for making “like, a Tom Petty girl album.”
It is hardly surprising that Hard Promises and Bella Donna share a musical DNA, given the involvement of Iovine and his push for melodious yet raw rock and roll, but the intrinsic relationship between Nicks and Petty stretches beyond their mutual collaborator. Two particular songs from these early sessions, the haunting “Insider” and rollicking radio classic “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” bear this out.
Originally written with Nicks in mind, “Insider” became their first duet – Petty recalled how Nicks had told him, “I can’t take this, because I can see how bad you want it. You just keep it, and write me another song, and we’re even.” Nicks visited the studio to cut her vocal with Petty, and the result is one of the most beautiful songs in either catalogue. A marriage of melancholy vocals, with the velvety Nicks weaving around Petty’s downbeat lilt, an arrangement of haunting organ and softly strummed acoustic guitar builds into a plaintive slow-burning rock and roll of glorious harmonies. The two voices together, singing “I’m the one you couldn’t trust,” add an even more poignant edge to this song of suspicion, miscommunication, and mistrust.
It is somewhat ironic that one of the earliest and finest Petty/Nicks collaborations is a song of mistrust, for theirs was a relationship built on honesty, perspective, and mutual respect. As Nicks told Rolling Stone after Petty’s death, “He gave me a lot of advice about stuff. He was the kind of person who said, “Here’s my advice. If you take it, great. If you don’t, that’s fine too.” He was never going to shake a finger in your face and make you feel bad if you didn’t take his advice.”
“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” the other Petty/Nicks duet of 1981, started life as a Heartbreakers number planned for inclusion on Hard Promises, and, indeed, an early version sans Nicks, showed up on Petty’s 1995 box set Playback. As Nicks wrote in the liner notes to her 1991 retrospective TimeSpace, “I wasn’t used to doing other people’s songs, so I didn’t really like the idea at first, but I loved Tom Petty, so I agreed to try. So we went into the studio and sang it live, together. I was completely entranced, and I instantly fell into love with the song. Duets were the things I loved the most… maybe this was a second beginning. And we would sing like no one else, and nobody else would ever sing like us.”
Where her voice was velvety on “Insider,” here she is scratchy and scorned, and Petty is uber cool as he delivers this swaggering rock masterpiece The pair regularly teamed up on stage to perform this electrifying number, most recently in July 2017 at the Heartbreakers’ headline show at Hyde Park, in what turned out to be their final onstage appearance together. As Nicks told the crowd, “You know that Tom Petty is my favorite rock star!”
Bella Donna is the closest we may come to hearing what a “Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” album might have sounded like. Some of the Heartbreakers provide the bedrock for Bella Donna – tight, propulsive rhythms, elegant piano lines from Benmont Tench. Guitarist Mike Campbell and drummer Stan Lynch appear on several songs; just take one listen and marvel to the dusky beauty of “Outside the Rain,” which, in all but name, is essentially Stevie Nicks fronting the Heartbreakers.
Tom Petty haunts the songs themselves of that era; his Floridian first wife Jane’s strong accent inspired the title of the epic “Edge of Seventeen” (“[Jane] said that she met him at the age of seventeen, but I thought she said “edge”, and she said “no…age” and I said “Jane, forget it, it’s got to be “edge”. The “Edge of Seventeen” is perfect”, said Nicks in 1981 http://www.nicksfix.com/oldtrivi.htm ) and “If You Were My Love,” recorded in various incarnations for Bella Donna, Fleetwood Mac’s 1982 album Mirage, and Nicks’ 1994 solo LP Street Angel before finally finding a home on 2014’s collection of re-recorded, unreleased rarities 24 Karat Gold, explores Nicks’ bereft musings after those early recording sessions concluded. As she told the Chicago Tribune (https://stevie-nicks.info/1981/09/stevie-nicks-soars-with-bella-donna/) in 1981, “It’s like a love song, but it’s not. It’s about going outside your own life and getting attached to something that isn’t yours. It’s been kind of like falling in love with another band — for a minute. It has nothing to do with — and truly, clarify this — there is absolutely nothing going on between me and anybody in that band. They’re all married. They’re all expecting babies. That’s what makes it very easy for me to be with them and be their friend, and almost be one of the guys.”
Petty’s role as friend and confidant is key to Nicks’ enduring success as a solo artist. Indeed, an entire record, 2001’s Trouble in Shangri-La, developed from a conversation with Petty where Nicks had requested he write a song for her. As she sings on “That Made Me Stronger”:
“Well the conversation rings in my head
Well you know me better than I know myself
Will you write this for me
He says no, you write your songs yourself
That made me stronger
It made me hold on to me.”
