I was driving along this week just minding my own business and doing my daddy errands when Semisonic’s “Closing Time” came on my iPod. God alone knows why I ever put it on there in the first place, but it had been a long time since I had heard it. It’s still a good track that’s aged well. You could probably put it out today with a little less ‘90s in the production and score a hit.
It was on this probably 100th time hearing the tune that I also realized the whole thing is about death.
First off, a disclaimer; I know that Dan Wilson has told concertgoers before that the song is actually an analogy for him becoming a father, which he hid from his bandmates because he didn’t think they wanted to hear songs about his kid. And knowing that, yeah, that totally works, but it’s also a tremendous analogy for dying.
Take the first verse…
Closing time/ Open all the doors and let you out into the world
Closing time/ Turn the lights up over every boy and every girl
Closing time/ One last call for alcohol so finish your whiskey or beer
Closing time/ You don't have to go home but you can't stay here
It’s basically a wake-up call at the end of your life, letting you know that you need to move on from life. Every boy and every girl is talking about how all of us will eventually face death one day, and though you get a brief rest stop after your death, it’s only a respite before you have to move on to wherever you’re going in the afterlife. That’s what the famous line “you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here” is alluding to. The choice beyond death is yours, and no one is assigned to any one fate (home being whatever you thought death would bring), but you are assigned to journey somewhere, wherever that may be.
It reminds me a lot of parts of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, where they discuss the fate of men. who die, as opposed to that of elves, who do not. In Tolkien’s text the souls of men are gathered briefly in hall of silent reflection by the god Mandos, but then they travel beyond the world and even the gods know not where. By the way, who is Dan Wilson’s favorite author? Tolkien.
Let’s look at the second verse…
Closing time/ Time for you to go out to the places you will be from
Closing time/ This room won't be open 'til your brothers or your sisters come
So gather up your jackets, and move it to the exits
I hope you have found a friend
Closing time/ Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end
It’s the same message. Death is a journey into a new beginning, be it reincarnation, Heaven, Valhalla, sinister murdering ghost, whatever your bag is. Your new origin story awaits. The room where your brothers and sisters will come to is a nod to the idea that we’ll be reunited with the people we love in death or in the next lifel the friend that you’re hoped to find is a spiritual path to move onto.
Another famous line from the song from this verse is "every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." It’s a quote usually attributed to Seneca the Younger, though its veracity has been disputed. Seneca was a pretty morbid guy. Even when he was at his richest and most powerful he dictated that his body be disposed of without the usual funeral rites. This was carried out after he was forced to commit suicide by Nero for plotting against him, a sentence Seneca voluntarily complied with.
Some thoughts on death from Seneca…
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Death is a release from and an end of all pains: beyond it our sufferings cannot extend: it restores us to the peaceful rest in which we lay before we were born. If anyone pities the dead, he ought also to pity those who have not been born. Death is neither a good nor a bad thing, for that alone which is something can be a good or a bad thing: but that which is nothing, and reduces all things to nothing, does not hand us over to either fortune, because good and bad require some material to work upon. Fortune cannot take ahold of that which Nature has let go, nor can a man be unhappy if he is nothing.
I can definitely see Wilson’s own interpretation of his song, but the more I listen to it I hear it as the last word of a life lived and a new life after death to come. It’s a song about regeneration once your old life has worn thin and who takes you home is what you choose for next.
Maybe I’m overthinking it, but if this song is playing in the Great Bar in the Sky when I show up after whatever comical circumstances ends my time on Earth, I would not be the in the least bit surprised.