Lyric Lens: “52” by Joe Iconis

Welcome back to Lyric Lens! For the first edition back after a bit of a hiatus, I’ll be looking at a song called “52,” by Joe Iconis. This song is not yet for sale online, though a bunch of Joe’s other songs are, and hey, I can still hold out hope for the future. After all, Adam Gwon’s “Uncharted Territory,” the subject of my very first Lyric Lens back in December, is newly available on NMT as of today!

I first heard this song in its world premiere performance at the first Once Upon a Time in New York City benefit concert, where songwriters were asked to share original songs about New York City and people they believed had changed or influenced it. Who did Joe choose to write about? Well, if you haven’t heard the song, I won’t spoil it for you. I’ll just let you watch the video of that first performance:

Watch this video on YouTube.

Did you figure out who Alvin and Virginia are? My guess is that if you’re a devotee of the Green Room blog, you probably did. But if not, it’s all good. Let’s look at the lyrics:

Alvin and Virginia were institutions.
Alvin and Virginia loved the fall.
They lived through epidemics and revolutions.
Yeah, Alvin and Virginia had seen it all.

The main information that I get from these first lines is an idea of Alvin and Virginia as a unit, an inseparable pair of some kind, because of the repetition of their names together. I also get a sense of their incredible longevity in language that ranges from lofty—“epidemics and revolutions”—to casual—“seen it all.” In terms of the specifics of their daily lives, I don’t know much yet except that fall was their favorite season. So, onward:

They lived on 52nd, but not together.
They were friends, but kinda competitive.
They both survived some seasons of dangerous weather,
And they taught me this lesson on how to live.

When I first heard the song, this is the moment where I got it: they’re theaters, y’all. Specifically, the former Alvin Theatre and Virginia Theatre…now known as the Neil Simon and the August Wilson. Now that I know the song is about theaters, it becomes even more sweet and moving to me than if it were about people, because I’m always charmed by the personification of inanimate objects. How fun is it to think of two theaters being friends but simultaneously competitors? I also really like the double meaning of the word “seasons,” which, since we’re talking about theaters, can mean a season of the year or a theatrical season.

They’d say, “Remember, remember things that now are gone.
Remember, remember, and carry ’em on.
Good buddy, remember, remember the history.
Remember, remember, remember me.”

This chorus is pretty spare, lyrically, which sometimes is the best way for a chorus to be. It gets its message across without obstructing it with extra words, and also gives the listener plenty of time to absorb and process Alvin and Virginia’s life lesson. The repetition of the word “remember,” which appears a whopping nine times in this chorus, emphasizes the essence of the song’s exhortation in a way that could be annoying in another context, but feels wise and sincere in the midst of such a simple, earnest lyric.

Alvin and Virginia were not too fancy.
Their tastes often alluded to days of yore.
They sometimes played it safe, but were mostly chancy.
Yeah, they were real New Yorkers, down to the core.

Their tolerance for tourists was always ample,
With an ever-growing capacity.
Yeah, Alvin and Virginia taught by example.
They didn’t really speak, but they spoke to me.

I have to admit that it didn’t initially dawn on me until this second verse that each stanza of this song has rhymes not just the second and fourth lines, as is most common, but also in the first and third. This, I think, is actually a hallmark of a rhyme scheme that’s well chosen and executed. These rhymes don’t scream out at me or feel forced; they just fall naturally and help the song to hold together more tightly and cleanly. I especially love the “ample/example” pair because it’s a wonderful example of harnessing the power of rhyme to emphasize the key information in a pair of lines.

The description of Alvin and Virginia’s “tolerance for tourists” as “ample,” along with the word “capacity,” is another clue that the song is probably not about actual people. But what makes this song so successful is how subtle the metaphor is, and how carefully Joe has chosen each word. The song takes on a new dimension of meaning if you know who/what Alvin and Virginia really are, but even if you never figure out that they’re not people, the song still makes sense and teaches the same poignant lesson.

It’s totally fine if you think the “Alvin” in the song is this guy. It still works!

It’s totally fine if you think the “Alvin” in the song is this guy. It still works!

That lesson becomes all the more poignant in the bridge and last verse:

Things in New York are temporary,
You can beg it to stop changing, but it won’t.
People and places, names and faces,
Now you see ’em, now you don’t.

The bridge, especially its latter two lines, continues the lovely spareness of language that started in the choruses. There’s no need for lots of extra words to get the message across. In the last verse, the song tells us specifically how the relentless transience of all things New York came to affect our protagonists, but then ends the song on an up note with a really nice turn:

I’ve always found that change comes in steps and stages.
Alvin left us first, then Virginia went.
Now they’re just some words on Wikipedia pages,
And very few will remember how much they meant.

But every time I walk into a theater,
I think about the legacy and all who came before.
That may sound lame or hokey, but it feels like something sweeter,
It makes me wanna join the legacy more and more.

There’s so much good stuff in these lines. But before I talk about it, if the “theater/sweeter” rhyme didn’t make you chuckle or at least smile, please go listen to “Two Nobodies in New York” from [title of show] before finishing this post.

In all seriousness, I think that where this song ends up really gets at the essence of what the theatre is all about. It’s like an oral tradition, a legacy passed down from teacher to student. This song shows how the student can become the teacher, can go on to share the lessons he learned with another generation. He’s hoping for the chance to touch others the way someone—or in this case, some places—touched him. And isn’t that why we do what we do?

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