JOYCE BASSETT Staff writer
Section: ARTS,  Page: I1

Date: Sunday, July 16, 2000

Three hours and one minute after Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band took the stage at Madison Square Garden on June 17, two twentysomething girls collapsed into the folding chairs in Row A, Section 2 that's front row, stage left and hugged each other. One yelled, ``We did it!''

``Did you guys get upgraded?'' I asked, referring to the lucky fans who are granted front-row seats to the greatest rock 'n' roll show on earth, thanks to a crowd-roaming, gift-bearing Santa Claus.

``We upgraded ourselves,'' one of the young girls said proudly.

``We came from back there,'' said the other.

Sure enough, they weren't wearing the plastic wristbands awarded to fans in jailbait seats that is, tickets in rows under 17. Jailbaits were treasure to Springsteen fans during the 1999-2000 reunion tour. To keep those seats in the hands of fans and out of the hands of scalpers, they could only be purchased over the telephone, with a two-ticket limit per venue, and picked up the day of the show.

The young fans down in front might one day realize what they were able to achieve. By working their way to the front row, they reached the front of the altar at the Church of Bruce. I know what drove them: They had to get up front; they needed to get close. The desire to be part of a Springsteen concert, not just an observer, can be overwhelming and powerful, forcing you to do things you would never do at any other concert.

I had been to that place once before. It was a Sunday night Nov. 12, 1978. I was 16 years old with a group of high school buddies. We upgraded ourselves all the way to the edge of the stage.

I can trace signifcant events in my life -- almost magically -- to Springsteen moments. It's not so unusual to get this wrapped up in another person's artistry. Art tends to do that to people. For some, a book leaves a lasting imprint. J.D. Salinger's ``Catcher in the Rye'' set the standard for its ability to directly relate to vast numbers of readers. Bruce says he learned more from a three-minute record than he ever learned in school: He scaled the walls of Graceland looking for Elvis; he credits listening to Hank Williams' ``My Bucket's Got a Hole in It'' for inspiring him to write ``The River,'' a song about his sister and her family.

Bruce Springsteen's reunion tour with the E Street Band was a way to remember the milestones and hope for more. Here are a few of my milestones.

`Darkness on the Edge of Town'

My relationship with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band began in the '70s. (This is a big deal to Springsteen fans if you were with him in the '70s, you are a true Springsteen veteran.) I talked my friends into buying $8 tickets to see the band perform at Houston Field House at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. A friend had witnessed Springsteen at the Palace Theatre in Albany just six months earlier, and we weren't going to miss the show this time around. This friend was the only one who'd seen him perform live, but we all knew his music.

We were in high school and we sat listening endlessly to Springsteen's latest album, ``Darkness on the Edge of Town,'' and the classic ``Born to Run'' in the bedroom of the house with the best stereo. On concert night, we sat in the back of the ice arena, about halfway up in the bleachers. For two hours, a lean-but-powerful, smiling-but-serious Bruce blasted us with a combination of new songs and his popular favorites.

When Bruce announced around 11 p.m., ``I'll be back for another set,'' we knew our school-night curfew was in jeopardy. We had a long, cold walk home. We also were experiencing something very special. The crowd clapped, cheered and went into a frenzy with each up-tempo song. A review of the show, published in the next afternoon's edition of the Knickerbocker News, read: ``It was an adventuresome show featuring rock 'n' roll as something other than nostalgia and featuring his particular brand of street-ballad singing at its gruffest and toughest.''

It was not a night to make curfew. It was the night of my baptism.

I can flip through my old vinyls and fast-forward through the next several years:

`The River'

My second Springsteen show, on Dec. 3, 1980, was a night to remember for many reasons. Here's the condensed version: Mike, a close friend from high school, took a six-hour drive to visit me in college. We shared a love of Bruce his first concert was the Troy show as well.

I proudly showed him my first article for the St. Bonaventure University school newspaper, headlined ``Bruce's album worth the wait.'' That weekend, we happened to go into a record store, where Springsteen tickets had gone on sale earlier in the day. We bought tickets, and few weeks later he came back for the concert, which turned out to be our first date. Our first kiss came during an incredible, knock-your-socks-off version of ``Rosalita.'' Three years later, we were married.

`Born in the U.S.A.'

Bruce-mania had taken over the country by the time Mike and I saw our third Bruce concert. On Monday, Sept. 9, 1985, we drove 275 miles from Tampa, Fla. where we were living and starting our careers to see Bruce and the E Street Band in the Orange Bowl in Miami. Our seats were bad, but Bruce used giant screens for the stadium tour. My most vivid impression was that we were in a strange land and Bruce was in even stranger land. The consummate bar-band performer was transformed into an arena-rocker. It didn't fit. Fans around us didn't even know the words to ``Thunder Road.'' It was worth the drive to see the tour of the year, but frustrating to have to share Bruce and the E Street Band with so many less-avid fans.

`Tunnel of Love'

We were living in Chicago for show No. 4. The ticket stub reads: ``Thursday, March 17, 1988, Bruce's `Tunnel of Love Express' tour featuring the E Street Band.'' Thankfully, the band was out of arenas and back at indoor venues.

In ``Songs,'' a coffee-table book by Bruce that reveals his writing process for his songs released during the past 25 years, he writes of this period: ``Trying to keep the kind of success we had with `Born in the U.S.A.' would have been a losing game. A glance at rock history would tell you as much. Artists with the ability to engage a mass audience are always involved in an inner debate as to whether the rewards compensate for the singlemindedness, energy, and exposure necessary to meet the demands of the crowd.''

This was reflected in the acoustic version of ``Born To Run'' we heard during the Chicago show. For longtime fans, this was another turning point. A good one.

