Interview with Kenneth Womack

Professor reflects on Liverpool’s ‘literary greats’ and how a lost archive led to his ‘warts and all’ profile of the Fab Four and their road manager

April 11, 2024
Kenneth Womack

Kenneth Womack is a writer, critic and music historian who has published extensively on the Beatles. He is professor of English and popular music at Monmouth University in New Jersey. His latest book, Living the Beatles Legend: The Untold Story of Mal Evans, chronicles the life and untimely death of the Fab Four’s road manager.

Where and when were you born?
Houston, Texas in 1966.

How has this shaped you?
I grew up in a very homogenised “planned community”. My parents were the difference-makers for me. They stimulated reading and critical interpretation when I was fairly young.

What kind of an undergraduate were you?
I tried just about every major there was, knowing full well that my heart was in English literature. I began my studies in lacklustre fashion and ended up being ambitious.

Your early career output included studies of George Eliot and Ford Maddox Ford. Why did you move into Beatles scholarship?
My project has been about attempting to make sense of the Beatles’ artistic aspirations and their remarkable trajectory. It is unparalleled in the annals of literature and the arts. The Beatles move swiftly, in just seven years, from Love Me Do and Please Please Me through Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album and the artistic heights of Abbey Road. There’s simply nothing else like it.

Why is it important to study the likes of the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen – artists covered in your courses at Monmouth?
There is a compelling case to be made for their status as literary greats. They are certainly storytellers of the highest order, and many of their albums explore the nature of how we live. In general, there is an intrinsic value in studying the high arts of popular culture to understand their place in our evolving cultures.

The story of Mal Evans – a part-time bouncer at the Cavern Club who became the Beatles’ road manager as their fame went stratospheric in 1963 – is an unusual lens through which to view the Fab Four. How does this biography differ from other Beatles profiles?
Big Mal’s story is unique because he offers one of the very few highly intimate windows through which to view the Beatles’ heyday. It is also different because he left behind an enormous cache of materials, the majority of which were compiled contemporaneously with the events that he witnessed. The expansiveness of Mal’s archive and the genuineness of his observations make his papers unique among primary materials, especially when it comes to popular music studies.

The Mal Evans archive – including his diaries, photos and memorabilia – was lost for more than a decade in a cellar and unpublished for more than four decades. When did you first become aware of it, and how did you persuade the Evans family to let you access it?
Like many, I was reminded about this in 2004, when a hoax was perpetrated about the alleged discovery of Mal’s archives in an Australian flea market. During my first meeting with [his son] Gary Evans, the same meeting in which he invited me to tell Mal’s story, I asked if the rumours about the materials were true, and he confirmed that Mal’s archive was in his possession. Within a matter of days, I had full access to everything.

What most surprised you about the archive?
Its sheer expansiveness. Mal judiciously worked nearly every nook and cranny of the bandmates’ story, and his surviving writings and photographs reflect this approach. If nothing else, studying the archive – particularly the breakneck pace of activities undertaken by the Beatles and Mal – is mind-blowing. This is especially true when you deign to understand the incredible breadth of their achievement as artists. It’s the very element that compares them favourably with history’s finest artistic practitioners. Their single-mindedness is not unlike, say, James Joyce or Virginia Woolf at the acme of their powers.

Your book doesn’t shy away from the seedier side of the Beatles’ tours – including the sexual favours that Evans would demand from girls for access to the band. Given the family’s involvement, how did you approach these sections?
Gary and I decided fairly early on that we would tell the story “warts and all”. It would have been disingenuous to do otherwise. Besides which, a sanitised biography would not sit well alongside the second part of the project, which is to publish Mal’s diaries and manuscripts. Mal doesn’t shy away from facticity in his written work, and it was essential that both parts of the project – the biography, on the one hand, and the collected archive, on the other – worked in tandem.

The Beatles story is as much about the rise of fandom – the crazed efforts to see, hear and touch them – as their music, and Mal was, in some ways, one of these devotees, giving up his job and family to follow the band. How do you make sense of his choices?
Mal was absolutely caught up in the Beatles fervour. It was irresistible to him, leading him to give up a career and the promise of a pension to join them on the road. In many ways, he was no different from Stu Sutcliffe or Brian Epstein or George Martin, adherents who discovered the Beatles early on and were pointedly interested in seeing what might happen with them. Anyone who claims to know that they would become superstars would be lying; Big Mal stands in league with all of them. Like the others, he was entranced by them, and that level of charm led him to take risks to remain in their orbit.

For your podcast series Everything Fab Four, you’ve interviewed many famous musicians about how the Beatles changed their lives. Given that the US has produced so many amazing music stars, why do they retain such a huge hold on popular imagination in America?
The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was pop music’s Big Bang, and continues to reverberate into the present day. It exists, sometimes overtly, sometimes latently, in the DNA of anyone who aspires to be a singer-songwriter. The Beatles elevated the genre, eclipsing those who came before and after them and paving the way for people to imagine themselves as performers and storytellers.


1990 BA, English, Texas A&M University
1992 MA, English, Texas A&M
1997 PhD, English, Northern Illinois University
1997-2015 Assistant professor of English, associate professor and, from 2006, professor of English and integrative arts, Pennsylvania State University
2007 Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles
2009 The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles
2015-present Professor of English and popular music, and dean of Wayne D. McMurray School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Monmouth University
2019 Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles


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