The Life and Death of Mal Evans
On page 3 of the Jan. 5, 1976 edition of the Los Angeles Times, a small, six-paragraph story told the world of the death of Mal Evans.
The only reason the story was on page 3 was the manner in which he died: Police raided his apartment the night before, where he had barricaded himself in an upstairs room with a rifle. Two officers shot him several times.
The article referred to Evans as a “jobless former road manager for the Beatles,” and the rest of the article read like a police report. Rolling Stone magazine published a proper obituary several weeks later, but the article is the only written eulogy of the person who could make a good case of being the mythical “fifth Beatle.”
From the Beatles’ days in the Cavern Club in 1962 to their final album in 1970, Mal Evans was with the Fab Four every step of the way. He was the Beatles’ personal assistant, performing odd jobs that ranged from fetching coffee and women for the group to playing musical instruments on several Beatles albums. The Beatles adored him, and amid all the infighting between John, Paul, George and Ringo, no one ever said a negative word about Mal.
We know so little about him; most of what we do know revolves around the Beatles. He was born Malcolm Frederick Evans on May 27, 1935 and spent several years working as a telecommunications engineer in the Post Office in Liverpool before he discovered the Beatles playing in the Cavern Club in 1962.
“I used to go out window shopping on my lunch hour,” he remembered. “And I went down Matthew Street – it was a small, dingy street with warehouses down the side, and it was to lead me around the world. I walked down this street, and the most incredible music I’d heard was coming from beneath my feet. I paid a shilling, went into the Cavern, and the Beatles were on. I fell in love with them.”
Mal Evans becomes a roadie
Evans was hooked. He became a regular at the club, requesting songs by Elvis, until then his favorite performer. He was eventually hired as a bouncer, where he was able to watch the Beatles perform and get paid for it. “I could sit there for three hours and think maybe 10 minutes had gone by. You just got so captivated by the music,” he said.
When the Beatles’ driver could not travel with the band one night, Evans volunteered to drive them, and thus began the long relationship with the Fab Four. He became their roadie, packing and unpacking their equipment and setting it up onstage – something he didn’t really know how to do at first.
The first time he had to assemble Ringo’s drum kit was a disaster. Then he failed to strap a guitar and some suitcases on a rack securely, causing the guitar, still in its case, bouncing down the road until the truck traveling behind them ran straight over it. Another time, he lost one of John’s favorite guitars.
However, his devotion was unwavering. One cold winter evening as Evans was driving the band back from a concert, a pebble smashed into the front of the car, shattering the windshield. Evans used his hat as protection to knock out the rest of the windshield and drove on.
Once when the Beatles were cruising the canals in Amsterdam, they spotted a person with an attractive cloak. The four sent Mal to find out where he had purchased it. Mal immediately jumped off the boat, swam to where the person was, and three hours later, he returned to the hotel with the cloak, which he’d bought from the person.
“He had a bag that he developed over the years, because it would always be: ‘Mal, have you got an Elastoplast? Mal, have you got a screwdriver? Mal, have you got a bottle of this? Have you got that?’ And he always had everything,” George said. “If he didn’t have it, he’d get it very quickly.”
Mal Evans and fame
As the Beatles rocketed to superstardom, Mal Evans hung on for the ride, sometimes wide-eyed at the new-found fame. He was a real-life version of Zelig, popping up at the Beatles’ most famous incidents. As the Beatles were landing at JFK airport in New York for their U.S. debut, he and fellow roadie Neil Aspinall frantically forged the band members’ autographs on 8×10 glossies.
He got to meet his idol, Elvis Presley, and even created plectrums made out of plastic silverware so the King could jam with the Beatles. He was also present when Bob Dylan introduced the Beatles to marijuana in early 1964. Paul remembered:
I went around thinking I’d found the meaning of life that night. I kept saying to Mal, “Get a pencil and paper, I’ve got it.” Mal, who was a bit out of it too, couldn’t find a pencil or paper anywhere. Eventually he found some, and I wrote down the Message of the Universe and told him, “Now keep that in your pocket.” The next morning Mal said, “Hey Paul, do you what to see that bit of paper?” I had written: “There are seven levels.” Yeah, OK, maybe it didn’t exactly sum it all up after all, but we had a great time.
He loyally protected the four against Philippine soldiers when they stood up President Ferdinand Marcos in 1966. Several soldiers punched him and knocked him to the ground, bruising several of his ribs.
When the Beatles stopped touring in 1966, Mal’s prime responsibility – road manager – was eliminated. He still drove the band to and from the recording studio, but in between recording sessions, he had little to do. Living in the Beatles’ shadow had not only been a job, but a necessity over the last three years.
