Review of Living the Beatles Legend – A Disturbing Tragedy


I’ve been a been a Beatles fan as long as I can remember. I can’t claim to recall their 1964 appearance on Ed Sullivan. I was about to turn five, but apparently, I did watch it with my parents. I do however, remember listening to their music as a preteen and then buying Abbey Road in 1972 when it came out. I just did a count, it seems I own eighteen books about The Beatles, including the two by renown historians and Beatles scholars, Mark Lewishohn’s 946 page, The Beatles –  All These Years, and Bob Spitz’s 983 page, The Beatles –The Biography, in addition to the Beatles own 367 page, The Beatles Anthology and accompanying 5 DVD BBC series.

Yet in spite of reading all these books and others, I did not take notice of Mal Evans until Peter Jackson’s three-part documentary, Get Back. In watching the series, you couldn’t miss big cuddly Mal, or notice how close he was to the Beatles and how much they seemed to like him. Over the years there’s been lots of talk about someone being a fifth Beatle, sometimes it was in reference to Brian Esptein, their discovering manager who died of an overdose in 1967, George Martin, their producer on all their albums, or Billy Preston, who played on later albums and their solo albums after their breakup. However, the one people started referring to as the Fifth Beatle, after the Get Back documentary, was Mal Evans. He stole the show. This big guy who seemed so out of place endeared himself to millions because of this series. We see his interaction with them throughout the series and it becomes apparent how close he was to them.

Because of the documentary I started googling Mal Evans. I learned he was their road manager and had been with them from their Cavern days in 1963 when they hired him to drive them around to their gigs and be their roadie. Over the years he came to be a trusted confidant and friend to each of the Beatles. I also came across stories about a possible Mal Evans biography being penned by Kenneth Womack, a highly respected Beatles historian and scholar. Womack is a professor of English and Popular music. He’s also lectured on the Beatles at Princeton, Harvard, and the Smithsonian.

Mal Evans kept a diary during his entire time with the Beatles. Before his untimely death in 1976 in a standoff with the LAPD, he had been working on his biography. The manuscript for the biography along with his diaries and a plethora of memorabilia and pictures languished in a publisher’s cellar in New York city until discovered in 1988 by a temp worker hired to clean it out and dispose of the cellar’s contents. Thankfully, she recognized the importance of what she came across. She connected with Yoko Ono who, armed with a legal team, quickly rescued the contents and made sure it was all returned to Mal Evans’ widow.

The manuscript, diaries, and memorabilia stayed in the family’s attic until Mal Evans’ son, Gary, approached Ken Womack in 2020 about writing Mal’s biography with full access to the family’s archives. As soon as the book came out in December this year, I bought it.

I mentioned all the above because who wrote the biography and what material was used is important. Though Womack may be a Beatles fan, and may be a Mal Evans fan, he is first and foremost a historian focused on bringing a true account of Mal Evans’ life with the Beatles. Mal himself makes it clear in his diaries and manuscript he’s not interested in painting a picture of himself as a perfect guy. He wants to reveal warts and all. When he talks to the Beatles individually about writing his story about his time with them, they give him full permission to do so. Mal says he won’t make them look bad. Ringo’s response is that you either tell the truth or don’t bother.

Womack reveals the truth Mal hoped for. It’s not pretty.

As loveable as Mal comes across in Get Back and to everyone who knew him, as much as the Beatles themselves loved him, there was dark side to this man. He struggled with his love and total devotion to John, Paul, George, and Ringo. His devotion to them went beyond what most might do. He constantly put their needs above his own, and above his family. In addition to his dedication to the Beatles, his own desire for stardom added to an inner conflict that ultimately led to his death.

The book is a great read. There’s lots of inside stories seen through the eyes of the dedicated roadie and friend. Womack reveals to us why the Fab Four loved him so much. It’s not just that he was indispensable. They saw his kindness and genuine desire to serve them. Yes, he was a fan, but first and foremost he saw himself as their dedicated servant who would do anything for them.

There’s a sadness that set in with me as I read his story. It may not feel the same to all readers, but it sure did with me. Mal is newly married to Lily and they have a baby boy, Gary, when he starts working for the Beatles as their driver and roadie. From the start he always prioritized the Beatles over Lily and Gary. It broke my heart and kept doing so to the very end. Sometimes life hits us with tragedies that are not of our making. That’s not the case with Mal. He makes choice after choice to prioritize the Beatles over his family. It breaks his family’s heart and ours.

Another disturbing element is how the Beatles exploited their relationship with Mal over the years. They never hesitated to call him at any hour of the day or ask him to do things they knew full well would make him prioritize them over his family. Yes, he was their employee and they paid him for that service. But they took it to an extreme. The book does show how they cared for Mal, but they didn’t treat him in a way that acknowledged he had a family. He catered to their every need as the Beatles and as individuals. They knew his dedication and exploited it. With all the reading I’ve done about the Beatles I’ve long known this about them, that they can be less than caring about others. It’s easy to criticize them, as we sit on the outside, but they did succumb to many of the trappings of success when it came to managing relationships. They were the Beatles and they knew it.

They paid him an annual salary that was equivalent to the average British worker, topping out at about $50,000 in Canadian dollars today. However, they paid his weekly salary regardless of how many hours he worked. He was expected to work whenever they asked. He’d go days and weeks without a day off, often working 12-to-18-hour days. He traveled away from his family for weeks and months on end until the touring ended in 1966 without every getting any additional compensation. He took his family on one trip to France with the Beatles during the height of Beatlemania, but had to pay for their fare and hotel. He never complained about his financial compensation. It was another choice he made to put the Beatles over his family.

It’s not they were unkind to his family. They did invite them to their homes for family dinners. Geoge and Ringo did take them a on a few vacations with them. Though Paul was the one that Mal looked up to the most, it was Ringo who treated Mal’s family the best. Always inviting them over for family gatherings.

There’s no doubt Mal lived a life he would not have traded for another. He loved being part of the Beatles lives. He says, “It was certainly exciting. I could live on it. It’s better than food and drink.” In the fall of 1975, a short time before his death, he appeared as a key speaker at a Beatlefest event where he regaled in stories about his time with the Beatles. The fans loved it. They wanted pieces of him, like they did with the Beatles during Beatlemania. Womack writes, “He described being onstage as the audience cheered as possibly the greatest thrill of his life.”

The tragedy of Mal’s live struck me the most as Womack concluded in the closing page of his book.

“Mal ultimately lived the way he did—with great deliberateness, often recklessly, and without apology—because he expressly chose to do so, step by step. For him being in close proximity to the Beatles’ special brand of stardom trumped the joys and commitment to family.”

I cried.

I cried for Lily, Gary, and Mal’s daughter, Julie.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *