This song has a very literal meaning - being asked to leave a bar - but it goes much deeper than that. Semisonic lead singer Dan Wilson wrote the song when his wife was pregnant with their first child, which turned out to be a daughter named Coco. "It's all about being born and coming into the world, seeing the bright lights, cutting the cord, opening up into something deeper and more universal," Wilson told Mojo.
Shortly before recording was scheduled to begin, Wilson's wife experienced complications with her pregnancy, and Coco was born three months premature weighing just 11 ounces. Wilson's bandmates offered to postpone the sessions, but he asked to move forward with them, since there was very little he could do in the hospital. This song took on a new meaning with the line "I know who I want to take me home," as Wilson was looking forward to the day he could bring Coco home.
That day finally came nearly a year after Coco was born; she left the hospital in February 1998 on the same day "Closing Time" was released as a single. According to Wilson, the ambulance driver who transported them home asked if he was the same Dan Wilson from the band. That's when the full gravity of the song hit him, and he realized how much Coco influenced it.
This remains a popular song at bars when they are ready to pack it up. There is no mistaking the message: "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here." Semisonic vocalist and songwriter Dan Wilson told The Hollywood Reporter in a 2010 interview: "I really thought that that was the greatest destiny for 'Closing Time,' that it would be used by all the bartenders, and it was actually. It still is. I run into people all the time who tell me, Oh I worked in this one bar for four years and I heard your song every single night."
Wilson explained in an interview with American Songwriter that he wasn't consciously trying to write a song about the birth of his first born child, but it became obvious as he was writing the tune. Said Wilson: "I was initially trying to write a song to end the Semisonic shows with. We had always ended with a song called 'If I Run,' and I really liked it a lot. John and Jake, the other two members of the band, were always impatient with ending the show with the same song. So I set out to write a new closer for the set, and I just thought, 'Oh, closing time.' Because all the bars that I would frequent in Minneapolis, they would yell out 'closing time.' There was one bar where a guy always would scream really loud, 'You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here,' and I guess that always stuck in my mind.
So I started writing this song and it's just, 'Okay, you've got to go out into the light, make your way home, or wherever you're going to be.' Part way into the writing of the song, I realized it was also about being born. My wife and I were expecting our first kid very soon after I wrote that song. I had birth on the brain, I was struck by what a funny pun it was to be bounced from the womb."
Wilson told The Hollywood Reporter how he wrote this song in 20 minutes: "My bandmates were tired of ending our sets with the same song, so there was kind of an uprising where they demanded something different to end our nights with. So I thought, 'OK, I'll write a song to close out the set,' and then boom, I wrote 'Closing Time' really fast.
There was one little adjustment later, which I credit to our A&R guy, Hans Haedelt. He said, 'It's too simple. You need to break up the rhythm of the verses.' So that line, 'Gather up your jackets, move it to the exits, I hope you have found a friend' is the first time it deviates from the rhythmic pattern. He was right - it's a great moment in the song."
The song features in the 2011 romantic comedy movie Friends with Benefits in a scene where Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake are having sex. She asks him to distract her with what she calls, 'A Third Eye Blind song' and he proceeds to sing this tune. Dan Wilson told The Hollywood Reporter that seeing the scene in the trailer made him laugh. He said: "It is kind of funny to be looking at it from another perspective. And while I really like Justin Timberlake's music and singing, when he's doing a Dan Wilson impression, I'm not sure I like that. But it's very cute. I enjoyed that slight mockery. And the thing about Third Eye Blind is really funny."