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Fans of all ages see themselves in Springsteen

At 83, Jeanne Mooney may seem like an unlikely Bruce Springsteen fan. But when she was a middle-aged woman, she lost her daughter, husband, and son in the space of seven years, and a chance encounter with Springsteen's music helped lift her out of her grief.

At 83, Jeanne Mooney may seem like an unlikely Bruce Springsteen fan. But when she was a middle-aged woman, she lost her daughter, husband, and son in the space of seven years, and a chance encounter with Springsteen's music helped lift her out of her grief.

"I fell in love with him," Mooney, of Middlesex, N.J., said as she made her way through the concourse at the Spectrum Monday night. "We had a lot of tragedy in our lives, but the wonderful thing was that there was so much love there in our family. I think that's what made me who I am, and that's why I'm so into Bruce Springsteen's music, the love of humanity that's there. He's so full of vim and vigor. He really takes you out of yourself."

If you are a Springsteen devotee, age and other predictors of taste are irrelevant. What matters is that the man offers redemption and hope.

Again and again last night and Monday, Springsteen's followers spoke of him as a savior, a superb teller of tales about how to start over again.

If this tribe had a motto, it would be, "It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive," a lyric from the Springsteen song "Badlands." Its members pump their fists to his songs in their cars, sigh at friends who "don't get it," and can often recite entire albums.

Before Monday's show, Ed Roselle and three female friends spontaneously ran down a verse of "Blinded by the Light" and didn't stumble even on the tongue-twisting lyric "Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer."

"Nobody brings more passion and energy to the stage, and I've seen them all," said Roselle, a Harrisburg resident who was to see Springsteen for about the 35th time last night. "The man gives everything just for the moment, just so everyone can have a good time."

Many enthusiasts came to Springsteen in their teenage years, with the obsessive passion that only a teenager has. When Karin Helmlinger of Lewisville, Chester County, and her siblings listened to Born to Run in the 1970s, it was akin to attending church. No one could talk while the album played, and if the phone rang, they had to restart the record.

She may have inherited the insanity from her mother, a Bruce fan who spent hours on the phone in the mid-1980s trying to get tickets to a Springsteen show even though she had emphysema and used an oxygen tank.

"My mother would say, 'He's from Jersey, you know.' He was an everyman. He had a heart, and he still does," Helmlinger said.

Her mother scolded her after finding an explicit, X-rated version of "Born to Run" that Helmlinger wrote as a teenager, but it wasn't the graphic nature of her redo that was the main problem. "I think she was more upset that I tainted 'Born to Run,' " Helmlinger said.

And as long as the subject of sex has come up, let's get the Boss' appeal to women out of the way: "The body - is that OK to say?" Helmlinger asked.

Another fan, Laura Wilcox, echoed that thought. "He's hot," she said. But the 60-year-old star is much more than eye candy, she added.

The 53-year-old nurse from Hopewell, N.J., started following Springsteen when he was an unknown Jersey Shore rocker. "Sometimes, he'd just sit down and play the piano and talk," she said. He'd create legends about how he met his sax man, Clarence Clemons, and found salvation in a guitar, and the entire audience was spellbound.

At 17, Wilcox stole her mother's car to go see her hero.

"He's my youth," she said simply.

Paul Mercurio said he came last night to pay tribute to Springsteen and to the Spectrum. He said that he saw Springsteen in concert the night John Lennon died in 1980 and that he remembered Springsteen soothing the crowd with "Twist and Shout." "There was a real sense of community that night," Mercurio said. "Everybody was sort of sharing the pain."

Reliving the mercurial emotions of adolescence lures many fans back. A Springsteen concert is like mass psychotherapy - with beer.

"He went through the same things I went through, and you feel them again," said James Contento, 50, who said Springsteen helped him understand that his feelings were normal when he was a teenager.

He was afraid to talk to members of the opposite sex, and so is Springsteen when he sings about girls combing their hair in rearview mirrors and the boys trying to look so hard in "Born to Run."

"When you're that age, you think you're the only one that goes through that," Contento said.

Contento and his wife, Gina DiMambra, live in Southampton, Bucks County, but when Bruce is in Philadelphia, they are there every night. This most recent string of shows will cost them about $800, and they make an event of it. They drape a banner they made for one of his 1985 shows with the word Bruce in big, red, white and blue letters over their Honda Accord and set up a picnic table in the parking lot. Champagne and paté are served.

Springsteen helped Barry Bloom talk to a girl at Monday's show, in a manner of speaking. Bloom brought a sign bearing the words "Nellie, Wanna Marry Me" and handed it up on stage when Springsteen went through the crowd seeking song suggestions.

"Am I right? Do we have a proposal here?" Springsteen asked. Bloom got down on one knee, and his girlfriend of four years, Nellie Bogart, said yes while the band kicked into "I Wanna Marry You" from The River.

It hardly mattered that Bloom, 42, had already proposed to Bogart, 44, a few months before. The Old Bridge, N.J., couple had both been married before, and Bloom's friends didn't believe him when he said he was ready to do it again after his first marriage didn't work.

"I figured if I did something public like this, maybe they'd believe me. It wasn't really meant to be a surprise for her. It was meant to be a statement of my intention and commitment," Bloom said yesterday.

He sounded more than a little like the character in that song:

They say in the end true love prevails

But in the end true love can't be no fairytale

To say I'll make your dreams come true would be wrong

But maybe, darlin', I could help them along.

Bogart has two children, just like the woman in the Springsteen song. Coincidence? You decide.

They will dance to "I Wanna Marry You" at their wedding.

Mooney's husband was terminally ill when she went back to school at Rutgers University in the 1970s to get her bachelor's degree in social work. Stan Mooney died in 1977 of heart and liver problems at 51.

Her daughter Jan Mooney died in a car accident in 1975 at 21. And then, in 1982, a car accident took her son, Eugene Davis Mooney, whom they called Dave, at age 25.

Jeanne's daughter Donna, who bought the tickets for Monday for her mother's birthday, said Springsteen looks like Dave, which may fuel her mother's love for the artist.

After years of raising six children, Jeanne Mooney finally got around to seeing Springsteen a few years ago when his tour was a tribute to Pete Seeger.

"I had to see him before he died," she said. Her favorite song is "Dancing in the Dark," though she's also partial to "The Rising," a meditation on the losses of 9/11.

"I don't think he's written a song that you aren't caught up in," Jeanne Mooney said. "I hope he's still playing into his 80s."