This is what it's like to be a veteran bar band at the Jersey shore:

You play a Friday night dance at St. Joe's Regional High School, where the kids are screaming for Led Zeppelin, and the keyboardist notes sourly that he has a son older than most of the audience.

The 13-year-old truck that carries your sound equipment -- you've already rebuilt the engine once -- breaks down every couple of months, generally just before an important date.

You arrange a showcase at a local studio and eight or 10 record company scouts drive down from New York to hear you because music seems to flow through the drinking water down here and the Artists & Repertoire guys pay attention. Acts get signed here. Reputations get made. But the A&R guys tell you they like your songs but you don't sweat enough. Or you look too muscular when rock stars are supposed to be ethereally frail.

"This is what I'm dealing with here," mutters Vinny Daniele, bassist and unofficial leader of the perennial bridesmaid band called Cats on a Smooth Surface. "You gotta have a heart of stone in this business."

But then there are the nights you wind up your regular Sunday gig at the Stone Pony and Springsteen climbs onto the stage, grabs the mike and a spare guitar and you careen through "Twist and Shout" and there is no comparable high, legal or otherwise.

This will be the seventh Memorial Day weekend that Cats on a Smooth Surface have rung in summer at the Stone Pony, playing other people's rock 'n' roll with verve and professionalism, the compleat cover band. Meanwhile, Arista Records is shipping copies of a charity single called "We Got the Love" to stores and radio stations; the Cats play on it along with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, the E Street Band and Bruce himself, all part of an amorphous group called JAM '86, Jersey Artists for Mankind. What with the JAM video and the JAM concerts coming up in the next few weeks (Springsteen's not expected, but audiences will swell in anticipation anyway), this could be the project that propels a bar band from Asbury Park to major labeldom.

This is what it's like to be a veteran bar band anywhere, but especially here, on the Boss' home turf, made famous by his "Greetings From Asbury Park." There's always something coming up here -- a demo, a gig -- that could be the break you need; at the same time there's always the routine of learning new hits and playing old clubs. Around you eddy the musicians who got close and didn't make it, back playing in cover bands after albums that bombed, but also the ones who shared your turf and then connected, like red-haired Patty Scialfa, a Cats hanger-on harmonizing with the band one Sunday when Bruce came by and zap, she was a featured singer on the Born in the U.S.A. tour.

Your own destiny could lie in either direction. What can you do but keep them dancing and keep the faith?

The Stone Pony is across from the beach and Boardwalk, down the street from Madam Marie's Temple of Knowledge. All have become Springsteen shrines -- Madam Marie gives more interviews lately than Madonna. Deejay Lee Mrowicki keeps a sign-in sheet at the Pony for the pilgrims who drift through; under the heading "Your Hometown" the visitors write Alexandria, Hartford, Los Angeles, Yokohama.

Still, the Stone Pony remains an unprepossessing place: fake brick walls, stained-glass lamps that say Michelob, photos of softball games (Cats is 3 and 3 this season; the E Street Band hasn't fielded a team since bassist Garry Tallent sprained a finger and kept the band out of the studio for a month). This being Sunday, the black banner that says "CATS on a Smooth Surface" has been hung above the stage.

It sometimes seems that every musician in town has passed through Cats during one or another of its eight years on the shore circuit. At present, however, it's a five-man band.

Vinny, who's 33, has been at the helm since another Cat left to join the Jukes last year. A couple of hours ago he was relaxing in his coordinated beige living room, a suburban husband and homeowner, laughing philosophically about The Business. Then it was 9:30, time to go to work, so he changed into his black pants and denim vest and the boots that pinch after a couple of hours on stage, wrapped a red bandanna around one wrist and stashed his bass in the trunk of his Pontiac. Picking up lead guitarist Garry Grant, 27, he headed for the club.

As Vinny and Garry stroll in, singer Ray Anderson -- at 26 the youngest Cat, and the one whose poster will grace teen-aged girls' bedrooms the day a Cats album goes gold -- is already checking the PA system. Drummer Mike Bovenzi, 34, is back in the cinder block "musicians' lounge" combing his pompadour. Hans-Peter (Pete) Schulle, 37, the only original, though not continuous, Cat, is sitting at the bar. Pete, Mike and Joel Krauss, the ex-Cat who founded and named the band, formed an offshoot group called the Diamonds a few years back so they could play their own material. When their incomes hit food-stamp levels, the Diamonds dissolved.

By 10 p.m., there are about 200 people, some in Cats T-shirts, sitting at tables or hugging the bar as deejay Mrowicki announces, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Stone Pony proudly presents Cats on a Smooth Surface." They are still sitting, applauding politely between numbers, as the band chugs through "No Sorrow" and "She's Got the Right Time" and the other "originals" Vinny works into each gig between the old Motown and the Mellencamp covers. "That was some of our own stuff," Ray announces, unnecessarily. It doesn't bother him to play six original songs without luring more than four people onto the dance floor, Vinny says afterward. "They're listening," he insists. Still, 20 minutes without a recognizable tune makes audiences twitchy and bartenders nervous (dancers get thirstier). There's a collective sense of release when Pete cranks up "Great Balls of Fire," followed by "Do Wah Diddy," some vintage Tommy James and Springsteen's "I'm Goin' Down."