- Stevie Nicks, “That Made Me Stronger” (2001)
What emerged was perhaps Nicks’ strongest solo LP in almost two decades, and Tom Petty can be credited with sparking its genesis. Another song, “Hard Advice,”made its way onto 24 Karat Gold in 2014, and Nicks told Rolling Stone: “It was toward the end of 1994. I was at my house in Phoenix – I had come out of rehab – and I had dinner with him at the Ritz-Carlton. I had a visitation from an old boyfriend, right after my rehab, and it had shaken me. I asked Tom if he would help me write a song. And he said, “No. You are one of the premier songwriters of all time. You don’t need me to write a song for you.” He said, “Just go to your piano and write a good song. You can do that.” When I walked out of the Ritz-Carlton, I had that feeling that he would be waiting to hear it. The song is called “Hard Advice.” It ended up on 24 Karat Gold. The chorus goes “Sometimes he’s my best friend.” It was really “Sometimes Tom’s my best friend.” I changed it because I knew Tom would not want me to say his name. That’s how well I know him.”
And what did Nicks give to Petty? The respect Petty felt for Nicks allowed her into this elusive “boys’ club,” and he described her in fond terms as an “honorary Heartbreaker.” Nicks’ onstage presence provided a boost for Petty, as she recounted in 1981: “Tom called [after a date in Providence in 1981 she had to miss] and told me, ‘It was an incredible concert, but it just wasn’t the same without you. “That’s the nicest thing Torn Petty has ever said to me. It was just a simple thing, but it knocked me out. I’ve really become attached to them, because they’re all like my brothers and they’re all proud of me in their own little kind of male-type way. I go through a sort of ‘post Heartbreaker depression blues’ after I do a couple of dates with them and wake up the next morning and they’re gone and I have to go on all by myself.”
Even more than with Lindsey Buckingham or Fleetwood Mac, with whom she found her fame and fortune, Nicks had found her spiritual, natural home as an honorary member of the Heartbreakers – as she told WHXC radio, “Tom is my favorite writer, ’cause I kinda feel if I had come into this word as a boy, I would’ve been him, y’know? It’s like I really do, I feel that there’s a part of Tom’s writing that I relate so easily to.”
Nicks believed that part of Petty’s strength was his respect for strong women, as she told Rolling Stone: “He was surrounded by really strong women. The women around him pretty much went their own way, and he was good with that.”
Their collaborations continued through the years. Nicks’ follow-up to Bella Donna, 1983’s The Wild Heart, features the beautiful “I Will Run to You,” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fk8MJNMiK44) where the cool, insouciant swagger of the verses (“will you please make up your mind?”) gives way to a mellifluous chorus where Petty and Nicks’ voices mingle in perfect, inventive harmony, proving Stevie Nicks’ worth as possibly the greatest harmony vocalist of her generation. Their voices exude raw power but incredible beauty together.
The same juxtaposition can be heard again on the live version of “Needles and Pins,”a Petty/Nicks semi-regular, which won inclusion on Petty’s 1986 live album Pack Up the Plantation, one of many on-stage collaborations through the years. They also sang versions of The Troggs’ “Wild Thing” on his 1981 tour, he loaned members of the band for Nicks’ own solo jaunt that year, and a version of “I Need to Know” became a highlight of the Heartbreakers’ live dates in 2006.
Theirs was a relationship free of the toxic dramas, of in-fighting, free even, at heart, of star power associations. When they came together, they were not the two glittering giants of the rock world, the fabled Petty and Nicks; they were simply Tom and Stevie, singing their songs, harmonizing, finding the perfect note. As Petty told the Toronto Sun in 2014, “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 there was also a classic theatre to their collaborations – the iconic early-MTV videos for “Insider” and “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” with close-up shots, to-camera stares, Stevie and her braided hair. Or their onstage chemistry, as seen on the below 2006 version of “Insider.” As she told MTV (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJKws1jk6wc), “It’s really easy for Tom and I to be theatrical onstage because we both like it.”
It is poignant and sad to realize that Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks will never collaborate again; there will never be any more on-stage surprises, or the promise of a wonderful new duet. Petty’s death brings to an end a long and beautiful musical relationship, but the legacy of the material they created together – spontaneous, heartfelt, full of musical passion – will continue to live on. It’s a quiet, special world of white and gold, and we have been fortunate to share it.