Kenneth Womack grew up in Kingwood, Texas, a small development north of oil-and-gas-rich Houston, where you were either a Shell Guy or an Exxon Guy. It turned out Womack was a Beatles Guy. And that’s how the whole thing got started.
It was 1977 and Womack was 11 years old when an episode of the cartoon series “The Beatles” unexpectedly replaced his favorite morning TV show, “New Zoo Revue.” “It was what I watched while I ate breakfast, so I was annoyed. The (Beatles) cartoon was pretty terrible, really. But the music was amazing. Different from anything else.”
It was as if a light suddenly turned on, he says. And more than four decades later, that light is still shining.
Womack, 57, of West Long Branch, is a professional Beatles scholar, one of only a few in the world. As a music historian and professor at Monmouth University, he teaches literature, creative writing and popular music. One of the courses is an introduction to The Beatles. And should someone raise an eyebrow about the scholarship in that, he is quick to point out The Beatles course is actually art appreciation.
“What people come to understand pretty quickly is that of all the art objects of the 1960s, and maybe the 20th century, The Beatles will last,” he said. “The arc of their experience and artistic growth is unparalleled. The span is less than seven years. They have this remarkable trajectory from ‘Love Me Do’ to Abbey Road, then it’s sayonara. No one has done that. Shakespeare didn’t do that. James Joyce didn’t do that.”
And the professor should know. He also holds a Ph.D. in 20th Century British Literature.
Womack’s journey from the Lone Star State to the Garden State was a bit of a long and winding road, with a stop, from 1997 to 2015, at Penn State University, where he earned tenure and boldly decided that The Beatles belong in the pantheon of 20th Century British literature.
So he began teaching the Beatles course and putting together anthologies of Beatles-related essays for the world’s best university presses. “In the academic world, it’s how you generate respect, because all of these are peer-reviewed. I like to think I’m doing my own small part to help construct a space for The Beatles in the academy.”
His recent books include “John Lennon 1980: The Last Days in the Life” (2020), “Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles” (2019) and a two-volume biography on Beatles producer George Martin, “Maximum Volume” (2017) and “Sound Pictures” (2018).
In a few months, Womack will release perhaps his most ambitious and surprising book of all, a much-anticipated biography of Mal Evans, The Beatles’ longtime personal assistant, roadie and fixer.
“Living the Beatles Legend: The Untold Story of Mal Evans” (Dey Street Books, 592 pp.) will be a “warts and all” examination of Evans’ life, which was spent just a round-the-clock heartbeat away from the four most famous and sought-after pop culture figures of the ‘60s.
With the blessing of Evans’ children, Gary and Julie, who allowed unlimited access to their father’s manuscripts, journals, diaries and memorabilia, Womack conducted an exhaustive examination of Evans’ life, research he calls “great fun, forensically.” The book, scheduled for release on Nov. 14, charts the roadie’s journey from the early Cavern Club days in Liverpool to his tragic death in 1976, following a confrontation with Los Angeles police.
“Gary keeps saying I’ve shown him things about his father that he didn’t know,” said Womack. “It’s true. I didn’t know them, either. I just had to go out and get them, find the people.”
And what Womack found during more than 200 interviews surprised him.
“We have this vision of Mal as an offish blue-collar fellow with a big dumb look on his face,” said Womack. “But he was not any of those things. He was a success story in his family before he met The Beatles. He was the first person to have a mortgage, his own home. He was the first person to have a car. He had a real job as a telecommunications engineer with the British post office. He was going places.
“And to make things even more interesting, he was very social. He could be very shy because he was big (6-foot-3). But he also learned, as people of height sometimes do, you have to learn some tricks to be able to negotiate the world. He learned how to be social and a great conversationalist and I think it was that combination that made him interesting to George Harrison and the other Beatles.”
Womack said he discovered that most of what has been written about Evans is wrong.
“You go to his Wikipedia entry and about two-thirds of it is incorrect,” he said. “It’s absolutely revelatory. At the very least, there are great moments of heartbreak and whimsy that Beatles fans and music lovers are going to love. But at the same time, I will be correcting some of the timeline, helping people understand how things took place, what happened. I’m really setting the record straight. It’s an amazing detective story.”
Evans was just 40 years old when he was killed during a domestic incident at his home in Los Angeles, after pointing a weapon at police. The gun turned out to be an air rifle.
Womack describes the story of how Evans’ life spiraled at the end as complex and contradictory.
“All of his worlds were colliding, and he couldn’t handle it, though a lot of things were going right for Mal. From a layman’s perspective, it seemed more things were going right than wrong. He had written a memoir. He had produced a Top 5 hit with Badfinger’s ‘No Matter What.’ He had a song on Ringo’s album in 1973 that created some wealth, a steady income. He had achieved many things and he was on the precipice of new and even more exciting things.” The song recorded by Starr, by the way, was “You and Me (Babe),” co-written with George Harrison.
But it all came to a sudden, tragic end, leaving the memoir unpublished and his prodigious cultural legacy left to the fading memories of aging friends and associates.
Womack hopes his book, illustrated with 100 photos, will reignite the excitement of being in the Beatle maelstrom. After all, Mal Evans was a real-time witness to every high and low, every bit of hysteria and insanity, every recording studio argument and brilliant musical discovery. He also contributed to the band, musically, with credits on everything from “You Won’t See Me” (organ) to “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” (harmonica) and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” (anvil).
“Mal played on 20-plus songs,” said Womack. “They’re Beatles songs! I mean, if you were a classical musician you had to have some pedigree to be on a Beatles song, or George Martin wouldn’t let you through the door. Most of those guys were from the Royal Philharmonic. And yet they trusted Mal to play on their records, which easily was the most important thing in the world to them.”
Throughout his years with The Beatles, Evans meticulously wrote it all down. “Mal was an obsessive note-taker,” Womack said. “We have several hundred thousands of his words from various manuscripts and diaries. Once you’ve spent time with him, as I have the last couple of years, you find he’s a very different guy than expected.
“It was Ringo who told Mal to tell the truth in whatever he wrote, and Mal did — about himself. He didn’t take that to mean do a tell-all about (The Beatles). Mal took that to mean, ‘I’m going to represent who I am in a very real way.’ I was very surprised about that. I didn’t expect his level of brute honesty. He lived a big life, often badly, and often really, really well.”
If there is a major takeaway from looking through the scattered glass of Evans’ upside down/right-side-up life, it’s the value of service.
“I think the important part about the Mal story is understanding how important folks like Mal are in the world. They’re stewards in a lot of ways. They’re stewards of their own ambitions and desires. There’s no doubt about that. But they’re also serving something that’s bigger than them, and it was fun learning about when Mal recognized that that’s what was happening.”
Come fall, Womack will be back in the classroom, awaiting the release of “Living the Beatles Legend.” On Monday evenings, he will continue introducing Monmouth students to the rich musical and cultural history of the British Invasion’s greatest conquering heroes.
And whether students are taking the Beatles course because they’ve always loved the Fab Four, have just discovered them, or are simply looking for a course to fill out their schedule, Womack’s primary goal, as always, will be “teaching them how to be critical thinkers. That’s the secret weapon.”
For more on Womack and his books, visit kennethwomack.com.
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