I’m a college student in an arena full of fresh-faced tweens and teens, all hopped up on free candy and wholesome vibes, and we’re awaiting an appearance by one of rock’s most beloved good-time bands – the Prefab Four! So why in heaven’s name am I leaning over a guardrail, screaming the names of the Seven Deadly Sins into the din?

First things first. My friend Sam and I were just looking for a little mindless diversion on that November Sunday – privileged with the rare use of an automobile and searching the Chicago Tribune’s weekend section for someplace to drive it. When we saw the listing, buried in minuscule type, it seemed too good to be true – a concert at the Rosemont Horizon featuring the reunited Monkees, the pretty dude from Herman’s Hermits, and a couple other ’60s has-beens, and tickets were only $10! The 5 p.m. start time seemed a bit suspicious – did the Monkees need to play Early-Bird Specials for their geezer fans? – but nonetheless we piled into Sam’s borrowed lime-green Oldsmobile and headed west.

It wasn’t until we reached Chicagoland’s premier concert arena that we began to realize what we were in for. As we drove into the parking lot just before 6 p.m. (having figured even the Monkees were too rock ‘n’ roll to take the stage at 5), the electronic marquee scrolled through a list of upcoming concerts and DePaul basketball games, then finally flashed the phrase, “Tonight – Monkees CYO Event.”

“Motherf**k!!” Sam yelled. Oblivious, I asked him what could have provoked such a response. His hands tugging despairingly at his white-boy afro, he replied: “Catholic. Youth. Organization.”

Now, I grew up in a small town in the South – the type where bitter people (mostly Protestants) cling to their guns and religion. So while I grew up a heathen, at least relatively speaking (my family were Unitarians, and we only occasionally practiced that), until I went to college in the Big City I had little experience with the phenomenon known as the Lapsed Catholic. I quickly learned, however, that the Formerly Faithful can be divided into two groups: those who are merely dismissive of the dogmas of their youths, and those who are downright angry. Sam was the angry type … so much so that his back would stiffen at the first mention of religion, and the slightest disagreement over the merits of belief would send him into an apoplexy of cursing and red-faced denunciation. (This trait somehow never completely ruined his friendship with his roommate, who shortly after graduation decided to enter the priesthood. Swear to God.)

I asked Sam whether he wanted to turn around and go home, but a 20-mile drive is a 20-mile drive, so in we went. Sam was already loudly plotting mischief as we passed the banners on the concourse touting the evening’s theme, “Shout!: A Celebration of Catholic Youth.” But he fell silent as we ascended the ramp to our seats, and were greeted not with the usual buzz of 15,000 people in pre-show conversation, but with … a kind of hush, as Peter Noone would soon be singing. And when we looked to the stage we found out why. There was Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, standing behind a pulpit and offering a bit of rock ‘n’ roll liturgy to get the kids in the mood – but not too much in the mood.

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin“My friends,” he commanded, paraphrasing the evening’s headliners, “be a believer! Love is out to get you – and the name of that love is God.”

Thankfully Bernardin ditched the God-Monkees meme at that point, and actually did a fair job of pumping up the crowd – particularly when he asked “all those who have ever been bored in church to say, ‘Amen!’” When he was done, and his pulpit removed from the stage, the kids (mostly girls) surrounding us finally began to achieve the low roar of an arena-rock crowd – but only for a moment, until a way-too-enthusiastic young woman arrived onstage to commence the audience-participation portion of the evening.

“I want you to turn to the closest person you don’t know,” she bubbled, “and I want you to tell that person a little something about yourself. And then I want you to do it again, until you’ve told five people five different things!” With a little further encouragement – and a little intimidation as well, in the form of adult ushers who suddenly appeared in the aisles – the girls around us slowly began to heed their elder’s instructions. But none of them turned to Sam, or to me. They gave us a quick glance, saw that we were out of the demographic, and skittered off in other directions, leaving us an island unto ourselves.

Sam was fine with that – he was still imagining horrible things he could do to destroy the virtue of these nubile reverent young lasses. (This was the same guy who, earlier that autumn, had spearheaded a lyric-writing party in his dorm room that resulted in a punk ditty we called “Ashes to Asses.” A sample stanza: “So open the crypt, enter the chasm/I don’t mind if you don’t have an orgasm/From the grave I just wanna steal ya/You know I’m smitten with … necrophilia.” Yes, the future priest had participated.)

Toeing the line between co-conspirator and buzzkill, I laughed at but shot down one after another of Sam’s more extreme plots. (“No, you are not going to write 666 on your forehead.” “No, you are not going to invite those girls to join your ‘naked séance.’”) Finally we arrived at an agreeable, if lame, form of protest, which began when Sam suddenly stood and yelled, “Lust!”

Once I stopped cackling, I, too, arose and bellowed my personal favorite sin: “Sloth!” We were disappointed, however, to discover that our outbursts were not achieving the desired effect. Instead, the kids’ attention had shifted to the aisles, where volunteers were pulling footlong cuts of yarn from bundles and passing them into the seats. “OK, everybody,” the too-cheerful lady effervesced from the stage. “It’s time to make friendship bracelets!”

And so it was that Sam and I, along with 15,000 fellow weavers, found ourselves manipulating the multicolored strands into thin fashion accessories. As unexpected a development as this was (compared to the way we had been planning to spend our evening), what happened next was truly surprising. “Now – turn to one of your new friends and exchange bracelets!” came the order from the stage – and at that moment no fewer than a dozen girls reached toward us and offered us their wristwear. Sam and I gratefully accepted the gifts … and then, utterly nonplussed by our sudden inclusion in the festivities, sat down, shut up, and cheered with our new friends as the Grass Roots took the stage and launched into – what else? – “Midnight Confession.”

By the way, there was a concert that night. It went about as you’d expect – apart from the occasional irony that required a certain jaded maturity to appreciate, such as the way-too-old-for-this Gary Puckett singing “Young Girl” to a roomful of Catholic schoolgirls. Peter Noone was predictably bouncy but bland. The Monkees (without Michael Nesmith, who imagined he had better things to do) followed with an abbreviated, energetic set that opened with “Last Train to Clarksville,” included their comeback hit “That Was Then, This Is Now” somewhere in the middle, and closed with “I’m a Believer.”

They returned for an encore that sent their audience of righteous, Reagan-era believers into the night of that Lord’s Day with more symbolism than maybe even the band themselves recognized: “Another Pleasant Valley Sunday/Here in status symbol land/Mothers complain about how hard life is/And the kids just don’t understand.” Then again, maybe the kids understood better than we thought. After all, Sam and I were the ones who drove back to Evanston with a dozen friendship bracelets on our arms.

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