Sunday, May 6, 2012

Semisonic -- "Closing Time" (1998)

Closing time -- 
Every new beginning comes from 
Some other beginning's end 

The last 2 or 3 lines discussed Jennifer Egan's remarkable novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, which she has described as a concept album in print form.  (Click here if you missed that post.)

Chapter 12 of Goon Squad has attracted considerable attention because it is written as a PowerPoint presentation.  The putative creator of that PowerPoint is Alison, a teenaged girl who writes about her brother Lincoln's close study of rock songs that have pauses -- brief moments of silence that sometimes make you think the song is over when it's not.  (Lincoln has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism that is often manifested by an obsessive interest in some seemingly random topic -- like Lincoln's obsessive interest in the pauses in songs.)

I have no idea how many songs Egan considered before she identified the 13 (including Semisonic's "Closing Time") mentioned in that chapter.  I wouldn't be surprised if she listened to hundreds of songs to find a baker's dozen with pauses.

One of the essential themes of A Visit From the Goon Squad is time and time's effects on the lives of the book's characters.  Time is the "goon" alluded to in the book's title.  "Time is the stealth goon, the one you ignore because you are so busy worrying about the goons right in front of you," Egan has said. 

There's certainly a lot of talk about time in chapter 12 of the book.  Lincoln's analysis of the "pause songs" that he is obsessed by includes a statement of precisely when each pause begins and when it ends.

One of the slides from chapter 12
And several of the songs featured in that chapter are quite literally about time.  The previous 2 or 3 lines featured the Zombies' "Time of the Season," and this one features "Closing Time" by Semisonic.  "Good Times, Bad Times" by Led Zeppelin is another one of the pause songs mentioned in chapter 12.

People say that time passes more quickly as you get older, and I would agree with that.  I vividly remember a summer vacation when my kids watched MTV a lot, and when the "Closing Time" video seemed to appear almost hourly.  I would have said that summer vacation wasn't too many summers ago, but the song was released in 1998.

The "Closing Time" video is all about timing.  It is really two distinct videos (running side-by-side on the screen at the same time) that depict two contemporaneous sequences of events.  

As it begins, the band is rehearsing the song in the video that appears on the right side of the screen.  In the video running on the left side, the lead singer's girlfriend cleans up a closed restaurant.  She calls the singer, but he doesn't answer in time because he didn't hear the phone over the music.  She hangs up, locks up the restaurant, and leaves.

At about that time, the singer notices what time it is and rushes out of the studio.  Suddenly you see him enter into the left-hand shot, which has stayed on the front door of the restaurant after the girlfriend leaves -- but he has arrived at the restaurant too late to catch her.

As he leaves the restaurant and heads back to the rehearsal, the girlfriend appears in the right-hand video, hoping to find him still at the studio.  But they just miss each other, each ending up on the other side of the screen.  

Both then go to a club, which is apparently where they had planned to go that night after meeting up.  But he arrives a few seconds later than she does, and they never see each other as they walk through the crowd, once again switching from one side of the screen to the other.

Both videos are continuous shots -- there are no cuts -- and both sequences had to be timed precisely so that they would match up at the end.  There's no sense that the couple's missed connection that night will have consequences beyond his needing to apologize for being late and standing her up.  I suppose it's possible that their relationship will come to an end as the result of their near-misses, but that doesn't seem to be the point.

Here's the video:

"Closing Time" was written by Semisonic's lead singer, Dan Wilson.  The group's drummer, Jacob Slichter (a Harvard grad who later wrote an autobiographical book titled So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star) says that the song was written by Wilson in anticipation of becoming a father.  

Wilson's wife delivered their first child just as the band was beginning to record the album that "Closing Time" appears on.  But the Wilsons' daughter was three months premature.  She weighed only 11 ounces at birth, and was given little chance of living.  But she overcame the staggering odds and survived.  "Closing Time" was released the same day that the Wilsons took her home -- almost a year after she was born.  

Taken literally, "Closing Time" is a song about a bartender or bouncer clearing out a bar full of young people at closing time.  "Gather up your jackets, and move it to the exits," he announces.  "You can't stay here."

But as the lines quoted at the beginning of this post indicate, "Closing Time" is about more than simply leaving a bar at the end of the evening, either to return home or (if you get lucky) go home with someone else.  The closing of the bar is symbolic of one phase of your life coming to an end, and the necessity of moving on to the next phase.  "Closing Time" is about making a new beginning -- leaving the past behind and striking out into the future.  

Who spends the most time in bars?  College students, or recent college graduates.  A bar is just a way station on life's journey, and so is college.  Sooner or later the bar closes -- or you graduate from college -- and you have to go somewhere else.  You don't have to go home, but you can't stay there.

When it's closing time at a bar -- or when you graduate from college -- it's "time for you to go out into the world."  Before you can go out into the world, you may need to "go back to the places you will be from" -- the place where you grew up, but which is abut to become your former home -- gather up your jackets and other stuff, and move on.

We often think that children become adults when they complete their education and leave the nest to embark upon a career and establish a new home.  That's certainly a significant transition.  But it's far from being the most significant transition in life -- which is the transition from being someone else's child to to being someone else's parent.  

One way to interpret "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end" is as meaning that the birth of a child -- which is the ultimate "new beginning" -- marks the end of childhood for its parents.  One's own childhood truly ends only when one becomes a parent.  That transition was much more protracted and difficult for the Wilsons than for most parents, but perhaps that made the day they took their little girl home all the more joyous.

Jennifer Egan
A Visit From the Goon Squad is often characterized as being about music and about time, but it's also about parents and children.  

We see most of the major characters in both roles.  Goon Squad opens with a chapter about Sasha, who is a 35-year-old single woman fighting a compulsion to commit petty theft.  Later we see her a 19-year-old who has run away from her mother and stepfather's home, and is bumming her way around the word.  Finally, we see her as the fifty-something mother of Alison (the author of the PowerPoint) and the obsessive Lincoln.

I can't think of a single parent-child relationship in the book that is completely untroubled -- even the happier parent-child pairs have their ups and downs, while tragedy strikes several of the others.

But the final chapter, which is set ten years or so in the future, depicts the huge and euphoric audience that has gathered to hear an outdoor concert -- a latter-day Woodstock, but one whose audience consists mostly of ecstatic parents and their equally ecstatic children.  

Later, hours after the concert is over, it's closing time at the restaurant where a large group of those who made the show happen and their families have gone to eat and drink and celebrate together.  Alex, the character who is largely responsible for the event's success sends his wife and child home in a cab, and wanders the streets of New York City.  At one point he walks by an apartment building where he once spent an evening with a woman soon after he moved to the city, and he imagines that if he walked into that apartment at that moment, he would become "his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet."

But no one answers when Alex pushes the buzzer to the apartment, and he begins to realize how silly his fantasy is.  As the song says, "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end" -- and the new beginning Alex made when he became a father would not have happened if that earlier phase of his life (the previous new beginning he made when he left home and moved to the city) had not ended.  

He closes his eyes, listens, and wonders if the quiet hum he hears is "the sound of time passing."  We regret the passage of time.  Is there any other possession that is more precious to us?  But without the passage of time, there would be no progress in our lives -- no "new beginnings."  The passage of time is part and parcel of the experience of living.

Click here if you'd like to purchase A Visit From the Goon Squad from Amazon:

And click here if you'd like to purchase "Closing Time":

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