Though not the primary wordsmith in The Smiths, Johnny Marr sure knows his way around a story and the tale which he unfurls in the below clip is a richly textured rock and roll yarn. Let Marr tell you the story behind the group’s iconic track, ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’.
One of The Smiths’ most notable songs, was released in May 1984 but as with any story that Johnny Marr tells, for him, it all goes back to the day he got the guitar which produced notes. That day was January 2nd, 1984.
As Marr explains in the video below compiled as part of NME’s ‘Song Stories’ feature, the track can be traced back to the early moment of 1984 as The Smiths were being courted by the glitterati of the indie world. It meant he and the rest of the band were out to dinner “being wined and dined” with the head of legendary rock label, Sire Records, who was looking to sign them.
As Stein regaled the members of the band with rock and roll legends, he mentions that he once took The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones out to buy a guitar in New York, “So I saw my opportunity right there,” Marr explains, “I said to him ‘Well, if you take me to get a guitar in New York, we’ll sign to your record label.'”
“And in a moment of weakness, he took the bait and said ‘Sure, I’ll get you a guitar’,” continues the guitarist, So true to his word, though I had to wait around all day, we went over to 48th st in New York.” But with the shops closing and the chances of a new shining guitar dwindling, the lad from Manchester was nervous, “I thought, I’m gunna miss my chance here.”
“I just saw this guitar in the window and it was like there was this light glowing behind it.” Stein was good for his word and purchased the new holy grail. Marr rushed back to the hotel and like a child on Christmas took the instrument out straight away “The first thing I played,” says Marr in the video as he begins to strum the iconic opening chords, lost in the moment, “And that is literally what happened when I picked the guitar up.”
“I was like, ‘where the hell did this come from?’, I better turn this into a song” and as he often did, Marr then goes on a small journey of his creation detailing with stunning accuracy the moments, environment and thinking that aided his melodic construction. But while many of his song explanations are satisfying, this one has a second course.
Not only would ‘Girl Afraid’ be the b-side for ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ but “I always saw them as a pair, ‘cos I wrote them in the same day,” explains Marr in the clip. He then expertly deconstructs the riff and puts the rock and roll bounce of ‘Girl Afraid’ down to the styling of the new guitar. To hear how effortlessly these moments came to Marr adds further gravitas to The Smiths being one of the most influential artists in British music.
Watch below as Johnny Marr tells the story of The Smiths’ ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ and the guitar that spawned it.