LOS ANGELES

I remember when it started: May 31, 1974, the day I first heard Bruce Springsteen.

But I don't remember precisely when I lost control. Maybe it was the following spring, when I left a party at midnight and drove across town to get my Springsteen records because nobody would believe me about him.

Maybe it was August 1975, when I went to the record stores every day for a month because I heard Bruce's "Born to Run" album was about to come out and I had to have it the day it hit the stores.

Maybe it was 1976, when I spent the night on the sidewalk in front of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium waiting for tickets to go on sale; or 1978, when I flew to San Francisco to see a single Springsteen show.

Maybe it was 1980, when I went to San Francisco for two shows, drove all night to get back home immediately after the second show, saw four consecutive shows in Los Angeles -- and then, already having seen six shows in two weeks, got behind the wheel and drove 600 miles to Phoenix to see him one more time.

Or maybe it was 1984 and '85, when I saw 18 shows: all 11 shows he did in Los Angeles, all four in Oakland and the first three of the tour in Minnesota. To get to those, I arranged a business trip to the East Coast so that I'd be heading west at the time Bruce was beginning his tour, and then convinced a newspaper to pick up the extra expenses in exchange for an opening-night review.

Whenever it happened, I'm a Springsteen fanatic. I'm writing this the morning after my 42nd Bruce show, the last performance of his 15-month, worldwide "Born in the U.S.A." tour. "I'm exhausted, my ears are still ringing, and my wife just called in sick because rearranging her life for late-night, open-air concerts has taken its toll. But if Bruce Springsteen decided to do another show tonight in, say, San Diego, I'd hop in the car and hit the road.

It's a rough life. When tickets go on sale, I wait in line overnight to buy them, just in case my music-industry contacts don't work out. I buy his records as soon as they come out, even though I'll be getting copies in the mail. I buy import copies of his singles because the lettering on the sleeve is a different color or the photos are different.

Once a year, I throw a mock birthday party for Springsteen. I take everything off the walls and put up four dozen Bruce posters and photos; I turn on my Springsteen neon sign; I stick my 35 backstage passes to the kitchen walls; and I play Bruce videos and Bruce records and Bruce tapes. Then I watch people who've never been over before nervously mutter "Nice place" when they clearly think I'm a wacko who lives in a perpetual Springsteen shrine.

I have one friend who has her own Springsteen birthday party. I have other friends I'd never have met without a mutual interest in Bruce. And if my wife hadn't liked Springsteen . . . well, sometimes I wonder.

In the middle of Springsteen's seven consecutive L.A. shows last fall, I got a call from writer Mikal Gilmore, who'd been convinced partly by my enthusiasm to try the seeing-Bruce-every-night regimen. "I woke up this afternoon and realized I only had a few hours before I had to be down at the Sports Arena again," Mikal groaned. "I thought, 'My God, I've got the Steve Pond Disease!' "

Mikal still goes to every Springsteen show. This year he also went to the Washington and Oakland shows. He doesn't call it the Steve Pond Disease anymore. He's hooked, and we get along very nicely.

Bruce Springsteen makes great rock 'n' roll records and he's been a heck of a nice guy the handful of times we've talked. But is that any reason to drop everything whenever his tour enters the Pacific time zone?

I don't know. It's not like Bruce saved my life or kept me from going crazy or anything like that. Sure, he restored my passion for rock 'n' roll at a time when it was hard to sustain and in that way was probably responsible for the start of my writing career. But that was when I was still in my teens. Now I'm 30, and it's getting harder to explain why a passion for one rock-and-roller can reorder my life at regular intervals.

I know that when I first put on a Springsteen record -- which I bought for myself on my birthday in 1974, because I'd heard good things about the guy and figured it was worth a shot -- the wildly romantic menagerie of characters and the unrestrained wash of musical influences left me open-mouthed by the middle of the second song. I know that when I first saw him two months later, even at that early stage, he was the greatest live performer I'd ever seen.

