End of the Roadie

REVIEW: ‘Living the Beatles Legend: The Untold Story of Mal Evans’ by Kenneth Womack

John, Ringo, Alex Mardas ('Magic Alex') and Mal Evans at a 'White Album' recording session, 1968. (The Beatles/Facebook)
May 26, 2024

Could there have been any life—apart from being one of the actual Fab Four—greater than that of someone in the inner circle of the Beatles? Mal Evans didn’t think so.

Not many were allowed in the unofficial club, and even the casual Beatles fan knows all their names: Brian Epstein, the band’s manager; George Martin, their stalwart producer; longtime Beatles aides Neil Aspinall and Derek Taylor. Yet it’s Evans alone among the Beatles mafia who can claim to be a legend in his own right—the only one, like the Beatles themselves, known chiefly by his first name, Mal.

At the height of Beatlemania, the hulking, grinning, bespectacled Mal had his legion of fans, too. As the band’s roadie and personal assistant, Mal was a familiar face on and offstage to audiences from the Cavern Club in Liverpool all the way to the big stadium concerts in America. He was a subject of interest for the plethora of Beatles fan magazines, as likely as anyone in the band’s entourage to pop up in a photo alongside one of them. And reporters covering the Beatles phenomenon always seemed to be drawn to the gregarious Mal.

You can spot him in some of the Beatles movies, and he participated in the recording of several Beatles songs. The anvil you hear on "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer"? That’s Mal striking it. The famous psychedelic cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Mal helped arrange the scene. You can see him rehearsing with the band in the recent Get Back documentary.

The Beatles’ initial residency at the Cavern in Liverpool, their first arrival to America, their visit with Elvis Presley, their near-disastrous escape from Manila, the filming of their live-action films, the founding of Apple Corps, their meditation retreat to India, their final rooftop concert—Mal was there for pretty much all of it, the group’s biggest fan living the Beatles legend up close and personal.

This is the thrilling part of the life of Mal Evans described by Kenneth Womack in Living the Beatles Legend, gleaned from both recollections of some of the people around Mal as well as his own diary entries and letters. Those writings formed the basis for a memoir he worked on but never published, which had the similar title Living the Beatles’ Legend.

After a few brief chapters of Mal’s early life in Liverpool, much of what follows in Womack’s book is a retelling of the familiar Beatles story through Mal’s eyes. But for the standard devotee to the band, few of the anecdotes are entirely new, and the actual novel or little-known stories provided here hardly seem destined for the canon of Beatles lore.

Take Mal’s white-knuckle journey back to Liverpool during a freezing fog on January 23, 1963, driving the Ford Thames 400E tour bus with the lads in the back. The trip was harrowing, especially when a rock cracks the windshield and forces the roadie to smash the glass out and drive without any protection from the elements. To stay warm from the cold air as Mal sped up the motorway, the Beatles took pulls from a bottle of whiskey and alternated laying on top of each other to form what Paul later dubbed a "Beatles sandwich." That’s a yarn Paul McCartney has been telling for years, though Mal has a little color to add, which Womack lifts from the unpublished manuscript:

All the while, Mal and the boys maintained a steady banter to stave off exhaustion. As the Big Freeze raged across that long night—swirling both inside and outside the Ford van—the Beatles regularly pestered their driver about how much farther they had to go. "[Two hundred] miles to go!" Mal would good-naturedly reply, referencing the approximate distance between Liverpool and London. In this way, "it became our own private joke, and ‘200 miles to go, Mal’ was heard whenever things were tough."

Mal’s role as willing and able assistant affords readers the "true" story in a few instances, yet the revelations are often a let down.

For example, here’s what really happened at the Beatles’ meditation retreat with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India. Most Beatles fans know that Ringo and his wife Maureen left the retreat early because the drummer, whose health issues as a child rendered him sensitive to certain foods, had reacted poorly to the cuisine served at the Maharishi’s ashram. What Mal knew, since he ferried the Starkeys back to the airport, was that Mo had demanded she and Ringo leave after several nights of dealing with flies in their room and because she missed their young children. A notable bit of spin by the Beatles to avoid appearing culturally insensitive to their Indian host, but it’s not quite the same as learning that "Sexy Sadie" was really about the Maharishi, is it?

But if Womack’s volume isn’t likely to join the other dozen or so books to shape our shared narrative of the group, it does offer a tragic and dark twist to the Beatles tale. Mal’s untimely and bizarre death in 1976, just days before he was scheduled to send his memoir to the publisher, was the capper to the flip side of living this legend: A devotion to the Beatles like Mal’s was often thankless, cruel, and even destructive.

