Tomorrow is a long time: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

Suddenly coming back to Tomorrow is a long time after many years without listening to it, is quite honestly, a shock.

A shock because sometimes (for me at least, and I am sure this is just a failing on my part) it is hard to remember how delicate and gentle Dylan could be – as with the live recording from 12 April 1963 that we have.  It is an astonishingly moving performance of an astonishing piece.

But equally listening to the various versions of the song reminded me that Dylan has had a habit of pushing some of his songs to the limit, and  then beyond – and the “Rundown Rehearsal” version is an example of this.

The original is a simple piece based around the three standard chords with a picked accompaniment.  By the time we get to the Rundown version extra minor chords are added and there are attempts to give the production sudden gravitas through this.  But, in my humble opinion, this beautiful, delicate piece is utterly betrayed by this re-working.

For me, the original is complete. You don’t need any more – and you certainly don’t need minor chords.  It is a sad delicate piece – like a painting in which a sad man looks into the distance on a beautiful day.  You don’t need to paint in the rain to show us he is sad.  Dylan doesn’t need to throw in a minor chord – he got it right the first time round.

If you have not heard the song before, or have not heard it in a long old time, start with this version original version (the links are below), make sure the room is quiet, turn off the phones, the children are asleep, your partner is reading a book, put on the headphones and close your eyes and listen.

This recording is so perfect it can’t go any further.  Everything else is a reworking going nowhere.

Which is not to say I dismiss the Elvis Presley 1966 recording of the song.   As most sites report, Dylan said that Presley’s cover of the song was “the one recording I treasure the most.”  Actually some places transmute this into a quote that seems to say that this is the version of this song that Dylan liked best, but I don’t think this is so.  Dylan said, as I understand it, that Presley recording one of his songs gave him a recording he treasured the most.

I suppose what makes the song work so utterly, and the reason why the live acoustic version is so perfect, is that the simplicity of the singing and accompaniment provides a perfect contrast with the imagery of the lyrics.   Just the opening line “If today was not an endless highway” speaks to anyone who has ever been lonely and sad through the absence of a lover.  This is the empty room where the heat pipes just cough.

And if that opening were not powerful enough that opening verse would still be considered a remarkable piece of writing with the way it conveys the inability of the lonely even to find release in sleep.  Time simply doesn’t pass.

If today was not an endless highway
If tonight was not a crooked trail
If tomorrow wasn’t such a long time
Then lonesome would mean nothing to you at all
Yes, and only if my own true love was waitin’
Yes, and if I could hear her heart a-softly poundin’
Only if she was lyin’ by me
Then I’d lie in my bed once again

Indeed it is possible to argue that the most informative piece of reporting that Heylin gives us in over 1000 pages of text on Dylan is the letter Dylan wrote to his lover…

“It’s just that I’m hating time – I’m trying to … bend it and twist it with gritting teeth and burning eyes…”

It is also interesting that here Dylan abandons rhyme.  It returns in the second verse, but the sheer jagged nature of loneliness stops the rhyme in verse one.

But we are forced to move on…

I can’t see my reflection in the waters
I can’t speak the sounds that show no pain
I can’t hear the echo of my footsteps
Or can’t remember the sound of my own name

Dylan also commented on the song itself, saying that he didn’t like the third verse, and that he didn’t feel it was a statement of what he felt.   That of course might well be true, but for a song of this nature, the tradition is to reflect more broadly at the end, to give a wider overview, to look beyond the specific and head out into the more generalised feeling so that all of us who are the audience, and not the singer, can take part in the emotion.

To my mind (and I know, who am I to say what is right and what is not, when considering such a beautiful work?) the last verse does work, because it is generalised.  It is not about today, it is not about the echo of the singer’s footsteps, it is about the world at large – and that is a valuable conclusion to the piece.

There’s beauty in the silver, singin’ river…

The Elvis Presley version is here.

and finally, the version I don’t care for, with its forced extra chords and added emotion: The rundown rehearsal


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  1. I’ve loved this piece by ever since my first hearing. (It was featured on a compilation album released sometime in the late 1960’s). This tenderness, sentiment and conviction of emotion is rare to find. Indeed, I feel the same oneness with Dylan as with Frank Sinatra’s ‘I’ll Never Smile Again’. Also, I’m envious of the British audience, for they experienced greatness with Dylan’s humble offering. 1963 was a difficult and unstable year for Americans, and this piece is a reminder that tenderness and sanity still have value.

  2. The piece works at 3 levels. First, it tells a story, as all good songs do, at a very personal level. The story is about a man amidst his reflections of what he has lost as he revisits his past and re-experiences finding and losing love. Second, it is an invitation to explore the reflections and the emotions as we travel down his path of awareness, by tenses (today, tonight, tomorrow), and by the loss of senses, (I can’t see, I can’t speak, I can’t hear), The third is to share both the joy and the sorrow of realizing that life’s beauty is temporal, leaving only memories of what was, – there’s beauty in the silver singing river, there’s beauty in the sun that lights the skies, but none of these, or nothing else can match the beauty, that I remember in my true loves eyes. Perfect rhyme, perfect meter, perfect images reflect a true master at his craft, and weaving his beautiful web. I learned this song back in 1967, have performed it 2468 times, and know what it is about.

  3. Sacrilege Alert…I have always preferred Rod Stewart’s cover to Dylan’s original & love the “Run Down Rehearsals” version.

  4. One of my all time favourites since 1971. I like Sandy Dennys Version too. Elvis. Ian and Sylvia. Bob and Jerry

  5. The lyrics says “the sunrise” in live he sings “the rainbow” Interesting!?

  6. Steve Crawfords words about this song are thought provoking.
    Upon hearing this song for the first time I must have played it 50 times that very day and many more times in the days to follow.
    It is the story of a mans existence being experienced as non-existence.I cant see, I cant speak, I cant hear. the strong symbolism of the bed too speaks to a man who is utterly lost: ones bed is home, it is safety and it is refuge. To be deprived of it shows how abjectly alone the singer is. This is how ive always interpreted the song. Steve Crawfords comments though give reason to look deeper.
    To me it is the quintessential love song, categorically different from nearly everything of the last 50 years.

  7. This song makes a dramatic impact in an excellent movie called ” The Vanishing of Sydney Hall”. It will make you want to listen to it over and over again even though the actor messes up the lyrics it still pulls at your heartstrings. I forgot about this song until I saw this movie.
    This songs reminds me of “to ramona”.
    Both beautifully written.
    Your magnetic movements still captures the minutes I’m in…….

    You can’t do better than that, not even “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” is close.

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