Catching magic: Musician and HIV educator Shawn Decker celebrates a life full of surprises

This Saturday night, local musician and HIV/AIDS educator Shawn Decker celebrates 30 years since his Make-A-Wish Foundation "wish" with a Facebook Live concert. This Saturday night, local musician and HIV/AIDS educator Shawn Decker celebrates 30 years since his Make-A-Wish Foundation “wish” with a Facebook Live concert.

Shawn Decker remembers the first time he heard Depeche Mode. He was 12 or 13, and getting a ride home from his friend’s brother when he noticed the music coming out of the car stereo.

“What is this?!” he asked.  The vulnerability of the lyrics, the mood of the new wave/synth-pop sound—it  was unlike anything he’d heard before. Depeche Mode became his favorite band.

Thirty years ago, on June 6, 1990, Decker met Depeche Mode after a show at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland. It was a turning point in his life, and he plans to commemorate the occasion sometime next month with a virtual party on Facebook Live.

What Decker’s really celebrating isn’t the fact that he got to meet his favorite band when he was 14, but that he’s alive to mark the occasion.

Decker was diagnosed with HIV, which he’d contracted through a blood transfusion, in 1987. He was 11 years old, and doctors gave him about two years to live. Meeting the band was Decker’s Make-A-Wish Foundation “wish.” He was ecstatic to meet Depeche Mode, but says it meant “coming to terms with the fact that I was eligible for it.”

In 1990, Shawn Decker (front left, in the patterned shirt) was fighting HIV and facing a frighteningly uncertain future. He met Depeche Mode (below) through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and will soon host a virtual concert to celebrate the 30 precious years since that night. Photo courtesy subject

But it also gave him something to strive for, he says. He remembers thinking “maybe there was some transfer of magic” when he shook the hand of keyboardist and primary songwriter Martin Gore, and maybe there was: Those 15 minutes with the band made him think that music was something he could pursue.

That same summer, while on vacation at Myrtle Beach, Decker and his best friend bought what he describes as some “rock outfits” and staged a photo shoot on the beach with the water coming in behind them. Publicity pics for when their own band hit it big. For the first time since his diagnosis, Decker allowed himself to envision the future.

Ten years later, thanks to his mom’s persistence in getting her son good medical care, and to breakthroughs in HIV treatments that came just as Decker’s health really started to decline, he was writing and performing his own new wave and synth-pop songs. Many were about living with HIV—making the decision to talk about that “remains the biggest moment in my life,” says Decker. He’d begun traveling the country with his girlfriend (now wife), Gwenn Barringer, speaking to auditoriums full of young people about HIV/AIDS and sexual health.

“Life is interesting like that,” says Decker, talking by Zoom from his music room, where he’s been hosting the virtual music series Shawn’s Ongoing Spacejam during the shutdown. “Sometimes you catch some magic in another way. I never thought I’d be open about [having] HIV,” he says.

Decker turns 45 in July, and now he’s asking, “What am I going to do for another 45 years?” He hopes he’ll be an old man, one who wears plaid pants all the time. But who knows, Decker says with a smile and a shrug. It’s like Depeche Mode sings on “Nothing,” from 1987’s Music for the Masses: “Life / Is full of surprises.”


June 3, 5:08pm: This story has been updated to reflect Decker’s choice to postpone the Facebook Live concert he’d originally scheduled for this Saturday, June 6. Instead, he’ll wait until July. 

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