LIVING THE BEATLES LEGEND: The Untold Story of Mal Evans, by Kenneth Womack
He was a “gentle giant.” A “teddy bear” who once posed with a koala. A “lovable, cuddly guy.” Of all the people in the Beatles’ entourage, Mal Evans was indisputably the most Muppet-like.
You may have seen the 6-foot-3 Evans looming over shoulders in “Get Back,” Peter Jackson’s blockbuster 2021 documentary. That was him in a green, suede, fringed jacket, helping Paul McCartney puzzle out “The Long and Winding Road,” and banging an anvil on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” with boyish joy in his bespectacled eyes.
He was with the band almost from the beginning — first as a bouncer at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, and then as their driver, roadie and general guy Friday — and all the way to the very bitter end. He was rarely called the fifth Beatle, as was his comrade in factotum-dom, Neil Aspinall, but certainly could have qualified as the sixth or seventh.
Unlike Aspinall and so many other Beatles associates, however, Evans did not receive an obituary in The New York Times when he died at 40 on Jan. 5, 1976. Nor was there a news story about the sensational cause: a fusillade of bullets from the police, summoned after he, who idolized cowboys as well as rock stars, brandished a loaded Winchester rifle in his girlfriend’s Los Angeles apartment.
At the time, Evans was under contract from Grosset & Dunlap to write a long-planned (and Beatles-authorized) memoir about his time with the group, originally called “200 Miles to Go” after the night he punched out a dangerously cracked windscreen and chauffeured his charges for hours through the freezing cold.
Almost 50 years later, after the manuscript and other materials were discovered languishing in a storage basement by a publishing temp and returned to Evans’s family with Yoko Ono’s help, Kenneth Womack has finished the job, with rigor and care if not a sparkling prose style. (In his pages, emotions are always reaching a “fever pitch” and the “winds of change” can actually be glimpsed.) A practiced Beatlesologist, he cleans the floors nicely, but doesn’t dance with the mop.
“Living the Beatles Legend,” its wan title taken with perhaps too much respect from a later iteration of the Evans project, is an interesting case study of two matters: the collateral damage of fame and the difficult process of life writing. Reprinted journal entries and previously unseen (at least by me) snapshots, like of McCartney sunning himself on a car in the Rocky Mountains, offer the voyeuristic excitement of leafing through a private scrapbook, though many of the stories are standards.
Born in 1935, Evans was a little older and posher than the Fab Four. His family waited out the Blitz in Wales; he was issued a Mickey Mouse gas mask. Nicknamed “Hippo” during a shyness-plagued school career — “I didn’t mind,” he wrote, “because it always seemed to be a fairly amiable, vegetarian type of animal, not doing anybody any harm” — he already had a wife, toddler and respectable position as a telecommunications engineer for the General Post Office when he began visiting the Cavern.
There, he’d request Elvis covers that the Beatles would dedicate teasingly — and cruelly, in retrospect — to “Malcontent,” “Malfunctioning” or “Malodorous,” before hiring him for 25 pounds per week, not all expenses paid.
Evans would both revel in and chafe at his subordinate role, devoting himself completely to the whims of these infantilized musicians; John Lennon need only yell “Apples, Mal” at 3 a.m., for example, and a box of Golden Delicious would materialize from Covent Garden.
George Harrison, who also gets a new biography this season, once recalled Evans — a determined athlete who was chased by a stingray and risked hypothermia playing Channel Swimmer in “Help!” — leaping from a boat to buy a “groovy-looking cloak” off the back of a fan. He’d go to spectacular lengths to recover Harrison’s treasured red guitar, “Lucy,” from a thief.
Evans’s reward, and ultimate punishment, for loyal service to the Beatles was sharing in their sybaritic habits. In their orbit he met scores of celebrities: Marlene Dietrich, exposing her pubic hair; Burt Lancaster, whose swim trunks he borrowed; a trouserless Keith Moon. His responsibilities included occasionally spraying overzealous fans with a garden hose and tossing them over his shoulder before ejection and — more consistently — procuring women and drugs, of which he also partook.
Like a Mary Poppins of vice, Evans came to carry around a doctor’s bag filled with plectra, cigarettes, condoms, snacks and aspirin. The gentle giant was also, Womack makes plain, a clumsy compartmentalizer. His long-suffering wife, Lily, would find notes (and sometimes knickers) from groupies in his suitcases. Their children once overheard him being fellated by his girlfriend after he sent a birthday message to one of them on recycled cassette tape. An illegitimate son he sired with a fan was given up for adoption.
More than the other underlings, and irritatingly to some, he insinuated himself into public photographs. He became a fan favorite. “Everybody knew Mal,” Heart’s Ann Wilson, one of Womack’s many supplemental interviewees, observed of the roar when he came onstage to set up at a Seattle concert.
Increasingly, he angled for recognition and promotion. Sometimes, he was cheated of credit, as in his contributions to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”; sometimes, he overreached, claiming that he helped arrange songs on the debut album of the Iveys, later Badfinger.
One of the great sadnesses of Evans — along with his oft-abandoned family — is that he longed to perform himself. “Road manager for the Beatles was, for me, the next best thing,” he wrote. Like the Will Ferrell character in the deservedly famous “Saturday Night Live” sketch about Blue Öyster Cult, he did get the chance to play cowbell, on “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
There’s a poignant stiffness to the diaries Evans kept, possibly for posterity, and the poetry he attempted. An ordinary man who took an extraordinary ride that ended with a terrible crash — aspiring toward honor but submitting to appetites — he is here dusted off and given a proper salute, a place on the groaning shelf of Beatles books.
Though tellingly, even if by accident, his name is left off the spine.
LIVING THE BEATLES LEGEND: The Untold Story of Mal Evans | By Kenneth Womack | Dey Street Books | 592 pp. | $50