`Lucky Town'/`Human Touch'

Our first child was born the day these two albums were released simultaneously, in 1992. We sent out announcements to our family on the East Coast from our sweet home in Chicago with copies of the CDs leaning up against our swaddled, sleeping beauty. Inside, it said ``Meet the new boss.'' Bruce himself was starting a family, which was reflected in many of the songs on ``Lucky Town,'' especially ``Living Proof:''

``Well now on a summer night in a dusky room

Come a little piece of the Lord's undying light

Crying like he swallowed the fiery moon

In his mother's arms it was all the beauty I could take

... Searching for a little bit of God's mercy

I found living proof''

Our first night out as a couple after having a child was seeing Bruce Springsteen with the ``other band'' he put together after disbanding his childhood buddies, the E Street Band. In ``Songs'' he explained: ``Both `Human Touch' and `Lucky Town' came out of a moment in which to find what I needed, I was going to have to let things go, change, try new things, make mistakes just live.''

My sister had a friend with seats up close, and we ventured from our middle-of-the-pack seats to see Bruce up close for a song or two. But it wasn't the same without the E Street Band. I returned to my seat a new mom, content, full of baby-sitter anxiety, and exhausted. Things certainly were different.

The Reunion Tour

When Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band announced plans for the 1999-2000 tour, I asked Toni, an office buddy, if she'd ever seen Bruce in concert. ``New Year's Eve, 1974, Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pa., across the city line,'' the Philly girl said of her first time. Since then, I don't think a day has gone by in the office when we haven't mentioned the tour, Bruce, ``The Sopranos'' TV series (E Streeter Steven Van Zandt is a cast member) or other related material (in the process becoming a running joke for our co-workers).

Springsteen started off his 1999 American leg of the reunion tour following a 35-show European warm-up last July with 15 sold-out shows in East Rutherford, N.J. He finished off just shy of a year later with 10 sold-out concerts in New York City. I read the set list of every show in between, and saw three shows, including the November concert in Albany. Toni saw seven.

The day the tickets went on sale for the Jersey shows, I was like a day trader during a market crash. I started at 10 a.m. working the phones and the Internet while having a garage sale. Shows were being added during the afternoon, climbing from the original five shows to 10 by midafternoon, when I gave up, ticketless, to get ready for guests coming to the house for a cookout. At about 9 p.m. I was showing Toni, one of my guests, how Internet sales worked and how Bruce added show after show all day long. To our surprise, another five shows had been added, and we snapped up seats. A ticket foul-up led to my colleague and me and my husband being granted... jailbait seats!

On Aug. 9, 1999, Toni saw her first show in 15 years. Mike and I saw our first E Street Band show in more than a decade. Finally seeing Bruce in Jersey was almost surreal after years of seeing him elsewhere in Florida and the Midwest.

After the show, I asked a guy who was sitting nearby how he knew the words to the unreleased show closer ``Land of Hope and Dreams.'' He said he could send me a version of the song and I gave him my business card. That touched off another bizarre moment: he was originally from Averill Park, he told me, and his first show had been the same as mine: Nov. 12, 1978, in Troy. Soon, he sent me a bootleg version of the Troy show, which, despite its sub-standard recording quality, is now a prized possession in my vast collection of memorabilia.

One of the final shows of the tour fell on my birthday, June 17, which was also the day before our 17th wedding anniversary. As if this was known to the rock 'n' roll gods, I lucked into, once again, jailbait seats! My husband and I had the time of our lives. I heard my favorite song, ``Atlantic City,'' performed that night as a rocking version of the acoustic track on ``Nebraska.'' We also heard ``Spirits in the Night'' a rarity from his first album that also was the most memorable song from the 1978 Troy show, as my clipping from the Knickerbocker News attests.

I upgraded myself with ease. Twenty-two years after the Troy show, I was back in the front row again. I laughed. I sang. I danced. I cried.

For the third time, I heard the same show-closer, ``Land of Hope and Dreams.'' Bruce said this song represents the band's rebirth and rededication to the fans. This time, I, too, knew the words:

``This train carries lost souls

This train carries brokenhearted,

This train, sweet souls departed,

This train carries fools and kings,

This train, hear the steel wheels singing,

This train, dreams will not be thwarted,

This train, faith will be rewarded,

This train, hear the big wheels singing,

This train, bells of freedom ringing.''

Faith, indeed, was rewarded. For me, and many, many other fans, the tour was a rededication of ourselves to a band, and a man and his music. He ended the tour July 1, telling fans, ``We'll be seein' ya.'' That's all we needed to hear. See you further on up the road, Bruce. FACTS:TRAMPS LIKE US What's next for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band is anyone's guess. He debuted several unreleased songs during the tour, including the controversial ``American Skin (41 Shots),'' a song about the death of Amadou Diallo. Many of the shows were filmed during the tour, especially during the Madison Square Garden final shows. Here's how to keep in touch with Bruce while waiting for something to materialize. www.backstreets.com -- The Web site of a great fan magazine for die-hard Bruce fans. Includes all setlists from the reunion tour.http://www.brucelegs.com An all-inclusive site, by fans Mary-Ellen Breton and her husband Rich, who organize auctions and other fund-raisers to raise money for sarcoma research and support services. Funds go to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in memory of Kristen Ann Carr, the daughter of Barbara Carr, who works for Springsteen as a tour manager, and stepdaughter of Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh. http://www.brucespringsteen.nl/ -- A fan site from fans in the Netherlands with wonderful information, including news links and the lyrics to Springsteen's new recordingshttp://www.luckytown.com Information on how to join the luckytown mailing list. Best source of information for impromptu Springsteen concerts.http://www.brucemaps.com -- A site offering guides to the Jersey Shore, Los Angeles and New York City by and for Springsteen fanshttp://home.theboots.net/theboots/ Bruce Springsteen. And more Bruce Springsteen.