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BRUCE ALMIGHTY

A three-hour religious experience in 1978 stirs the soul of a man on the brink of 30.

When I saw Bruce Springsteen for the first time in 1978, I had given up on rock 'n' roll as if it were a childish vice. I was 29, married with two kids and establishing a career. I owned a house in the suburbs with an orange tree and a white picket fence in the back yard. Every Saturday I mowed the grass.

I had grown up listening to the Beatles, James Brown, Motown, the Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, the Stones, the great Girl Groups produced by Phil Spector, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Bob Dylan. That music had meant more to me than anything I learned in school. It spoke to me in my darkest moments. It filled my teenage soul. Also, it had a good beat.

Disco and the Eagles left me cold. I was bewildered by glitter rock. Now and again I discovered a performer I liked, but as Elvis had once complained about a plodding musical arrangement: "Fellas, that don't move me. Let's get real, real gone for a change." I wanted to be 16 again. I wanted to get real, real gone.

When a friend secured front row seats to a show at Bayfront Center Auditorium in St. Petersburg for a Saturday in July, I only knew what I had been told: This guy Springsteen was pretty good. He already was a big star, having been on the covers of Time and Newsweek, but I couldn't have hummed Born to Run if you'd held a zip gun to my temple. When he took the stage, the place was half empty.

He played as if his life depended on it. And perhaps it did. At one point I remember thinking: "This isn't just a show. This guy wants to be here as much as we do.'' It was loud in there, between the guitars and the drums and the piano and the organ and the sax and the cheering, and I could understand few lyrics. But it didn't matter. The darkness, the passion and the humor was in music that managed to sound new and old at the same time. I had never seen a performer - I had never seen anyone - with that kind of energy. He was getting real, real gone and bringing us along for the ride.

On the third song, Spirits in the Night, he did something I couldn't imagine Jackson Browne or Linda Ronstadt ever doing: He leaped into the audience, as if he were one of us, and walked on the backs of the chairs for 60 feet, trusting us to catch him should he lose his balance.

Returning to the stage, he sang so hard spittle went flying. G-L-O-R-I-A segued into his own She's the One. He did a song about friendship and loyalty called Backstreets; in the middle he stopped, sat on the edge of the stage as if it were a sidewalk curb and with his hand on his chin seemed to make up a song on the spot about the end of a relationship with a lying girlfriend - and then he was back to Backstreets. He performed a split, then slid across the stage on his knees during Thunder Road. Rosalita was his own take on West Side Story but with a happy ending. Growing Up included a five-minute tale about going up to a mountain to ask God what he should do with his life. The Creator's answer: "Let it rock.''

His encore turned out to be, of all things, a 1961 chestnut called Quarter to Three, made famous by Gary U.S. Bonds, whom I had seen perform at the North Miami Armory when I was in love with Kathy Daley, age 13. Springsteen played a crazed 10-minute version. At one point, he feigned a faint, and his bandmates fanned him with towels and implored the crowd to bring their leader back to life with their cheers.

At the very end he ripped open his shirt, dropped to his knees and screamed like James Brown.

"I'MMMMM JUST A PRISONER - OF ROCK 'N' ROLLLLLLLL!''

He was. And so were we, for three glorious hours. We left exhausted.

I remember that show as if it were last night. I have seen him more than a dozen times since. I will be in the cheap seats at the Ford Amphitheatre on Saturday night.

I'm 60 now - about the same age as Bruce Springsteen. Once in a while it's still important to get real, real gone.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727. His latest book is "Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators."

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