And I know that I'm still as impressed, though the freewheeling romantic of those early records has grown into a writer more focused, realistic and sober-minded, and a showman who has by now perfected the rock concert. But that's not why I act like such a maniac. For that, you'll have to start with the standard reasons: Because every night is different. Because you never know what he's going to do. Because in a single Springsteen show is a range as all-encompassing as the work of half a dozen other artists, from monumental silliness to heartbreaking compassion to raging determination. Because on any given night when Springsteen is playing, there is nothing I would rather do. And because Bruce has never done a show that's made me think that attitude was a mistake.

(In case my last shreds of critical credibility haven't all flown out the window, I ought to add that this doesn't mean I love every show the guy does: Lately I think his second set has been too short and the concerts were a little too pat and he should've done "Backstreets" or "Point Blank" or "Racing in the Street" occasionally, and it worries me when I can lip-synch his raps as well as his songs . . . But then, I do the same thing every night he's in town; why shouldn't he? Besides, the show I saw last night was completely wonderful and I'm not in a critical mood.)

On a Springsteen tour, every night's song list is different -- but what's more important is that seeing a string of shows gives you a ringside seat at a process that's unique in rock and roll. Night to night, you can see changes made, limits tested, experiments tried and adopted or discarded, themes explored.

It came into focus last year when he did seven shows at the L.A. Sports Arena. Midway through the engagement he decided to drop "Rosalita," the raucous rocker that had been his closing number for a decade. Instead of substituting another rave-up song, he chose "Racing in the Street," a chilling ballad about lost opportunities. Every night, the song got better; every night, he rearranged both the set and the song and darkened the complexion of what was once a flat-out party-time set. He started talking over the song's instrumental introduction, slipping into the character of a weary hot rodder whose wife hides the keys to keep him from heading down to the drag.

"It got hard to make her understand," he'd say softly, "that when I took the car out, and when I won, it was the only time I got to feelin' good about myself." The lines could as easily apply to a kid with a guitar: "And that to have just one thing in your whole life that makes you proud of yourself -- that's not too much for anybody to ask. Not too much at all." Then he'd ease into the song, stretching out its ending until you thought the slow, mournful music said all there was to say -- and then capping his tale of one last shot at redemption with a whisper: "That was the night that we left. We still don't know where we're going, but I guess that'll come in time. As for this place, we'll always remember it." Then, with the crowd quietly expecting "Rosalita," he'd walk offstage.

Every night, it was worth the trip downtown and the $15 tickets just to see what he'd do with that song.

There are plenty of others like me out there, and a good many of them make my fanaticism look mild. Springsteen maniacs surround you, and unless you know the warning signs we're a deceptive lot. We don't wear Bruce T-shirts to work. We can carry on adult conversations about politics or books or movies or the weather. If someone says, "Nice day," we don't automatically retort, "Yeah, like when I saw Bruce at the Roxy in '75."

But when Bruce gets ready to put out a record, we start acting antsy. When tickets go on sale we're on the phone a lot, exchanging details about the least-trafficked ticket outlets and planning our strategies. When Bruce comes to town we're exhausted the morning after every show.

And we can also be possessive, especially now that Bruce is the favorite of people whose older brothers and sisters never believed us when 10 years ago we sang the praises of "The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle." On a recent Op-Ed page of the Los Angeles Times, for example, writer Bob Baker spoke for lots of longtime Springsteen fans: "Thousands of you people jamming those concerts discovered Springsteen sometime last week," he snapped, "and have proclaimed yourself rock-ribbed fans. You're not . . . Are you listening, Miss Woodland Hills High School Sophomore With the Daddy's-Money-Fourth-Row Tickets, who thinks 'Jungleland' is a Disneyland ride? . . . You think 'Kitty's Back in Town' is a song from 'Cats.' "

The guy's got a point, but he blew it. The name of the song isn't "Kitty's Back in Town." It's "Kitty's Back."

See, we're a demanding lot, and we find it hard to share Bruce Springsteen when he's changed from our private secret to some sort of national icon. It's hard to share him with the teen-age girls in front of me on Monday, who danced themselves silly during "I'm Goin' Down" and "Glory Days" but sat during "Thunder Road." It's hard to share him with the guy next to me last Sunday who yelled "Yo, dude!" every time Bruce started talking. It's hard to share him with the pickup truck full of rowdies who barreled past me last weekend blaring "Dancing in the Dark" and shouting "SPRINGSTEEEEEEEN!" (Don't they know the appropriate yell is "BROOOOCE!"?

