Before Peter Jackson’s epic film Get Back, only the most hardcore Beatles fans had any idea who Mal Evans was. But anyone who sees the movie has to come away in love with Mal. He’s the devoted Beatles roadie, one of the only trusted friends in their innermost circle. He’s a cheerful goofball with a jolly grin, banging the anvil when they play “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” The six-six giant who cleverly stalls the cops at the door, when they’re trying to shut down the rooftop performance. Their personal assistant, confidant, fixer, guardian angel. But then, just a few years later, in 1976, he’s in a drug-crazed rage, aiming a rifle at the L.A. cops, and gets gunned down. It’s one of the strangest stories in all of Beatles lore.
The whole story is in the new bio Living The Beatles Legend: The Untold Story of Mal Evans, by the eminent Beatles scholar Kenneth Womack. It’s a fascinating and essential look at the Fab Four saga, starring the loyal Liverpool mate who went through the highest highs and lowest lows with them, always by their side, until his shocking death. As Womack tells Rolling Stone, “They never stopped loving Mal.”
Mal Evans started out as their road manager, lugging the amps, but soon became an indispensable insider and sidekick. When they quit the road, he attended to their whims in the studio. Paul McCartney sang about him as “Mother Malcolm,” in the original version of “Let It Be.” There’s the priceless Get Back scene where Paul calls, “Mal, we should get a hammer—and an anvil,” leaving the roadie scratching his head in confusion. But even after the band broke up, they all needed Mal around on their solo projects. Both John Lennon and George Harrison thanked him in the credits of their classic 1970 post-Beatle albums—Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass—for “tea and sympathy.” In the Seventies, Mal was one of the ONLY things all four Fabs could agree on.
For the book, his family shared a treasure trove of his artifacts, including his diaries, notebooks, and piles of Beatles photos nobody’s seen before. Womack also drew on the unearthed manuscripts of the memoir he was writing before his death. (All four Beatles approved of Mal’s book, a sign of how much they trusted him.) Evans had hopes of moving on up in the music business—he discovered the band Badfinger, got them signed to Apple, and produced their classic 1970 hit “No Matter What.”
But the book also reveals his dark side. In a tragic Seventies story, he moved to L.A., and fell into a downward spiral of booze, guns, and cocaine. In January 1976, he pointed his loaded Winchester rifle at the LAPD, urging them to shoot him—a case of “suicide by cop.” He wrote out his will the night before. It’s a complex story that’s never been fully told before. Womack spoke to Rolling Stone about Mal Evans, and his crucial role in the Beatles story.
How did the Mal Evans book begin?
Gary Evans got in touch, to see if I would tell his father’s story. He’s a lovable guy—he’s like a slightly smaller Mal. We met by Zoom, which is what we all did during the lockdown. I said, “Do you really have all this stuff?” He mails it all to me in New Jersey, in this massive box, full of diaries and unseen photos. Mal had three manuscripts of his memoirs. He had notebooks that he kept with him with random jottings so he could remember things that had happened to him over the years. I got [Beatles historian Mark] Lewisohn on the phone and said, “You’re not going to believe it. It’s all here.”
What was your picture of Mal when you began this project?
My conception of him was like a lot of folks’. He seemed like this huggable, lovable, cuddly Beatles photo-bomber, that we’re all thrilled to see lumbering in the corner of some photo. He was an essential part of their work—one of the few people they trusted, along with Neil Aspinall. But this had to be a warts-and-all story. We went with Ringo’s dictum—when Mal wanted to write his memoirs and he asked Ringo for his advice, he said, “Look, if you don’t tell the truth, don’t bother doing it.” So we’re telling the truth, and let the chips fall where they may.
Some people don’t like this new Mal. They wanted the old Mal. They wanted a book about that guy—the one who’s smiling and banging an anvil. But he’s more complex. He is not an oaf.
Why was Mal so essential to the Beatles?
He was handy. Mal just knew knew how to do things. He was a little older than they were, so he seemed more worldly, even though he probably wasn’t. I do think he won them over once and for all on the 1964 tour, where he’s using his strength and girth to save their lives. The way he protected them on those tours is pretty amazing.
In a lot of ways, he was a weapon to have. He could talk to anybody—this real gift of gab. They would get tired of talking to Burt Lancaster or somebody like that after a while, but Mal could go all night. So Mal was quite useful for his ability to be a diversion. He could divert people away from Abbey Road Studios. He was very good at pivoting when things would get tight on the road so that they could get out of various scrapes. There would be times when the Beatles were fighting with themselves, but Mal would get them to turn their ire on him so that they could get along, make the record, play the show, or whatever it happened to be. Paul could ask him for a line. He delivered a great line in “Here, There, and Everywhere.” Mal wrote about it the day it happened, in his notebook—“Paul needed a line and I gave him ‘watching her eyes and hoping I’m always there.’”
He loved being on the team. He wasn’t looking for fame. His whole reason to exist was for them to be great. That just makes me sad now, because every day that something wonderful happens with the Beatles, I think, “He should have been here.” He should have made it one more day, one more week, to be part of what’s going on right now.
