Somewhere along the Mainstreet of America, where 1950’s neon street signs still rise above adobe deco art buildings that give sentiment to a distant and busier past, walks a musician with his guitar in hand and in search of a cool place where he can play his music. The musician is Ruben Vail and the place he looks for is partially lit by the beating sun and also shadowed, possibly by one of those rising 50’s street signs, I mentioned.
Ruben Vail finds his spot in Old Town, the oldest town, hence its name, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s early there, so the place has yet to echo with the thrum of excited tourists and the swoosh of their plastic shopping bags filled with chile-infused chocolates and little porcelain-made ristra magnets; products of a recently commercialized culture that dates back to the Spanish Viceroyalty of the 1500’s. For now, though, Old Town rings with the sounds of flapping pigeons as they scavenge from one trash receptacle to the next and an illusory playlist of New Mexican mariachi music that rings from one of the plaza restaurants, permeating with yesterday’s roasted chile as the grills fire up.
Ruben Vail is tuning his traditional nylon string flamenco guitar by ear. His strong fingers, calloused by a lifetime of practice, press firmly to its neck. He strums each string with uncanny precision and weight, and uses just his ears to find the perfect pitch. His eyes, meanwhile, are unintentionally observing the pigeons that are fighting over a piece of biscochito, one they’ve found lying next to one of those trash receptacles, I mentioned. He kind of smirks at the sight – it’s reminded him of something, how the weaker pigeons are left with nothing, not even a crumb, and are too weak to match up to the full breasted pigeons, that quite frankly, could do without this piece of New Mexico history – cruel and kneaded into lard and flour, then sugarcoated.
Ruben hears his B string is out of tune.
“That fucking B string is always out of tune.”
His eyes shift to his guitar now and his face, or at least part of it, suddenly fills with reflections of light emitting from his mother of pearl inlays and his brass frets that have patinaed from the oils of his skin. A turn of the peg and, “there we go”, he’s ready to roll, now. Ruben warms up in his spot that is now of shadow and sunshine – darkness and light. He’s cut diagonally across the face by nature’s prism and all you can see of him are his knotted dreads – black as ravens, his hands – veiny, knuckled and tense with cultivated technique, and the ivory of his smile and the white of his eyes.
Today, Ruben has a score of his original songs to play, like “Everything Ends”, “Syphon” and “Truth”. They’re songs packed with perplexing symbolism derived from the world’s scriptures. In a way, they’re mocking them and in a way, they’re preaching them. Yes, Ruben is the learned type.
With a fusion of jazz, rock, blues, flamenco and piccolo, Ruben sings,
“She’s called a coyote
She’s a teacher, a hole
In the skull of the dead
And the light that shone
In the closet of your
I love you, Truth”
I met him as I was walking through Nob Hill one day. He was busking and introduced himself to me as Ruben Vail – “beyond the veil” he would later tell me when describing the messaging behind his music. Ruben had a dark flare to his art that was intelligent and I thought he was a fascinating person – by how he carried himself and was open and genuine to strangers like me. Between songs I asked Ruben if he taught guitar (I also play guitar, but have been out of practice for some years now, because I never made the time for it), to which he answered “yes” and gave me his card.
That meeting eventually turned into regular, weekly hour-long lessons during which I learned music theory and proper technique. It also became a tradition that after each lesson, Ruben would play one of his songs for me. I noticed his lyrics were striking. He sang about mass population killing our planet, society throwing copious amounts of food away, yet so many disadvantaged people starve on the daily and how certain people become empirical and hungry for more because our system allows it, a system that is crumbling beneath its own weight. He wrote about religion being the opiate of the people- sound familiar? (a Lenin reference for you Soviet history buffs) And how ignorance is strength (Orwell reference, too). Whether I believe in these issues or not, I couldn’t help but be drawn to his work and dedication to topics that aren’t accepted by today’s mainstream. They’re downright avoided. Taboo.
Ruben Vail grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Over the years, he’s become a local celebrity of sorts, although New Mexicans in general aren’t into all of that hype and showbusiness stuff. He moved around a lot, though, an effect of his mother’s youthful restlessness; something for which he’s grateful today and something that lit a fire within his soul to keep moving, never stay stagnant and learn from life’s lessons, lessons he writes about in his music today.
He got his first guitar when he was eight years old, but he started playing one year earlier when he decided to break the one house rule and bring out the forbidden family guitar while his mother was out. Boy, was it fun. It was cheap, old as all hell, but he swore it sang like every rockstar’s he had ever admired and he transcended from one universe to the next with it in hand, playing absolutely nothing, but that didn’t matter. Something was born that day.
