Author, educator, and renowned Beatles authority Dr. Kenneth Womack has written extensively about the Beatles and their fascinating narrative. He is currently curating and annotating the legendary Mal Evans archive. Mal was road manager and personal assistant to the Beatles, and he’s a key player, albeit an enigmatic figure, in the band’s story. In the first part of our conversation, Dr. Womack introduced us to Mal Evans and the big man’s life with the Beatles. In this conclusion, he shares more detail of the archive, Mal’s relationship with each of the lads, and about Mal’s death.
Earlier you mentioned Mal’s tragic death. My understanding is that there was an altercation at his home in LA. Whoever he was with rang the police, the police showed up, and Mal had what is most likely an air rifle that he brandished. He might well have been intoxicated. In any case, the cops shot him dead. That’s what I know. What else can you share with us about his tragic end?
In the books, I will be providing an extensive, full and final understanding of what really took place that day [5 January 1976]. I don’t want to say too much more.
My father had a great comment as he read through the manuscript, ‘I know what’s coming,’ he said, ‘but it’s sort of like the Titanic – it didn’t have to hit the iceberg. There were so many ways in which things might have turned out differently.’ I took that as a great compliment for the book, because it meant that Mal was vivid and so alive that my father just didn’t want the inevitable to happen. [His death] was entirely avoidable, but I think Mal did have some kind of reckoning in his life. To borrow your phrase, he did partake in the ‘filthy lucre’ by living like a rock star, sometimes with more voracious appetites than even the Beatles themselves. He was a big guy with big appetites wanting to live a very big life, and it did catch up with him. But that doesn’t make it any less tragic that Gary and Julie [Mal’s children] would never see him again.
But it is part of the Beatles’ story. This is a true story. We all want to elevate them to the status of geniuses for what they’ve left us, but they’re real people. One guy [John] gets murdered. Other guys are going to die way too young – Stu [Sutcliffe], Brian [Epstein], George Harrison. There’s going to be heartache and broken friendships. It has everything, because it’s the stuff of real life. And occasionally real life does produce something magnificent like the Beatles.
Absolutely. Now, could you share with us a bit about Mal’s relationship with the individual members of the band?
That is a fascinating aspect of this story. Mal had shifting friendships with the Beatles. He had a wonderful relationship with John Lennon, which deepened during the so-called ‘lost weekend’ [in LA during Lennon’s separation from Yoko Ono] when they spent more time just one-on-one together. Lily liked to say that the band would get jealous about who had Mal’s attentions, because he was such a great confidante and a great friend.
Certainly by the mid ‘60s he’s extremely close with Paul, and they travel together extensively. He even lives for a time at Cavendish Avenue [Paul’s home in London], and they absolutely have a close friendship. It’s George Harrison with whom he’s closest to first. When Mal first visited the Cavern Club, it was George Harrison who befriended him. He’d go over to the Harrison’s house, or George would come over sometimes late in the night and Lily would wake up and make them eggs. Mal had a really warm relationship with all of them.
When Ringo comes on board, Mal of course predates him. Ringo had nothing but wonderful things to say about Mal, who welcomed him into the band and helped him to find his place in this organization that’s suddenly on a meteoric rise. One of my favorite moments for those two is certainly the ‘windscreen incident’ in January 1963 [a harrowing winter car trip across England]. That was a big deal. It was a bonding moment, a primal moment in which they all made this friendly connection. Now it was the five of them against the world and the elements, driving through a raging snow storm. For Ringo, who’d only been in the band since late August, it was a spectacular bonding moment.
So much detail of the Beatles’ story comes out in an exploration of Mal’s life and his involvement with the band.
For years we’ve heard about the elusive Mal Evans archives. So you’re working with that previously mythological trove, is that correct?
It absolutely is. And it is extensive. It features hundreds, perhaps thousands, of manuscript pages. A few thousand photographs [mostly taken by Mal]. Lots of vital data including receipts and other sorts of ephemera. I’ve worked hard to catalog it and, for book two, the world will have access to all of this material.
What I like about the second book that I’m now annotating is that it’s kind of the DIY book. I tell Mal’s story in volume one, his biography. Then volume two will be a curated collection that will allow the legions of Beatles fandom to find their own Mal stories, and study the diaries and find the connections between his journal notes and other material.
To tell all of the Beatles’ story, which Mark Lewison is doing in spectacular fashion, takes millions of words. [The archive] allows folks an entree into that world to make connections that may have eluded all of us. I’m very excited to share this with the world so that folks can have that opportunity.
A couple years ago there was a tour of Beatles memorabilia at The Henry Ford [a museum in Dearborn, Michigan]. There were lots of bits, from pieces of sheet from hotels they stayed in, to locks of their hair. My favorite was the copy of [John Lennon’s last solo album] Double Fantasy that John had signed for Mark David Chapman – macabre but fascinating. Do you think they’ll ever mount a touring curated collection of Mal’s archive?
I do. I know that Gary Evans and his sister Julie would be excited for folks to be able to see the diaries for themselves. So, absolutely that will be possible. And of course I’m very proud that my publisher [Harper Collins] wants these books to be fully Illustrated. The biography and this sort of omnibus second book, people will have access to photographs of all of this material so they can see it for themselves.
I learned recently that Mal had a sister named Pam. Did she work in a shop? Was she a go-getter?
[Laughs] No, that’s not her.
I found it interesting, because there are all these stories about how Mal participated in the creative process. Do you feel like most of the stuff that we read about his participation did happen for him?
It is quite true, and it shouldn’t surprise us. When you work in a small group like that, you’re making this incredible music at a feverish pace. They’re creating so much, so many wonderful songs. There’s even a politics of whose songs get to appear on the albums. Poor George gets slighted, until he finally demonstrates that he’s at least [Lennon & McCartney’s] equal. George performs very admirably indeed on the White Album [The Beatles] and Abbey Road. Some of those songs from All Things Must Pass [George’s 1970 three-disc solo album] had been around since 1966. He’d been trying to break through the thick politics of the band.
Mal was there, and he and Neil were jacks of all trades. Mal held the organ note down on “You Won’t See Me.” [Mal comes in at 2:29 of the clip above] He picks up a trumpet on “Helter Skelter,” bangs the anvil helping Paul develop “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” and he’s one of the four people holding down that final note on “A Day in the Life” and triggering the alarm clock. These were people they trusted and they were working often against the clock and of course against their own seemingly endless creativity, from which this material is always deeply flowing. They would absolutely call on Mal or Neil to be able to contribute to those recordings.
Is it possible to audit your Beatles course?
Of course you can. It would probably help if you lived in the greater New York City area. I did a truncated version for the 92nd Street Y [in Manhattan]. I’d like to do some more. It’s fun. I enjoy other people as they discover the Beatles’ story. There’s a magic to it. I’m jealous of the thousands of kids today who will get to hear the Beatles for the first time.
Dr. Kenneth Womack is Professor of English and Popular Music at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, NJ. His most recent publications include a two-volume study devoted to the life and work of Beatles producer George Martin, as well as Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles, and his latest book, John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life. He is the Music Culture writer for Salon and the host of their Everything Fab Four podcast.