One of his great scenes in Get Back is when the cops come to bust them for playing on the rooftop. Mal stalls them at the door with this Lt. Columbo act, playing dumb, acting so amiable and lovable and bumbling, but really determined to keep them out. We see his devious side.
He was shrewd when it came to thinking his way out of a scrape. The Peter Jackson film left out one of his best moments from the sessions. There’s a day in the studio when he knows John is sick and having a bad day on heroin, when he’s interviewed by Canadian television journalists. That’s an important moment because John gets sick from the junk, and Mal keeps constantly running in to check on John. And when it got really bad, Mal was in head-first taking John out of that space.
He was the road manager, but when they quit touring, his role just got bigger. And even after the Beatles broke up, they all still needed him. Why?
When they stopped touring, Mal and Neil thought, “Well, we probably won’t be working as much.” Were they ever wrong! Suddenly, they’re on call all the time. So much so that Mal moves his family to London. The studio years were an escalation in the usage of Mal, which of course is his undoing.
His sister Barbara told me, “He mothered them.” He was “Mother Malcolm” to them. While they’re working on the White Album or Sgt. Pepper or whatever, Mal could make them a meal, or get them a meal. Or when a guitar breaks, Mal knew who to wake up over at Sound City so that they could keep playing. As John and George put it, he gave them “tea and sympathy.” He stage-managed all their projects. Mal was that guy, and he was fun to have around. He was a stand-in for real life. Paul says this at one point: “You’re the straight one. We like having you around for that reason.” But of course, Mal was chameleonic. He was emulating them the whole time. You can see it in his look and his haircuts as they change over the years. They try LSD, Mal tries LSD.
One of the best lines in the book is in 1974, when Mal finally tells them that he’s quitting, and Ringo tells Harry Nilsson, “Now that Mal’s left, the Beatles are really over.”
I also love the fact that they’re so supportive of him. John tells him, “It’s about time.” But only George knows the truth. George doesn’t buy it. When he gets the call from Mal, he says, “So what?” He knows Mal isn’t quitting. And sure enough, two weeks later, he’s working on Ringo’s Goodnight Vienna, rounding up new tambourines. He can’t get out of it. He doesn’t really want to get out. He just knows that if he’s going to be a professional songwriter or producer, he’s got to put up his own shingle.
Their loyalty to him is really touching. It’s almost like he symbolized the Beatles brotherhood to them, at a time when they weren’t sure about their Beatle identity. He was the continuity to that brotherhood they shared. They trusted him even when they didn’t trust each other.
They never stopped loving Mal. I know I’m getting ahead here, but Gary told me about the time in the early Eighties when George came over to their house, to apologize for his role in setting these things into motion, with Mal moving to L.A. I cried the first time I heard that. When John Lennon heard the news, he called the house to say, “What the fuck is going on out in L.A.?” And they had to tell him that Mal was really dead, and John just sobbed.
His dark side really takes over in L.A., with all the drugs. It’s weird how when you read the book, even if you know how it ends, it’s still a shock when it happens.
My father said the same thing. He read four or five drafts, and he said, “Every time I read it, I want him to not hit the iceberg.” There are just so many near misses with Mal. It breaks your heart. In 1968, he and George go out [to Woodstock] to see Dylan and The Band. And Mal just never goes home, and he’s so terrible to his family. The Southern California rock culture of the 1970s is so cocaine-fueled, and there are a lot of people living very recklessly. So what do The Beatles do? Most of them move out there. Harry Nilsson is probably a lot of fun, but not the friend you want to emulate. Mal needed more adults in his life.
In 1976 he was still hearing very regularly from all four of the boys. I mean, he talked to John. John tried to talk him down from what was clearly a crisis just a couple of days earlier.
What do you think went wrong at the end?
Mal should have been receiving some kind of mental-health care. He needed treatment, in a world that didn’t know how to deal with that. But he had been suicidal for some time. When he said that he wanted to go out in a hail of bullets, he knew what he meant—a hail of bullets. The biggest red flag was the will that he drew up the night before. He was intoxicated, but I do think he’d been planning that for a long time. It’s about four pages, and that’s where he says the Beatles should get together and have a reunion concert when he dies. He was off the handle then, but in the cold light of day, he followed through on that plan.
The police really were the least of the problem. They did what police do, as you know. They didn’t rush in and take him out—it was a methodical process. They did it by the book, and when a guy begins to aim a loaded rifle at them, they did what police do, which is what Mal was planning for. He orchestrated that.
As you said, it’s sad he’s not here to see how the Beatles phenomenon is still growing. Do you think he’d be a part of it?
I think he would’ve been fully part of things. He could never have been a slouch. If he had been a slouch, he wouldn’t have made it. Nobody passed that test that long who was not able to spar with them and maintain their own. Mal was able to take the blows and keep on coming back. So he earned his place in that story. There’s no doubt about that.