Luckily for Mal, the Beatles needed him just as much as he needed them. He traveled with the band members on individual trips; in fact, while on a trip to Africa with Paul, Mal helped name the Beatles’ most famous recording. Paul claims that the naming of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” came from a word game he and Mal played. “We were having our meal and they had those little packets marked ‘S’ and ‘P’. Mal said, ‘What’s that mean? Oh, salt and pepper.’ We had a joke about that. So I said, ‘Sergeant Pepper,’ just to, vary it, ‘Sergeant Pepper, salt and pepper,’ an aural pun, not mishearing him but just playing with the words.”
Mal even got to be on the back cover of “Sergeant Pepper.” Paul could not make one of the photo shoots for the album, so Mal put Paul’s costume on and kept his back to the camera for the photograph. (Curiously, many fans pointed to this anomaly as proof that Paul was dead.)
Playing on Beatles songs
Being in the studio more gave Mal a chance to appear on many Beatles classics. He played the bass drum and sang in the chorus of “Yellow Submarine,” played bass harmonica on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” percussion on “Magical Mystery Tour,” trumpet on “Helter Skelter” and handclaps on “Birthday.” He struck the anvil on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” rang the alarm clock on “A Day in the Life,” and he was one of three people who struck the famous E major chord on three different pianos to end that song.
He can be seen setting up equipment in the very first scene of the “Let It Be” movie, and he was also filmed talking to the police before they came to silence the Beatles’ rooftop concert. “He was always in the studio if we needed an extra hand,” Paul said.
He also got some valuable recording experience. When the Beatles formed Apple, Mal took a position in upper management. In 1968, his friend Bill Collins gave him some demos by an unsigned band he was managing called the Iveys. Mal immediately forwarded the demos to Paul, who liked them so much that he signed the band (which eventually changed their name to Badfinger) and wrote their first hit, “Come and Get It.”
Then, in September 1969, Mal Evans unknowingly helped create what some consider to be the first rip in the Beatles’ fabric. The Plastic Ono Band, John’s side project, made their debut live appearance at the Toronto Rock ‘N’ Roll revival concert. It almost didn’t happen – They had less than 48 hours to plan and rehearse – but Mal, eager to relive some of the excitement of live shows, helped pull it together.
The concert was a huge success. “I was really enjoying myself,” he said. “It was the first show I had roadied for three years and I was really loving every minute of plugging the amps in and setting them up on stage, making sure that everything was right.” Mal lamented, though, that even though the band played well, “everything would have been absolutely right for me if the line-up could have been Paul, George and Ringo with John!”
On the way back from Toronto, John told manager Allen Klein that he was quitting the Beatles.
The Beatles went public with their split in April 1970, and Mal Evans’s lifeline for seven years was now gone. But he tried to move on.
Mal had discovered the power pop band Badfinger a few years earlier and had helped them get signed to their first record deal. The band became his new Beatles, and he threw himself into making them a success. He produced most of their first album, Magic Christian Music, including their hit single, “No Matter What,” and also assisted with producing their second LP, No Dice. But his close involvement with the group drew the ire of the band’s manager, Bill Collins, who felt threatened by Mal’s presence. Collins was able to oust his former friend from the band’s inner circle.
Mal’s talents as a producer were questionable. Although no mention of the quality of his production with Badfinger was found, he produced a track for a British band called Rupert’s People in which one reviewer commented, “The rather muddy, distant feel to the song proved that Mal was no producer.” He also helmed Who drummer Keith Moon’s album Two Sides of the Moon in 1974 but was fired halfway through the sessions because of the poor quality of the recordings.
Mal’s failure as a producer shattered what little confidence he had, and he turned once again to his former employers, joining some of them as they, too, went through difficult times. He went on drinking binges with both Ringo and John, and he accompanied John, his son Julian, and companion May Pang to Disneyland during John’s exile from Yoko Ono.
The death of Mal Evans
The downward spiral continued. Mal Evans separated from his wife, Lili, and moved to Los Angeles to try to find work in the recording industry. His wife asked for a divorce in December 1975. Then on Jan. 4, 1976, Mal, who had been drinking and taking Valium, became despondent, so much so that his girlfriend, Fran Hughes, called John Hoernie, a writer with whom Mal was collaborating on his memoirs.
Hoernie said he found Mal crying, ‘really doped up and groggy’. Mal told him, ‘Please make sure you and Joanne [Lenard, Hoernie’s assistant on the book] finish the book.’ Mal and John Hoernie went to an upstairs bedroom and in the course of Mal’s incoherent conversation, he picked up an unloaded 30.30 rifle. A scuffle ensued, but Mal was a big, powerful man and Hoernie was unable to take the weapon away from him.
The police were summoned to Mal’s apartment, located at 8122 West 4th Street in Los Angeles. Fran called the police and told them, “My old man has a gun and has taken Valium and is totally screwed up.” Four policemen arrived shortly afterward and two of them, David D. Krempa and Robert E. Brannon, went to the upstairs room.
