by Cortney Harding & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hen I was in college, I had a friend named Elizabeth Blue. I was an out-of-place Northwest indie kid at a hoity-toity East Coast liberal arts school, and I found my saving grace in the form of a Texan hippie philosophy major. When I started thinking about Tom Petty, a vision of Liz popped into my head, mostly because we used to take epic road trips and listen to the former Traveling Wilbury all the way. It sounds like a clich & eacute; -- two 20-year-olds roaming the back roads of Massachusetts, singing along with "Running Down a Dream" -- but in the end amounts to the quintessential Petty experience.

I have a feeling Tom Petty gets this, too, and not just because he named his latest record Highway Companion. It's rumored to be his last record, and he's also expected to announce his retirement from the road at the end of the current tour. Of course, he's not the first musician to play coy with the press about his intentions for hanging up his top hat, but he's also 55 years old, and he has lived the rock 'n' roll life.

The Petty bio is pretty much part of pop culture lore by now, but just to cover the bases: He started playing music at age 11 after he met Elvis, released his first CD with the Heartbreakers in the late '70s, hit it big in the early '80s, toured with the Traveling Wilburys in the late '80s and early '90s, made a bunch of iconic music videos, and always kept churning out albums. Although some of his efforts are stronger than others, it can be argued that Petty has never released a bad record.

If you play Petty's first record and latest record back to back, the most startling thing is how similar they sound. His lyrics are a little more mature and the production is slicker, but he's still singing the ballads of the common man, eschewing the Hollywood lifestyle and doing the verse-chorus-verse-solo-chorus song structure. He railed against greed and suburbanization in the '80s, sang about the marginalization of the white male in the '90s and, most recently, denounced the pathetic state of commercial radio on 2002's The Last DJ. He's not entirely polemical, though, and there are plenty of love songs (the soundtrack for the 1996 film She's the One) and songs about weed. (You didn't think "Mary Jane's Last Dance" was about soft-shoeing with a dead girl, did you?)

In the end, Tom Petty is one of those artists who just kind of sneaks up on you. He's the type of guy you never really consciously think about until you realize that you can sing along with most of his catalogue. I don't think I ever listened to one of his records outside of a car, but I know that when the wheels started turning, "Free Fallin'" came to me without a second thought. If you can afford the gas, this is the music that will keep you cruising through the night.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Arena with Trey Anastasio on Tuesday, Aug. 1, at 8 pm. Tickets: $45-$60. Visit or call 325-SEAT.

Book-Talk Teasers

Wed., Aug. 4, 1-2 p.m. and Wed., Aug. 18, 1-2 p.m.
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