Living the Beatles Legend: book review
45 days ago
Mal Evans was the Beatles’ road manager, from their post-Hamburg days at the Cavern club, through their whole recording career and beyond. I picked up Living the Beatles Legend: the Untold Story of Mal Evans by Kenneth Womack hoping for another angle on the familiar subject of the Beatles. Instead, I got a fascinating and frustrating glimpse at one of the Beatles’ closest confidantes; a lovely, gentle man by all accounts, but a flawed one who was ultimately brought down by his own weaknesses.
The main source material of the book is Evans’ personal diaries, which he was preparing for publication at the time of his tragic death and which were subsequently lost for many years in the publisher’s vaults. Kenneth Womack perhaps treads too closely to Evans’ account, failing to critically evaluate some of his claims. For example, Evans says that the original lyric to 'Let It Be' included the line ‘Mother Malcolm comes to me’. Womack accepts this without question, but whenever I’ve heard Paul McCartney talk on the subject, he’s always described the song’s inspiration as a dream where his late mother, Mary McCartney, spoke to him. That makes a lot more sense and also seems to make a mockery of Evans’ claim to have been the placeholder before Paul came up with ‘Mother Mary’. Evans also claims to have helped Paul with writing some lyrics, only for Paul to leave his name off the songwriting credit because of the potency of the Lennon-McCartney brand. That may well be true, but moments like Mother Malcolm suggest a Walter Mitty quality about Evans, a man vicariously revelling in his employers’ rock and roll successes and sometimes seeking to place himself closer to the centre of attention.
The book also highlights Evans’ ability to compartmentalise his life. He was a loving family man, writing letters home to his wife Lily while away on the road, and pouring out his heart about how much he misses her and their children, but in the next breath making the most of the extra-marital opportunities his position with the Beatles affords him.
Ultimately, his years of excess and compartmentalising caused his life to unravel. Would he have been a happier man if he’d never gone to work for the Beatles? It’s an unfair question: If he had continued his career as a GPO engineer instead, he wouldn’t have had the same access to the destructive influence of drugs nor the temptation of groupies willing to do anything to get close to John, Paul, George and Ringo. At the same time he wouldn’t have travelled the world, or met his heroes (Womack relates a wonderful phone conversation where McCartney introduces Evans to Elvis, telling Presley that he’s about to talk to his biggest fan). He clearly loved his time with the band, and comes across as a valued friend to the fabs, not just an employee. It’s also worth pointing out that the aspects of Evans’ character that led him to partake so enthusiastically in the excess on offer could well have sabotaged his marriage just as successfully in a mundane non-showbiz life. Would he have been happier without all that? We’ll never know.
Evan’s lifelong love of Westerns and his accompanying fascination with guns casts a shadow throughout the book. The sad conclusion of his life came when in 1976, gripped by a drug habit and depressed at the break up of his marriage, he was shot and killed by the LA police in his hotel room. Evans was acting erratically and refused to put down the replica gun he was holding. The book hints that the shooting was the outcome Evans wanted; he had had enough and wanted to die.
It's a frustrating, fascinating book because Evans is such a frustrating and fascinating man. He genuinely saw himself as devoted to his family, yet was simultaneously incapable of making them the priority he wants to. The success of his professional life and the tragedy of his personal one is summed up in one simple statement: whenever there was a choice to be made between his family obligations and the Beatles, it was the Fab Four who always came first.
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