Reviewing “Living the Beatles Legend” by Kenneth Womack – a detailed account of a roadie’s journey along the winding road with the Beatles.
Craig Brown’s book, One Two Three Four, discusses how the Beatles had a brief but significant impact on millions of lives. Within the book, one person stands out from the background: Mal Evans. Evans was a bouncer at the Cavern Club and later became the band’s driver and bodyguard as they toured extensively. He was both a close insider during the chaotic years and also a devoted fan of the Beatles. In this well-researched account of his life, Evans takes on a central role, something that all supporting actors secretly hope for. Unfortunately, his life was cut short at the age of 40 in 1976 when he was shot by the LAPD after allegedly pointing a rifle at them in an attempt to end his own life.
The release of the book has been a long-awaited event. Before his passing, Evans had a publishing deal to chronicle his life, using his journals and notes from his time on the road. He had completed a draft of his memoir, but it was prevented from being published by his wife, Lily. Fortunately, a temporary employee at the publishing company noticed and saved the archive and manuscript from being thrown away. With the assistance of Yoko Ono, the materials were returned to the family. Finally, in 2020, Evans’s son, Gary, who was 14 when his father passed away, hired musicologist and Beatles enthusiast Ken Womack to share the complete story.
This is a familiar story, as John Lennon may have remarked, more so than the gospels. It includes the early, carefree days in Liverpool, the deafening screams of Beatlemania, their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and their success in the US, their encounter with the maharishi, their supernatural level of creativity, and ultimately, their disagreements and split – all told from the perspective of an unknown follower.
Evans quickly realized his true calling. There was a story that served as evidence for it. In January 1963, as the group’s second single Please Please Me climbed the charts, Evans stepped in to drive them to London for a TV appearance when their regular roadie, Neil Aspinall, fell ill with the flu. On the way back, during a blizzard, the windshield of their Ford bus shattered. Evans prevented a potential accident by punching out the glass and continued to drive all the way home with a paper bag over his head (with holes for his eyes) to protect himself from frostbite. Meanwhile, the Fab Four took turns lying on top of one another in the back to stay warm. They never forgot that night and from then on, Mal – also known as Malfunctioning, Malcontent, or Malodorous – became a constant figure on all of their magical mystery tours.
He was well-suited for the task. Standing at a sturdy 6 feet 3 inches, he had earned the nickname “hippo” during his school days in Liverpool. He embraced the name because he saw hippos as friendly and vegetarian animals. He was the perfect muscle for the Beatles, fitting in seamlessly with their fans but also having a peaceful demeanor. He was 27 years old when he joined the group, working as an engineer for the GPO during the day and taking care of his young son at home. Initially, he was known as the large man who would request Elvis songs during his lunch breaks at the Cavern.
The Beatles’ generosity and camaraderie on tour meant that Evans played a much bigger role than just a hired helper. Along with carrying important supplies like aspirin, condoms, and guitar picks, he also served as a trusted source for drugs and women while traveling to various hotels. He was also a confidant and actively participated in many of the group’s early adventures. During their stay at the Delmonico hotel in 1964, Bob Dylan introduced the band to marijuana and Evans not only joined in, but was also asked by Paul McCartney to document their first experiences with being high. The next day, they discovered that Evans had only written down one sentence: “There are seven levels.” At the ashram in Rishikesh, Evans handled media interactions and organized breakfast for Ringo Starr and a birthday party for George Harrison. He even found time to collaborate on a song with Donovan and go on a tiger hunt. Evans also claimed that after hours of meditation, McCartney told him that he had a vision of Evans standing by his bedside, repeating comforting words: “Let it be, let it be.”
As the 500-page history unfolds, slowly but surely, towards its tragic conclusion – Evans and his family were ultimately undone by the intensity of their wild and chaotic experiences – it serves as a cautionary tale. The Beatles made their success look effortless, leading Evans to believe he could achieve the same. After the band’s breakup, he dabbled in producing and songwriting (with his own recollections of working with George and Ringo). In 1975, he was delighted to be asked to be the featured guest at “Beatlefest”, a fan event in New York. He was scheduled to reminisce on stage for half an hour, but the audience refused to let him go: “They had to forcibly remove me in the end, because the crowd was so supportive,” he recalled. In many ways, this book captures the same shift in focus that the event represented – Evans’ proximity to world-changing talent, yet also his distance from it. “It was like being a Beatle for a weekend,” he wrote at the time. It was, and it wasn’t.