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. Halfway through writing the song, he realized it had a double meaning. "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."
"Closing time!" is something bartenders would often bellow at the end of the night to not-so-gently encourage patrons to leave. It's something Dan Wilson heard often in Minneapolis drinking establishments, which provided the title.
"You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here" is a line Wilson remembered being shouted at one particular bar. After this song came out, that line got a lot more popular.
The line, "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end," sounds like it could be a zen proverb or part of a famous poem, but it's an original line. In a Songfacts interview with Dan Wilson
, he said: "The phrase does have a kind of timeless, proverbial vibe about it. It does seem to be literally tattooed on people's arms and reprinted in thousands of places. And it's been falsely attributed to ancient Roman philosophers, actually. So I guess there's definitely something about it. If it's been useful to people, I can only be grateful for that."
Semisonic formed in 1995 and released their debut album, Great Divide, in 1996. During these years, many of their gigs were at bars, so when Dan Wilson set out to write a closing number for their sets, it made sense to write one about closing the bar.
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."
Semisonic kept their setlists pretty consistent and closed every show with a track from their first album called "If I Run." Dan Wilson was fine with this ("I can eat the same breakfast every morning for a year and be perfectly happy," he said), but his bandmates wanted a different song to end their shows. Wilson obliged by Writing this song.
Much of the song is pretty clearly about a bar, but there is a line in the second verse that has nothing to do with that storyline, but goes along with the birth meaning:
This room won't be open
'Til your brothers or your sisters come
According to Wilson, the "room" is a womb, waiting for brothers or sisters.
In America, this wasn't released as a single (except to radio stations for promotional purposes), which forced listeners to buy the album if they wanted the song. The strategy worked - Feeling Strangely Fine sold over a million copies in the US. Withholding single release meant the song wasn't eligible for the Hot 100, but it did reach #11 on the Billboard Airplay chart.
The band was pretty sure this song was a hit, but when the album was mixed by Bob Clearmountain and delivered to MCA Records, the label told them they didn't hear a single and told them to record more songs until they had one. Dan Wilson was happy to spend the label's money recording more songs, but their manager, Jim Grant, warned against it, since it meant "Closing Time" and the other songs would have no shot. Grant told Wilson how to deal with it: Don't answer the phone for a few months. Indeed, the label called, and Wilson let his answering machine handle it. Eventually, the label gave in and released the album as delivered.
The band got a break around this time when a new promotions woman named Nancy Levin went to work for MCA and championed "Closing Time," making sure it got out there. Her instincts were right - the song became a huge hit.
This was Semisonic's only hit in America, although in the UK, "Secret Smile
" charted higher.
The video was directed by Chris Applebaum, who came up with the idea for the split-screen look where Dan Wilson and his leading lady (an actress - he real-life wife does appear in the "Secret Smile" video) keep just missing each other.
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."