Just then, his mother returned home and caught Ruben playing that forbidden family guitar. It took a second or five for him to snap to, but he eventually did, but not to a tempered mother, rather to one who was a bit in shock. She told him that she had visited a fortune teller that day, for fun and with her sister, who told her that her son, Ruben Vail, would become a talented musician.
Over the years, Ruben played his guts out. He’d be bored with anything else if it didn’t involve a guitar and music. His mother’s fortune didn’t relay that that would possibly mean his skipping school to shred, write and shred some more. His process made her nervous, but at the end of the day, she knew that music is what made him happy.
As his musical talent matured, it opened many doors of exploration. Just like his restless mother in her youth, Ruben hit the road, traveled to weird Austin, Texas, to Tennessee, and America’s most haunted city, New Orleans, Louisiana. He played at some of America’s most iconic places; where bewildering history took place – destructive and challenging history – that has sculpted America into what we know it to be today.
Somewhere along the way, came Synyster Vail, a messenger. Ruben describes him as,
“a monster born from ugly aspects of humanity and like a mirror, reflects its ugly self back to humanity.”
He’s made of lightness and darkness, because you can never have one without the other and he materialized into physical form with the creation of Ruben’s mask and talisman,
“but he was gestating for quite some time before that,” says Ruben.
“Ego compels someone to write a song, to make it impactful to humanity.” – Ruben Vail
For Ruben, who has been writing since he can’t remember, writing meaningful songs has come from his ego. It’s a process that has taken on more meaning the longer he’s been at it. That’s why his full length album, Still Underground, consisting of 13 tracks and which will drop at the end of April 2018, is something he needed to do. Synyster’s role in the making of Still Underground is the capstone to everything and everywhere Ruben’s life has taken him.
“Throughout my travels and seeing the world from my position as an artist, a busker, someone who has, at times, had nothing but my music, I’ve developed an understanding, from what I’ve observed, that the world takes more than it needs and without fault becomes more sickened. My music is trying to warn people. My music, as played by Syn, is trying to reflect humanity’s reflection back to itself, to tell us we’re ugly and that it’s not too late to wake the fuck up. In a way, my music is like my gospel,” says, Ruben.
After the album drops, Ruben intends to ride the wave of attention it will draw. He wants to become more involved with “expanding media” and how those platforms can help him spread his words. He’s also working on getting his music featured in films and “making Syn more real”, he says.
It’s the end of the day now. The last of the tourists have just exited the few stores that remain open – for the hopes of making more profit, for the chance to sell to a hungry patron.
Swoosh! comes the sound of plastic shopping bags fading in the distance.
One tourist, with a bag of biscochitos throws the one they’re gnawing on into a trash receptacle, but it misses and lands on the cement instead.
Flap! Flap! come the fighting pigeons.
The pigeons fly from their protective perches, the pinnacles of the adobe iglesia, the vigas of the old saloon and swarm this piece of New Mexican history – yes, kneaded with lard and flour, with challenge and by hands warmed by the blood of generations that have endured and caused destruction.
Coo! come the weak pigeons, still hungry.
A forgetful tourist returns to the now empty Old Town Plaza. They’ve forgotten their shopping bag on one of the plaza benches.
Crack! Sound the ristra magnets, chipping away as they clang together with everything else useless in that swooshing plastic bag that was almost left and forgotten.
The restaurants close up. The fry of chiles sits heavy in the air, burnt, just like the sun did to everything it shone on earlier that day, except for Syn.
Twang! And there’s that B string out of tune again, but he doesn’t tune it. He likes that sound; a sound so ugly that even the least musically inclined can still hear it stand out in a way it shouldn’t. It’s Synyster, “Syn” as he likes to be called and he’s playing his piece “The Baron.” He’s covered entirely by shadow now, except for the hint of light from a flickering street lamp that shines on his hands – or claws, rather, hooves. Ruben Vail is long gone now, he left when the sun set for the day, but his words remain and his music does too. It’s these sounds of the vacationing tourists, the fighting pigeons, the crumbling biscochitos and the smell of stinky receptacles that give meaning to Ruben’s words. This is the truth about which he spoke. This is what he meant by “beyond the veil”… that there is truth that exists beyond the obstruction of what I choose to see before me, what we choose to see before us, beyond that with which we mask ourselves – the veil.
“Enjoy the wind black bird
under your wings
the ground is waiting down below
to swallow up all things” sings Syn, as I watch him dissolve into the darkness from which he came.