Cats plays two hour-and-a-quarter sets, something old (the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City"), something new (Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love," this summer's must-play for cover bands) and a lot that's borrowed. "Put on your Capezios and snap your fingers," Pete advises, segueing into "My Gal Is Red Hot." Until the 2 a.m. closing, the dance floor never empties. People are cheering drunkenly. Jersey girls in halter tops are snapping pictures of the band.

There are times, maybe twice in a six-night summer week, when this -- the sweaty dancers, the old songs, the boys in the band -- is enough. But it's not what Cats most wants to be doing, playing other people's music. It's not what anyone gets into rock 'n' roll to do.

One recent week night, playing a Charlie Sexton tune for a lukewarm crowd and trying to stave off boredom, Vinny and the guys started messing with the background vocals -- instead of "so lonely, so lonely," they were crooning "sa-la-mi, ba-lo-ney" -- just to see if anyone noticed. No one did.

In some towns, the escape route for the ambitious young is boxing or basketball; here it's rock 'n' roll. The shore has the clubs. It has studios. It will have, by July 4, the Asbury Park Rock 'n' Roll Museum housed in the Palace Amusements arcade (cf. "Born to Run").

And it has the role models. The Sunday night regulars at the Stone Pony before Cats were the Jukes. Little Steven (a k a Miami Steve) Van Zandt, producer of the Sun City antiapartheid project, is a local. John Eddie, a Philadelphian who came to play the shore spots, is getting airplay for his new CBS album. Glen Burtnick, who just signed with A&M, is a former member of Cats. And Springsteen, of course, hovers over the whole scene, part patron saint, part thorn in the flesh.

Two summers ago, before "Born in the U.S.A.," he was jamming on stage with Cats nearly every Sunday. In fact, then-Cats guitarist Bobby Bandiera was so widely rumored to be replacing the departing Van Zandt in the E Street Band that he got his 15 minutes of Warholian fame -- mentions on MTV and in People magazine. When Springsteen anointed Nils Lofgren instead (locals were stunned; the man wasn't even from New Jersey), Bandiera accepted an invitation to join the Jukes.

Vinny Daniele had a similar option -- he and Bandiera had sung background vocals on the last Jukes album -- but wavered. He could be someone else's hired gun, he figured. Or he could hold out for the whole fantasy: his own band, Cats on a Smooth Surface, making records and making it big. He stayed to rebuild Cats and launch its latest attempt to Get Signed.

Did it help or hurt that the guy singing lead on "Proud Mary" those Sunday nights was Bruce Springsteen? "It didn't do a damn thing for the band," says former Cat Krauss (now half of a lounge duo and principal writer of JAM's "We Got the Love"). "The only people it helped were the people who own the Stone Pony."

"It was great for the band," argues Pete Schulle. "We got national exposure. People all over heard of us."

"The blessing and the curse," hedges an A&R man for a major record label. "It's great to be given attention because Bruce's interested in the band and deems it worthy of support. Yet you're bound to be overshadowed ultimately, to be remembered as, 'Oh, that's the band that Bruce played with.' "

Vinny is working double time to try to keep that from happening. "We realized that a bar band is gonna stay a bar band," he says. "You're not going to have the vice president of Columbia Records come into a bar and say, 'Wow, these guys are good; let's sign 'em.' You have to do something about it."

Last summer, the band worked up a dozen originals and announced two showcase performances at a local studio. Vinny describes this ordeal as "three $450 suits staring at you and tapping their pencils. They walk out with poker faces: They don't want to let on if they like you because you'll ask for more money, but if they hate you they'll applaud anyway, so you don't know."

But three labels said they'd like to hear a Cats demo tape. At the JAM recording session last winter, Vinny worked up the nerve to ask E Streeter Garry Tallent to produce one. By next month, the band expects to have four professionally produced songs on tape to circulate.

The JAM concerts and video won't hurt either. Lee Mrowicki's intent in organizing JAM was to raise money for shelters and community food banks, not to promote local musicians. But that may be the result, he acknowledges. The Cats' music "is so accessible, good pop, the stuff you hear on the radio," he says. "Someone eventually will say, 'These guys are ready.' "

If you were completely cold-eyed about the prospects, you'd conclude that someone had better say that soon. How long can a bar band keep playing for 21-year-olds? How long can Cats on a Smooth Surface, three of whom are married, three of whom have mortgages, keep the faith? How many bar bands anywhere ever break out of obscurity?

But part of the mythology of rock 'n' roll is that those who stay with it are redeemed by it. You pay your dues, you keep at it past all reason, and someday you play the Garden.

"It's like being in the minor leagues and you know you can hit and you know you can field and you're not getting a chance because no one sees you," Vinny explains. "If you have that feeling, I don't think you can rest until you've given it your best shot."

This summer could be it, he's thinking. But he's trying, trying hard, to stay steady. "You gotta keep on an even keel," he tells the others.

"When things are going good, like now, you can't think you'll be Mick Jagger tomorrow.

"When things are going wrong, you can't think you shoulda been driving a cab."