Bruce Springsteen has long since passed beyond the stereotypes: the future of rock 'n' roll, the critics' darling, the blue-collar Bob Dylan. He is a real rock phenomenon, the best and hardest-working live entertainer in the business. And his fans -- 40,000 in two nights here -- are no longer primarily what he calls rock "veterans." They're young, male and female, and they have no other gods before him.

But Springsteen will be no idol. "I didn't want to be a rock star," he said backstage on Monday night. "Rock star -- that's like . . . celebrity bowling or 'Hollywood Squares,' I wanted to be a rocker, a rock 'n' roller." b

That eerie paean, "Bruuuuuuuuuce," swells between songs like a monsoon wind. Within the songs, a fraction of a second behind every opening chord, the audience erupts, screaming, hammering their upraised fists against the air, singing not just the choruses but the verses to numbers written six and seven years ago.

Sometimes Springsteen commands them, pointing his microphone into the crowd like Charlton Heston before the Red Sea. Sometimes they volunteer: Both nights, the Cap Centre crowds spontaneously delivered the first verse of "Hungry Heart" back to their leader: "I got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack/I went out for a ride and I never went back."

The fans know every sidestreet in Springsteen's lexicon of narrow lives hooked to taillight passions: Rosalita's cafe; the Jersey strip where "me and my buddy" shut down dragsters from all over the state; the Harlem homecoming of the Magic Rat; "the local cops, cherry tops"; the streets of fire, the factory, the dream-dead darkness of the edge of town.

They have turned his songs into anthems of defiance: "The dogs on Main Street howl 'cause they understand/If I could take one moment into my hands/Mister I ain't a boy, no I'm a man" -- and then exultant, resurrected -- "And I believe in a promised land!"

And out before them, messianic and demonic, burning cold in blue light and searing in red, rages the Boss -- leaping onto the amplifiers, riding the piano, finally tossing himself as an offering into the arms of his supplicants. p

This is as hot as it comes. The fever, the desire -- it will never be higher or more precarious. The epitaphs of burned-out and bought-out rockers run at regular intervals across the past 20 years like Burma Shave teasers. At 31, Springsteen neither forgets nor fears the heat.

"You have to separate the magic from the person. . . You have to remember what it is the audience came to hear. It takes self-knowledge, a certain vigilance and being as straight with yourself as you possibly can.

"You have to concentrate, you have to have a focus and discipline, to keep hold of what you want. Day after day, TV tells you that things make you happy.Buying things makes you happy, material things. Steve [van Zandt] and I used to say we wanted some big Cadillac -- 'We wanna be just like the Rolling Stones' -- but you start to get big and something happens -- you find out the shoes don't fit.

"This whole generation of musicians is lucky.They have before them a living, breathing example [of burnout] -- they have Elvis Presley. You look at his early work, and all you can see is the beauty, the vitality. Even his last TV show. He still had it here" -- he jerks a finger toward his gut, then taps his forehead -- "but he didn't feel it here."

Springsteen may believe it's possible to separate the superman from the music ("what's flesh and what's fantasy," as he says in "Jungleland"), but it is not clear that the audience makes that distinction, "The King Is Dead -- Long Live the Boss!" scream the hand-painted banners around the arena.

Springsteen will play Madison Square Garden two nights next week and two more in December. When the announcement for mail orders went out, enough requests were received for 16 packed houses.

Sunday and Monday nights, Springsteen faced fanatic Capital Centre crowds of 20,000 each while hundreds more hungered at the doors for spare seats. His new two-record release, "The River," entered the charts at No. 3 with a bullet, the highest break-in in memory. The Boss is back, all right, and this time not with a following but with an army.

After the four-hour show on Monday, in his third dry shirt of the night and a sprained ankle strapped in high work boots, Bruce Springsteen looked at the future of his rock 'n' roll, and it was still Bruce Springsteen.

"I was lucky to find out when I was 15 what it was that made me happy. And that was playing in a band with people I really liked, traveling around and just playing. People say, 'It must've been rough, coming up the hard way,' but it never felt like that."

Even 10 years ago in Asbury Park, when the band played all night for pizza and everybody played pinball for junk food, they were content.

"We spent a lot of time sleeping on the floor, arguing about who got to keep the mattress -- well, Clarence always got the mattress," he says, laughing: Clarence Clemmons, the 6-foot-4 onetime NFL, hopeful is as big as any other two band members.

"And we used to drive 13 hours in the station wagon all together, and there was the usual moaning, you know, but nothing serious. And we never thought life could be any better."

Now, the star burns so hot it seems that he must burn out, that the hundreds of thousands will become thousands or hundreds again.

Springsteen leans back into the dressing room couch. "I don't think the [new] audience came just because Big Brother says it's the hip place. I think they feel the same way about it as we do.

"So I'm not afraid of losing it. I was happy playing bars in New Jersey. Last week I sat in with a bar band in Seattle, Wash., and I felt the same way then . . . and the same way tonight.

"It's getting out there and playing the best you can. If I'm disappointed in myself for some reason, you could sleep in the softest bed and it would be a bed of nails on a night like that. You can't buy or sell your way out of that feeling."

And when Mick Jagger has given up "Satisfaction" for the more mundane joys of middle age, Springsteen will still be rocking.

"I'm a musician. I'll be a musician when I'm 50."