David Lamb, age 36, a performer and songwriter who founded Brown Bird died on Saturday, April 5 of a sudden recurrence of leukemia. First diagnosed while on their fourth national tour in May 2013, David endured three rounds of intense chemo and received a bone marrow transplant last September on his father’s birthday. Just as his body was growing stronger and the transplant was producing a healthy new blood system, the leukemia suddenly returned with a vengeance.
David is the son of Roger and Marcia Lamb of the Boston Church of Christ and founders and leaders of Disciples Today, the official non-profit media company for the International Churches of Christ. The Lamb family’s saga with cancer has been a public part of many of our lives through their brutal honesty told in testimonies and their book, This Doesn’t Feel Like Love. It seemed fitting that another chapter be written from the perspective of witnesses to perhaps the toughest chapter—the loss of a loving son, brother and a husband with so many friends and fans.
The evening represented the expected grief of a life taken so soon and a convergence of worlds—the folk music scene, the local church, relationships across the brotherhood and friends from as far as California, Chicago and Dallas. The memorial celebration was held in a smaller upstairs theater with 250 friends and family beginning at 6:30pm. Afterwards some of David’s friends’ bands played for 1,000 in the main auditorium —Joe Fletcher, Death Vessel, Alec K Redfearn and Last Good Tooth.
An empathetic soul
The memorial provided mosaic glimpses of David’s life. I will attempt to create a sequence. David’s life spans Charleston, Champaign, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, Maine and Rhode Island. David’s sister Christie, also of Boston, is the firstborn and Michael is the older brother, an evangelist in the Boston Church of Christ. The three Lamb children were swept up in frequent and intense wakes of change related to Roger’s callings as he served in many ministry roles that entailed numerous family moves. This meant that David experienced iconic settings such as planting a church in Champaign, Illinois, Chicago (our first planting), Boston (the movement’s founding congregation), and Los Angeles (our largest congregation), where David graduated high school in Burbank.
As master of ceremonies, his brother Michael shared a story of David at four years old that portrays the essence of his character. Michael had been diagnosed at six years of age with leukemia and after global prayers and three years of chemo was blessed with a miraculous recovery as only 15% of children survived treatment at the time. Michael’s best friend had died of leukemia nine months earlier. Mike shared that on one particular doctor appointment he was trying to be a tough guy when he received his treatment shots. David would play under the table to be near. The nurse said to Michael, “You can say ‘ouch’ when I count to three.” Michael refused to speak. On the second shot, the nurse said, “One, two, three.” And out from under the table came David’s little “Ouch!”
That’s David, as we heard testimony after testimony. Soon after Michael was declared cured, his mother Marcia had a sudden surgery and radiation for two kinds of uterine cancer that 5% of women survive. David was a constant thoughtful comfort. He was an empathetic soul who felt for others, thought of others, volunteered to help others out and didn’t draw attention to himself. And as David was there for his older sister, brother, Dad and Mom, they were there for David since his diagnosis last May and especially by staying continuously at his bedside over his last week. The two brothers were bonded by love and by an experience with a disease that is capable of lying low and then swiftly stealing your body.
David was a kingdom kid well before that term was coined and was baptized when he was 14 in Boston. He and Michael were on the first HOPE worldwide Youth Corps to Manila and Johannesburg led by their parents and Greg and Shelley Metten. During his early years he found his love for music. While some people play air guitars, we learned that early on David could play a mean tennis racket. And church life, for the good and the wrinkles, would be the basis of his musical and spiritual backdrop to some of his more memorable lyrics.
From “Devil Dancing,” (2010) you see the pervasive spiritual themes many of his interviewers commented on:
You won’t find the devil dancing
Around my door
You drowned out his dreadful lies
With the truth in your voice
You chased every demon from my guilty heart
They were dragging their claws on the walls of my veins
Tearing me apart
Now I’ll come home as a stronger I
With a stronger honest heart
I still hear that devil’s voice sometimes
But it’s growing fainter with every night
And it’s mixing in with the sounds of existence
In it’s home next to the light
From “Bilgewater” (2011) comes an eerily prophetic message to the “test of mind over flesh” that was to come.
In spite of all the wherewithal
To fight it all I will face it all
In spite of all the wherewithal
To fight it all I’ll embrace it all
When everyday is like a war
You find no strength from your usual source
There’s no peace, there’s no rest
Your fortitude is feeling put to the test
When everyday is like a war between the will to go on
And a wish that the world would spiral into the sun
Turn your head toward the storm that’s surely coming along
If the sun was always shining and our load always light
We’d be shaking like a leaf with every God-given night
And we’d break under the weight
Of any pain that ever came in this life
A convergence of worlds
Some of the formative influences came from his first musical mentor Joe Galeota, a professor at Berklee School of Music, owner of Jag Drums and one of the founding members or the arts ministry in the Boston Church of Christ that Roger and Marcia began in 1989. As a teen David performed with groups at major church events in Boston, New York and Los Angeles. He was influenced by former and present church members like Steve Johnson and Sherwin Mackintosh. His thirst for learning drew influences from artists as diverse as Johnny Cash and Eastern European gypsy music.
