If you could go back in time and change a pivotal moment in your life, would you do it? What if that moment could change the course of history? Even better, what if that moment kept the Beatles together? Beatles insider Mal Evans makes that choice in Peter Lee’s novel The Death and Life of Mal Evans.
Mal Evans may be one of the most important people of whom you’ve never heard. He played a huge part behind the scenes of the Beatles’ story, as their roadie, bodyguard, errand boy, confidant, assistant, and friend. Trusted by the band and indispensable to their inner circle, Evans’ muscular 6’6″ frame, juxtaposed with thick glasses and a kind demeanor, earned him the nickname “gentle giant.” While casual fans may not know of him, they’ve seen and heard him countless times. Evans made cameos in all three Beatles films (remember the Channel swimmer in Help!?), played the anvil in “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” hit the alarm clock in “A Day in the Life,” and even played the trumpet on “Helter Skelter.”
An original Cavern Club fan, Evans was with the Beatles before fame hit and stayed with them through the end. But after the breakup, with no one to assist and few skills that translated elsewhere, the former postal worker from Liverpool became a lost soul in ’70s London. After a mostly-failed career as a producer and a battle with drug addiction, his story ended tragically in January 1976 when, high on valium, he was fatally shot by police after pointing an air rifle at them.
Mal’s end is where Peter Lee’s novel begins. As Evans lay dying, he agonized over his biggest regret: that a single phone call he made to Eric Clapton in 1969 — inviting him to play with John Lennon’s one-night-only supergroup at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Festival in Toronto — was responsible for the Beatles’ breakup. If Clapton hadn’t participated, perhaps Lennon’s first solo outing would have flopped. If it flopped, maybe John wouldn’t have wanted a “divorce” from the Beatles and the band could have continued. Mal was the one who contacted Clapton, and the question hung over his head: if he had not spoken to him on that fateful day, would the Beatles still be together? Mal gets the chance to find out, as he’s suddenly transported back to the moment that could change history, September 12, 1969.
Turns out, he was right: without Clapton, the concert was a disaster, and the alternate-reality Beatles did indeed stay together. But was it worth it, for them or for Mal? Back in his familiar role as assistant and mediator between the warring Lennon and McCartney, the bewildered Evans tries to answer these questions as he re-lives the ’70s by the Beatles’ sides.
Despite their personal differences, the Beatles continue releasing new albums made up of the best of of the Beatles’ real-life solo output. Many a fan has put together a playlist like this — it even featured in the movie Boyhood — but the prospect of what solo masterpieces like “Band on the Run” or “Gimme Some Truth” might have been if all four Beatles contributed to them lets fans’ imaginations run delightfully wild. Lee cleverly uses press releases, news articles, and reviews to illustrate the highs and lows of the Beatles’ continued career. However, the new reality isn’t always better, as both Mal and the Beatles come to realize, at times with tragic consequences.
Mal Evans is a perfect narrator: one who saw everything but was rarely seen himself. His fly-on-the-wall insight into the greatest band in history gives readers an intimate look into these post-1970 Beatles. (This fictional account makes one hope that his long-hidden diaries will be released in full one day.) But he’s not just a bystander: the responsibility of having created this alternate timeline weighs heavily on him. As Evans reaches the end of his story, he understands that some events in time shouldn’t be rewritten, no matter how much we long for a different outcome.
The Death and Life of Mal Evans is a highly enjoyable novel — dark, funny, and introspective all at once. Lee’s Beatles are believable, and the history is spot-on; he even includes an appendix that separates the fact from fiction throughout the novel. Readers will lose themselves in the story, but will also ask themselves, do we always want our greatest wishes to come true?