According to the police report, when Mal saw the police officers he turned and pointed the rifle at them. Lieutenant Charles Higbie of the LAPD robbery and homicide division said, ‘Officers directed him to put down the rifle.’ ‘He refused to put down the rifle.’ The cops fired six shots at him, four of which struck Mal, killing him instantly. Mal was an honorary sheriff of Los Angeles County.
Singer and friend Harry Nilsson had Mal’s body cremated, and a small ceremony was held in Los Angeles on January 7. His ashes got lost in the mail on the way back to England and were eventually recovered and returned to his family.
It’s unknown what set Mal Evans off. He was five days away from delivering his final manuscript, tentatively titled Living with the Beatles Legend, to Grosset and Dunlap. He was also planning to produce a new group made up of some members of Badfinger; recording was supposed to have started that day.
“Mal was a big lovable bear of a roadie; he’d go over the top occasionally, but we all knew him and never had any problems,” Paul said when asked about Mal’s death. “Had I been there I would have been able to say, ‘Mal, don’t be silly.’ In fact, any of his friends could have talked him out of it without any sweat, because he was not a nutter.”
Later, George recounted, “[Mal] loved his job, he was brilliant, and I often regret that he got killed. Right to this day I keep thinking, ‘Mal, where are you?’ If only he was out there now. He was such good fun, but he was also very helpful: eh could do everything…He was one of those people who loved what he was doing and didn’t have any problem about service. Everybody serves somebody in one way or another, but some people don’t like the idea. Mal had no problem with it. He was very humble, but not without dignity; it was not belittling for him to do what we wanted, so he was perfect for us because that was what we needed.”
Laura Gross of KCSN radio, who had interviewed Mal just five weeks earlier, said, “Ask anyone who knew him, or talked to him. He was a fabulous person and I think you can tell it from his own words. He’s gone and it is a terrible fact that we have to accept. But I know he will live on in the memories of those of us who knew him and loved him.”
The Mal Evans Diaries
When Mal Evans died in 1976, rumors swirled that he had been working on some memoirs. Tentatively titled “Living the Beatles Legend,” the book was to have been based on some 15 years of diary entries in which Mal was ensconced in the life of all four Beatles as they rose to superstardom, wrote and recorded scores of classic songs and ultimately broke up.
One would have thought that like other posthumous works, Mal’s memoirs would have been published soon after his death. This had the potential to be the mother of all Beatles biographies: A member of the Beatles’ inner circle – one that was honest to a fault – giving the real scoop on the Fab Four.
But the diaries vanished.
No one knew of their whereabouts; a briefcase was once found in Sydney, Australia that allegedly contained the lost diaries, but further inspection revealed it to be a fraud. Three years ago, however, the London Sunday Times Magazine revealed the truth. The diaries had been with Mal’s widow, Lily Evans, ever since the mid 1980s, when Yoko Ono saved them from the basement of a New York publisher.
While a book has yet to be published containing the full story, the Times published excerpts of the diaries that are tantalizing at times, but reveal little about the Beatles. It does, however, give us a great deal of insight into Mal’s life and his devotion to the Fab Four.
Only Mal Evans could (or would) chronicle his time with the Beatles with recollections such as, “Late afternoon went over to the McCartney’s in Wirral, and had dinner with them. Paul and Jane [Asher, McCartney’s then girlfriend] had traveled up for the New Year – also Martha. Fan belt broke.” He writes of these times nonchalantly, but he was there when the Beatles let their guards down.
He gives us insight into possible alternatives to the name for Abbey Road, mentioning Four in the Bar, All Good Children Go to Heaven, Turn Ups and Inclinations as possible titles (none seem to fit in retrospect, do they?). He played on several Beatle songs; in a hilarious prelude to the Saturday Night Live “cowbell” skit, Mal played one on “With a Little Help From My Friends,” prompting Paul to ask, tongue-in-cheek, “Who played that great cowbell?”
At times, though, Mal felt he was being taken for granted. Being paid a pittance for his devotion and work – less than £40 per week – he was often broke, having to support a wife and two children while spending most of his time with the Beatles. He was the main go-fer boy: “”I would get requests from the four of them to do six different things at one time and it was always a case of relying on instinct and experience in awarding priorities.” Often, John would be in a stupor, only to snap out of it and mutter, “Socks, Mal,” and off Mal would go to the local department store to get several pairs of socks. Once, the Beatles had no cups to drink milk with their sandwiches; Mal pulled out four plastic cups from his pocket.
Mal Evans realized his role within the Beatles, and it bothered him, but he was doing what he truly loved. In perhaps the most poignant moment of the diaries, he confesses:
I feel very hurt and sad inside – only big boys don’t cry. Why I should feel hurt and reason for writing this is ego… I thought I was different from other people in my relationship with the Beatles and being loved by them and treated so nice, I felt like one of the family. Seems I fetch and carry… I always tell myself – look, everybody wants to take from, be satisfied, try to give and you will receive. After all this time I have about £70 to my name, but was content and happy. Loving them as I do, nothing is too much trouble, because I want to serve them.