The Boss rocks on

During one interminably smoldering small-town summer in the mid-’70s, a scruffy guy from Jersey changed my life.

No, he wasn’t some renegade biker or vagabond hippie prophet, come South to make all the girls swoon. He was a poet, though — one who seemed to be speaking directly to me: “Baby, this town rips the bones from your back/it’s a death trap/it’s a suicide rap/gotta get out while you’re young/’cause tramps like us/baby we were born to run.” Later on in “Born to Run,” the delicious “Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims/and strap your hands cross my engines” — delivered in Bruce Springsteen’s primordial growl — seemed thrillingly illicit to my pubescent heart. My fate was sealed as his self-proclaimed soul mate (oh, the cruel innocence of youth, which made me believe I was the only one).

And “Born to Run,” of course, became my anthem.

Springsteen spoke of a world marked by long, lonely (but excruciatingly alluring) highways that led somewhere — especially if you drove a fast car and had nothing to lose.

And, yes, I did get out while I was young — escaping from my tiny mountain hamlet to California, with $300 and a borrowed car.

Many years and many miles later, my musical tastes have changed a bit. I lean toward the dark and twangy and slightly discordant, these days. But one thing never changed: the memory of how Bruce’s street poetry set to song — about furtive make-out sessions in fallen-to-ruin drive-ins on lonely beach roads, and cruising desolate late-night strips in the New Jersey wasteland, and falling in love with that perilously reckless person who’s dead-on wrong for you — has defined a fatalistic but romantically charged wild side that’s with me to this day.

My dream was always to see Springsteen and his E-Street Band live, up close and personal. It took two-and-a-half-decades to realize that dream, but it happened in Charlotte on April 21 (after an ill-fated road trip to Philadelphia a few months ago, when a bona-fide hurricane shut down the one concert — out of three the band was playing in that city — for which I had tickets).

Suffice it to say, it was worth the wait.

In the darkened Charlotte Coliseum, a prolonged moan — which, of course, was the trademark, collective cry of “Br-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-ce” that precedes The Boss’ every venture into a public arena — reached a fever pitch just as a line of eight dusky figures ascended the stage, guided by pinpoint lights. Keyboardists Roy Bittan and Danny Federici were the first to land, followed by bassist Garry Tallent, drummer Max Weinberg, guitarists Nils Lofgren and Steve Van Zandt, and — to the biggest roar yet from the crowd — “The Big Man” (a.k.a. inimitable, brilliant saxophonist Clarence Clemons). Finally, The Boss himself — wielding his beloved Fender — hit center stage. The scream I heard was my own — magnified some 20,000 times. (E-Street Band backup vocalist Patti Scialfa, who is also Springsteen’s wife, was missing on the Charlotte leg of the band’s international-reunion tour.)

For the next three-plus hours, the crowd seemed to forget that most of us — including the boys in the band — were well into middle age.

Springsteen moaned, hollered, craggily crooned and pelvic-thrusted his way through both classics and surprising new offerings — channeling, at one memorable point, the zeal of an old-time evangelist. In a prolonged version of his glorious “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” — which segued into, of all things, the Talking Heads’ “Take Me to the River” — he transformed himself into a fire-and-brimstone preacher as he introduced the band. “Brother Clarence, king of all that is righteous,” he screamed, just before dropping to his knees in praise and jubilation. Later in that same tune, The Boss jumped on top of Bittan’s piano, slung his guitar sideways and made a show of throwing off his vest and wringing sweat from his shirt. All the while, the crowd screamed like banshees.

In other words, the man can still kick big-time, rocking ass like nobody’s business — at the age of 51.

The show’s quieter moments proved no less compelling. The first strains of the bittersweet “The River” began on a darkened stage, with Clemons’ mournful solo saxophone. Bruce came in on harmonica moments later, the two sustaining a darkly beautiful mini-symphony as other band members joined in, one by one. “I come from down in the valley/where mister when you’re young/they bring you up to do/like your daddy done,” Springsteen began, in this paean to the universal tragedy of finally giving up.

In all, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band played a whopping 26 tunes over the course of nearly three-and-one-half hours, exhibiting the kind of near-supernatural chemistry that comes from having been Jersey-shore friends and musical partners for more than three decades. “Spirit in the Night,” “Badlands,” “Darlington County,” “Prove It All Night,” “Backstreets,” “Out in the Street,” a rare live version of the haunting “Something in the Night” … all these songs had colored my younger days with tales of hopeless and forbidden love, paralyzing alienation, and — on a more upbeat note — good-time Saturday nights, driving fast with the top down, the radio blasting some sweet rocker.

In the throes of not one, but two, encores, the band launched into what is perhaps Springsteen’s greatest masterpiece, “Thunder Road” — a song that transcends mere songwriting, resting in the realm of pure, unabashed poetry: “… My car’s out back if you’re ready to take that long walk/From your front porch to my front seat/The door’s open but the ride ain’t free/And I know you’re lonely/For words that I ain’t spoken/But tonight we’ll be free/All the promises’ll be broken/There were ghosts in the eyes/Of all the boys you sent away/They haunt this dusty beach road/In the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets/They scream your name at night in the street/Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet/And in the lonely cool before dawn/You hear the engines roaring on/But when you get to the porch they’re gone/On the wind, so Mary climb in/It’s a town full of losers/And I’m pulling out of here to win.”

I felt gloriously vindicated (having not forgotten that Bruce is passe in some obviously uneducated circles) as “Born to Run” was unleashed, in all its timeless glory, during the second encore.

The band ended with the raunchy “Ramrod” (“Hey little dolly with the blue jeans on/I wanna ramrod with you honey till half-past dawn …”), Springsteen on his knees again — intermittently leaping up to tear from one side of the stage to the other. Finally, in what was clearly to be the final moment of this thrill-filled ride, the whole band rushed to the edge of the stage as the final notes of “Ramrod” rang through the coliseum.

I, myself — in a move I haven’t tried in about 20 years — managed to slip past eagle-eyed security guards to the very same edge of the stage where Bruce and company were taking their final, sweaty bows. My reward? I reached up and touched my idol on the leg.

Oddly, neither hand nor leg burst into flames.

I turned and hit the dark highway home, knowing I’d truly been somewhere — yet still chasing something in the night.

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