But elitism like this is dumb. Bruce Springsteen has welcomed his other fans and so should we. He's marvelously reassuring and convenient as a private obsession -- an easy way to prove to yourself you've got good taste -- but he's far more important as a national treasure. Sure, some fans misinterpret "Born in the U.S.A." and come to the shows to hear the singles from the latest album, but they'd have to be pretty dense not to come away with more than that. And even if that's all they get, it's still the best party in town, and who am I to deny anybody an invitation when Bruce Springsteen's given them one?

So I go to all the shows, not with the stunned euphoria that hits most people the first time they see him, but with an eye for the changes, the tunes that hit home each particular night, the special moments. After 11 years, 42 concerts and untold people questioning my sanity, I've got plenty of those moments to treasure.

I remember the first time, when a 24-year-old in a white tank top and gray slacks came onstage in front of a handful of people who'd come to the Santa Monica Civic to see Dr. John (and some of us who'd come for "Bruce Springstein," as some ads put it). His 40-minute show opened the eyes of everyone in the place; when it was over and he simply had to do an encore, he pulled out a 20-minute version of his meandering, atmospheric ballad "New York City Serenade."

I remember seeing him two weeks after his 1975 Time and Newsweek cover stories in the gym of a university two hours north of L.A., hitting his stride with a show far more explosive than the heralded ones he'd done in town. After two encores the crowd simply refused to leave; Bruce came out alone, sat down at the piano and turned "For You" from an up-tempo rock song into a surpassingly poignant ballad.

I remember spending the night on the sidewalk in front of the Roxy in 1978 because Springsteen, who'd just played the 18,000-seat Forum, wanted to do a smaller show. That show ended with Bruce and his band dragged out of the showers because, once again, nobody would go home. He did "Twist and Shout," and I nearly fell off my chair.

I remember driving from L.A. to Phoenix in 1980, good-naturedly complaining to a CBS staffer about my seats and ending up with the front-row center seats Springsteen saves for every performance. The day before, Ronald Reagan had been elected president; that night, Springsteen stopped near the end of the first set and said, "I don't know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it's pretty frightening." Then he tore into "Badlands" -- his rock-hard tale of grim determination to survive -- with a fury almost too much for even that masterful song to contain.

I remember a week ago, when in front of 85,000 fans at the L.A. Coliseum he told "the young people" in the audience that "blind faith in your leaders, in 1985, will get you killed." Then he blasted into Edwin Starr's antiwar song "War" ("War! What is it good for? Absolutely nuthin'!"), in one of his most surprising and exhilarating covers ever.

And I remember the last night of his 1985 tour. He told the crowd it had been the best year of his life, asked us not to let him down and finished with a giddy version of, appropriately enough, "Glory Days." A few songs earlier, though, he'd given the crowd one of the sweetest benedictions imaginable with a soaring version of his "Bobby Jean." The song ends with the image of a traveler hearing Bruce's song while out on the road: "If you do, you'll know I'm thinking of you and all the miles in between/ And I'm just calling one last time, not to change your mind/ But just to say I miss you baby/ Good luck, goodbye, Bobby Jean."

There have been lots of other moments: songs that hit their peak one night, sets that made me wonder if rock and roll could ever get any better, nights that fulfilled every promise the music ever made. And as someone who, for better or worse, has gotten some of his greatest joys and most profound emotional experiences through popular music, I can say that every time I've listened to Bruce he's shown me that my enthusiasm isn't misplaced.

"Enthusiasm," I guess, is the key word. It may be a little late for this kind of disclaimer, but I'm writing about enthusiasm -- ridiculous, over-the-edge, wide-eyed enthusiam -- rather than hero worship. I had a great time during the last Springsteen tour, but I'm not going into mourning now that it's over. After all, blind faith in your rockers isn't a very good idea, either.

Springsteen himself says it every night during "Thunder Road." "I ain't no hero, that's understood," he sings, "And all the redemption I can offer is beneath this dirty hood."

Hey, Bruce, I understand. But thanks for some of that redemption, and I'll see you next time around.

Steve Pond is a writer based in Los Angeles.