Tom Petty, who died on Monday night (US time) at age 66, has left behind a legacy for friends and lovers, including his 'fiery, intense' chemistry with Stevie Nicks, a tortured first marriage, and the second wife he credited with saving his life.

Petty, a Southern hillbilly from Gainesville, Florida, escaped his dysfunctional home life with a father who was a drunk and "beat the living s**t" out of him, according to author Warren Zanes in Petty, The Biography.

As a young teen, Petty liked art, clothes and wearing his hair long after the Beatles arrived on the music scene, the Daily Mail reported.

His parents thought he was gay, but it wasn't so - Petty had an eye for the ladies.

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If a girl in junior high school didn't show him the same attraction he felt for her, he was traumatised and felt paralysed.

"When I got my feelings hurt, I really couldn't have felt worse. It was physical. My throat clamped up, and I just wanted to die.

"As a young man and as a child... I was very sensitive, too delicate. When it came to emotional stuff, I could break like a twig.

Petty met Jane Benyo, his first wife, when they were both in high school.

Nicks, who had a longtime friendship with Petty, once asked Jane when she'd met him.

"She said, 'I met him at some point during the age of 17'," she told Billboard.

"But I thought she said, 'The edge of 17'. I said, 'Jane, can I use that? Can I write a song called Edge of Seventeen?'"

The young couple lived together in Gainseville as Petty's band evolved and his ambitions grew.

Petty met Jane Benyo, his first wife, when they were both in high school.
Petty met Jane Benyo, his first wife, when they were both in high school.

Smoking cigarettes and "herb", playing songs and talking about how to make a record demo was a daily ritual with band members. The plan evolved to head for the promised land - Hollywood.

Jane insisted they get married before they left Florida.

Tom didn't want to, but honored his mother's request to do "the right thing".

California was everything he dreamed it would be.

Petty rented a small house in Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley and Jane started having babies - two girls - but this wasn't the life that she envisioned.

It was a lonely existence with Tom rarely home. So she got high and drank to ease her loneliness and isolation.

Tom's music was drawing other artists to him and one of those seduced by the music was singer Stevie Nicks, from Fleetwood Mac, who suggested even before she met him that she would leave her monumentally successful Fleet group and joined what was by then Petty and the Heartbreakers.

There was a chemistry that Stevie called "intense, fiery" as they worked and played together.

She was doing a lot of drugs when she first showed up and indulged Jane who embraced it.

"Petty's friendship with Nicks would finally be one of the few human constants in his life outside of his band, management, and crew. She'd come in and out over decades," his biographer wrote.

"She came into my life like a rocket, just refusing to go away," Petty told the author.

Even Stevie realised there was a deep sense of connection in Tom and Jane Petty's marriage - but it was a troubled dream that was falling apart.

Petty arrived home from recordings session to find Jane passed out in the hallway - not from liquor alone.

Touring on the road doing a lot of coke and then back home only briefly before hitting the road again and consuming more coke, Petty was now a rock 'n' roll star but his family life was decimated.

By 1984, he knew he was leaving his marriage.

Tom considered canceling an eighteen-month road tour with Bob Dylan in 1986, because Jane was losing a fight with mental illness at their home in Encino, but Stevie convinced him to go.

Stevie went along as well, "having a great time" and joining them on stage.

Back in Los Angeles and off the road, Tom left his wife, moved into a house in the Pacific Palisades and suffered terrible pain and guilt over leaving his family.

"Jane would call regularly, obsessively, and threaten suicide if he said he was hanging up," writes Zanes.

With his life changing and the emotional walls that Petty had formed in childhood, he was sinking into a deep depression.

He entered therapy before getting divorced.

A life of hell in Gainesville had segued into an abusive marriage.

Tom Petty and his wife Dana arrive for the gala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 2007. Photo / AP
Tom Petty and his wife Dana arrive for the gala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 2007. Photo / AP

Nobody realised though that Tom was now using heroin - not even Stevie.

"I would never imagine, not in a million years that Tom Petty would start using heroin," Stevie said.

"I mean, we used to sit around and drink, and we did coke and smoked pot - and that was hard enough on us.

"But if you'd have said to me that Tom Petty was doing that, I wouldn't have believed you for a second."

Tom met Dana York, who would become his second wife, at one of his concert in Texas in the early 90s, but they didn't reconnect until 1996 when Dana's first marriage was over.

Tom and Dana both felt as though they had known each other their entire lives and were fast falling in love.

Tom was using heroin, but didn't want Dana to know and kept it from her for a long time - while Jane called obsessively and threatened suicide.

"I'd stepped onto a fast-moving train, but we were having moments of tremendous happiness. Chaos and darkness and all this happiness at the same time," Dana Petty told the author.

But the elephant in the room was heroin.

Petty's therapist told him that "People with your level of depression don't live. They kill themselves or someone else".

"He was a man playing at the edge of death," says the author.

It was Dana who saved him, Petty admits.

Dana's own father struggled with addiction most of his life so she understood the complications and was willing to stand by him.

Tom was hospitalised when he admitted to his therapist that he was a drug addict.

"They shoot this drug into you that literally drives the heroin out and your body goes into spasms. It forces the detox process." Two days later, he woke up.

Back home, a doctor came daily for months to administer a medication that blocked the effects of an opiate.

Dana was there waiting when he came through it all and Petty put his relationships with his daughters back together after being emotionally absent for years.