Mal worked hard lifting amplifiers on tour or providing the lads with socks, tea, and drugs whenever they asked for them, but for years he still struggled to provide for his wife Lily and their children. His attempts to expand his role within the Beatles empire left him frustrated as the Beatles themselves or the savvy businessmen around them dismissed Mal’s potential, seeing him only as the working-class Scouser who caught a lucky train out of Liverpool. And he suffered plenty of self-inflicted wounds with his misplaced priorities, elevating the band and its needs over those of his own family. His pop-star-adjacent lifestyle was irretrievably altered once the Beatles began to break up in 1969.

By then, Lily was exhausted by her less-than-devoted husband. Mal’s new career as songwriter and music producer was sputtering. After Mal had championed the Welsh band Badfinger at Apple Records, notorious Beatles business manager Allen Klein effectively stripped him of any involvement with the new band’s operations. Klein had also been the source of the final tension within the Beatles themselves, with Paul opposing his hiring but being outvoted by John, Ringo, and George Harrison. The bitter breakup, announced at last in early 1970 but mired in lawsuits for years after, led Paul to push away from nearly everyone associated with the Beatles, including his onetime flatmate Mal. The remaining ex-Beatles, with their various musical endeavors in the early 1970s, continued to "exploit" their roadie "at their pleasure."

"At times, Mal acted very much like a shuttlecock, sporadically ricocheting from one former Beatle’s racquet to another," Womack writes. The time was not unproductive professionally for Mal, though his marriage was crumbling as he spent more time in Southern California, where he had become attached to George and later to John, both of whom would relocate there. He even cowrote a song with the Quiet Beatle, which Ringo recorded and released on his eponymous 1973 album.

But his permanent move to Los Angeles in 1973 was in a way the final, sad act of a man who always lusted after stardom but only ever managed to get achingly close to it. He had separated from Lily and began living with his girlfriend, the L.A. recording studio booker Fran Hughes, when the Beatles legally dissolved in December 1973. The ride that had begun a decade earlier was finally over, and it sent Mal into bouts of depression that he never escaped during the final two years of his life.

Womack identifies from the diary entries and letters, as well as other sources, clear evidence of compartmentalization: "I think Malcolm kept things quite separate, kept his home life and his work life in distinct spaces," June Evans, Mal’s sister, told Womack in an interview in 2021. Mal and the Beatles, June went on, lived in a "totally unreal world—an extraordinary, horrendous, wonderful, terrible place that they were all existing in during that period. And they were all damaged by it. They suddenly could have anything they wanted."

While away, Mal would write letters to Lily about his missing her and his son Gary, his desire to be home with her, and his need for her love. But the letters also reflect a noticeable disregard for his wife’s loneliness and second-status to the band and touring life.

After a whirlwind tour in mid-1964 through Asia and Oceania—with plenty of debauchery by the band and crew—Mal returned to England but stayed in London for the premiere of the Beatles’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night, before returning to his home in Liverpool, though Lily and Gary, it turned out, had taken an extended holiday in Norway. "The house is just a house at the moment without you and Gary," Mal wrote on July 5. "With no laughter or warmth in it at all, and I feel very miserable and sorry for myself as you can imagine. I miss you both so. Every pretty girl I see brings your face to my mind, and while I was away, there were so many little boys who looked like Gary waving to me from the crowd."

The collision of the compartments were sometimes darkly comical, as when one of Mal’s young female "pen pals," visiting London from America, decided to pop over to Mal’s house days before their planned rendezvous. Lily was shocked when she opened the door; the young American more so since, as she told Mal days later, she had been unaware he was even married. More often, it was just plain sad, such as when Lily would find notes from Mal’s conquests stuffed haphazardly in his luggage after he returned from a tour.

How much Mal grappled with the contradiction is something Womack understandably cannot fully explore, but the author takes full account of the impact Mal’s rock star lifestyle had on those he loved.

The heart can’t help but break for young Gary Evans, whose father was touring with the Beatles for much of his formative years, moving with his mother and baby sister from Liverpool to London while in grade school to be closer to Mal. His London schoolmates mocked Gary’s northern accent, and he even regarded his Beatles association as a source of embarrassment. Mal humiliated the schoolboy when he picked him up in John Lennon’s psychedelic car, and Gary could not even bring himself to mention during a school production of the song "Yellow Submarine" that his dad was on the recording.

The pain grew worse for the Evans family when Mal, estranged in California and using drugs and alcohol to beat back his depression, told Fran he wanted to "die" and began acting erratically in their apartment with his Winchester rifle in hand. Concerned, Fran called the police. After a standoff, in which the roadie groggily told the police to kill him, Mal raised the rifle to his shoulder and the two officers fired six shots.

It was January 4, 1976, nearly 13 years since he had driven this exciting new beat band from London to Liverpool, and Mal was dead—an addict, Womack suggests, who could no longer get his Beatles fix.

Living the Beatles Legend: The Untold Story of Mal Evans
by Kenneth Womack
Dey Street Books, 592 pp., $50

Michael Warren is a senior editor at the Dispatch.