Joe Fletcher, long-time friend and fellow musician, remembered when David and MorganEve, a multi-instrumentalist, began their journey together. Joe and David were going to go on tour as solo acts in 2008 when David asked if he could bring along a fiddler that he just met named MorganEve. She came along and as much as they tried to stay reserved and professional, Joe was not convinced. David and MorganEve were both smitten and soon became a musical pair and the final configuration of Brown Bird.
Holly (Mannel) Anderson, a friend from the earliest period said that the Mannel and Lamb families have been “intertwined for as long as I can remember. Roger and Marcia have always been like a bonus set of parents to me and Christie, Michael and David, were like additional siblings in my life.” They maintained their familial connection through the years. Holly shared one special memory,
Michael, David and I went on several Youth Corps trips together, including Manila and Johannesburg. These types of trips were so impactful, especially for those of us kids who not only grew up in the church, but who grew up as leaders’ kids. We all had a special bond. We could all relate to each other in a way that no one else could quite understand and they were special times. David always had his guitar close by on those trips, and whenever we had even five minutes of down time, he would take it out and entertain everyone.
It was apparent to those of us unfamiliar with the folk music culture that it is an unusually kindhearted and non-judgmental crowd that possesses a sense of community. David accumulated great relationships from his church and folk crowd experiences. Dr. Jonathan Hoggard, Executive Director for Disciples Today, commented on the mix of the crowd.
Make no mistake, this private gathering was eclectic. David was a rock star, and a really good one at that. A young man full of passion and life and talent, all cut short by the inexplicable. Dozens of David’s close friends were there, amazing musicians in their own right. Seated next to the tattooed and pierced performers were numerous elders and evangelists from our fellowship who had known David since he was born. This amazing group, who for all practical purposes looked as if they were on opposite sides of the spectrum, at least from the outside, laughed, hugged and cried together for over two hours, drawn to one another by shared grief, love and gratitude for all David’s life represented.
Not unlike many from the thirty-something crowd in our fellowship, some things were lacking for David in his own church experience, evident by the path he chose. And yet his lyrics reveal that he wasn’t finished wrestling through his spiritual roots. Brown Bird’s acclaimed Salt for Salt album is both a clear sample of his grapple and an excellent album (The first track “Fingers to the Bone” is my favorite). It was that unfinished business of David’s spiritual quest that was noted in the memorial celebration, and it was handled with grace by all of the Christians who shared.
Roger’s testimony was rich—telling of the family’s plight with cancer with Michael, then Marcia, and David, as well as Christie’s serious health challenges. He shared how David had such a beautiful, unique spirit that continues to live, and has a name just as the Father who created him is not a generic, unknowable spirit and has a name. What was most moving to me was hearing again how father and son mended some of the earlier fences that were put up between them. Roger humbly referenced some of David’s lyrics, such as “My daddy’s a preacher and my mama a believer,” and how the lyrics spoke of David’s interpretation of his earlier life. When David went through a particularly dark time in his life, as he returned to his parents for a short time, he shared with them that he had “Come Home” tattooed on his fingers so he could see that as he was driving and touring. Dr. Hoggard later commented that Roger’s eulogy was “gut-wrenching, sometimes humorous, but always unapologetic in his trust of the goodness of God’s sovereign will.”
In recent years the entire Lamb family became much more involved in David’s world, and it has been very obvious how proud the Lamb family was of David, his music and his choice of MorganEve as a wife. During a recent ninety-minute ride with David between Boston and Providence Roger doubled-checked on their relationship, asking if there was anything left to sort out. There wasn’t and the two of them had one of their most memorable times together, talking and laughing, David asking for how to help his beloved wife. Weeks later Roger heard David’s last spoken words by his bedside, “I love you, Dad.” The story of the reconciliation between Roger and David seems like a parable.
But Marcia is the glue of the Lamb family, expressed in David’s 2008 song, “Mama Made a Man Out of Daddy and Daddy Made a Man Out of Me,” which Roger delightfully affirmed in his eulogy. And Marcia was strong. Last Saturday morning she placed her hand on David’s chest until his heart beat for the last time. Earlier that week the family had a very special moment surrounding his bedside reminiscing, praying for a miracle or mercy and singing “Holy Father, grant us peace.”
Near the end of the celebration night Christie Lamb shared what it was like to nearly lose one brother, see her mother fight cancer, then unexpectedly lose her youngest brother. She concluded with an impassioned appeal for support for her parents in their loss of an adult child.
Both the memorial celebration and the band celebration closed with Tom Waits' "Come On Up to the House," a David Lamb request for his last song. The lyrics are powerful, including one refrain:
Well you know you should surrender
But you can't let go
You gotta come on up to the house
Come on up to the house
Come on up to the house
The world is not my home
I'm just a passin’ thru
Come on up to the house
Disciples Today, Board Chairman