My current cultural playlist

1. Way behind on the cult British crime saga, I’m discovering the gritty and gruesome pleasures of “Peaky Blinders,” an uncompromising gangster epic bristling with politics, razor blades, gamblers, guns, and unvarnished thuggery. 

Set in Birmingham, England, just after World War I, the Netflix series is a fearsomely atmospheric blood opera starring a rogue’s gallery of dapper gangsters with deep family roots and a hunger to stay in power. It openly, inevitably recalls “The Godfather,” “The Sopranos” and, on a knife and knuckle street level, “Gangs of New York,” with perhaps more thematic tentacles.

The show is fronted by Cillian Murphy as crime boss Thomas Shelby, whose smoldering menace can burn a hole like a bullet. One website has voted him the Greatest TV Character of All Time, a testament to Murphy’s pit bull commitment and conviction. He unnerves every time he’s onscreen, makes you shift in your seat. Pepper the grimy period setting with tunes by Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and White Stripes and you get more than anachronistic friction; you get gang-banging with a boogie beat. 

2. Listening to Nirvana’s short, punchy songs, it struck me again why the band is so good and lasting: Almost lick for lick, Nirvana is as infectiously hooky as the Beatles.

And on the Beatles — my favorite band, and I’m not a hundred years old — I liked this line from “The Idiot,” Elif Batuman’s riotous novel of the head and heart: “The Beatles turned out to be one of the things you couldn’t avoid, like alcohol, or death.”

3. You also can’t avoid Marvel and its muddleheaded mayhem in the current cinema, a soul-battering bummer. But there do exist little oases floating past the aesthetic carnage, attractive indie films like the raunchy, uproarious “Zola” and my latest favorite, “The Worst Person in the World.” 

The grabby title is slyly misleading in this dark rom-com drama about a young woman who skitters between jobs and lovers while surfing life’s foibles. Joachim Trier’s prickly Norwegian charmer, ablaze with insinuating characters and sexy anecdote, is told in 12 fluid chapters, led by endearing star Renate Reinsve, who won best actress at Cannes for her intricate portrayal of a woman in flux. Hardly the worst person in the world, she’s a millennial supernova.

4. Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel “Lapvona” is grossing out reviewers with its blithe violence and panoramic depravity. (Is Moshfegh the worst person in the world?) The medieval fable, set in a village rife with plague and other misfortunes, is earning wildly mixed reviews, many of them lashing in their displeasure, even from fans of Moshfegh’s previous dark fictions (“Eileen,” “Homesick for Another World”). 

I’m a fan as well, and I’m steeling for a rough ride. I’m only on page nine, and here’s a verbal taste: “disemboweled” “heads of the dead,” “a bone sticking out through the flesh,” “animal excrement.” (Page nine.) The book, in all its gloppy mucus and viscera, came out this week — which makes it the perfect summer beach read. You heard it here first.

Fourth of July: slightly better than you think

So they do the big community fireworks show in our exurb the night before the Fourth of July — that is, today, the third — presumably so they don’t have to compete with the real fireworks shows, the mega-extravaganzas detonated by the nearby big cities. Makes sense. Can you imagine if every town and city shot off their arsenals at the same time on the same night? The skies would be pyro pandemonium. (Would that be so bad?)

fireworks_attendees_618.jpg

For our country-fair version of neon-blooms and sky-borne booms we’re granted largish park space, hot dog and churros stands and only slightly embarrassing cover bands with names like The Rolling Clones doing their best not to asphyxiate classics by CCR, the Beatles, Journey, Foreigner and scads of other woolly ‘60s-‘70s supergroups. The music and fireworks are free. The hot dogs are not. Parking is combat. There is no alcohol. 

This is not a recipe for delight. The Fourth is kind of a dead-end holiday to begin with. Perfunctory plastic flag-waving and high-school-band parades aside, I don’t think many Americans are actually reflecting on the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. You might be, but really you aren’t. It’s all very patriotic, in a face-painty kind of way.  

th-1.jpegThat said, it’s a good summer holiday, sort of the kickoff to the season (which happens to be my least favorite season, just saying), that is strangely rife with hot dogs. They’re all over the joint.

A good holiday, but not the best. That honor goes to, well, just about every other American holiday. Easter, with its gobs of chocolate, is almost better than July Fourth. Thanksgiving is better. Certainly lawless Halloween and the gift-bloated Christmas surpass it. Hell, even my birthday beats out Independence Day, which is kind of like the special little brother of holidays. Sacrilege? Sorry.

But we settle. The Fourth has its fun. Fireworks, especially from the stance of this recovered pyromaniac, are glorious. Even the rinky-dink version in the ‘burbs, with rampant children, grassy blankets, hot dogs, snow-cones and long-in-the-tooth bands belting out “Don’t Stop Believin’” casts a pleasant spell — and gundpowdery smell.

Away from the park, beer flows and barbecues flame. Small gatherings happen in backyards. Kids squeal and peal and dogs slalom around bare legs and sandaled feet. (Those dogs want … hot dogs.) The occasional dancing sparkler is unveiled to the astonished eyes of youngsters.

I have indelible memories of the holiday as a kid on the beaches of Southern California. It was magic: illegal firecrackers, smoke bombs and Roman candles, lit from inside huge sand pits we dug that sat four or five friends. We were there all day until the city’s big fireworks show unfurled in the night sky, over the ocean, popping, bursting, crackling, streaming. And there we were, watching below, aglow in a thousand sizzling colors.

* Update: The local fireworks shebang was rained out on July 3. They rescheduled the big party for, get this, July 13 — a wee late. And it’s Friday the 13th. Isn’t that its own wild holiday?

That magical moment when one first falls for the Beatles

“Hey Siri — what’s the name of this song?” my tween niece asks the new Apple HomePod, a black orb of netted plastic that’s an interactive speaker you can talk to and enjoy its no-nonsense vocal responses. It stands about seven-inches-tall, it’s shaped like a futuristic sports ball with buffed, rounded edges and a flat, glowing top. It is distinctly Kubrickian.

apple-homepod-0-980x620

“The song by the Beatles is ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,’” Siri, or the Apple HomePod’s resident DJ — the tiny person who we all know resides inside — responds in a feathery, tranquilizing female android voice that isn’t at all … creepy.

But this is about the Beatles — the ones with Apple Records, not Apple singular — though both are capitalistic behemoths of flabbergasting muscle, might and moola.

1b36f65fa471104e63641414cff829c5.jpgIt’s about a 12-year-old discovering the indelible Brit band if not for the first time — as a toddler her bedtime lullabies included the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and “Across the Universe” — then for that point in life when culture totally matters, that crucial juncture of taste-making that suffuses a being forever. Art and culture are cyclonic at this age. Their influences batter and blow, shaping aesthetic passions like sand dunes, but with much more permanence.

06-beatles-ranking-feature.w512.h600.2x.jpg

My niece is at that point — post-Harry Potter (she was in the stultifying wizard’s unyielding thrall for a few unholy years), post-Pokemon and their predictable kin (though Star Wars never quite captured her imagination).

No, instead she has gravitated to sophistication and kneels at the high-art altars of David Bowie, Queen, Radiohead, “Hamilton,” “The Catcher in the Rye” and (one of this film buff’s all-time favorites) “All About Eve.” She’s hankering to read “The Great Gatsby.”  She performs lustily in local theater musicals. She writes wonderful poetry and is working on a novel. She reads books with dizzying voracity. I reckon she’ll be A.P. all the way.

Hell, I was a grizzled 19 when I finally and full-throatedly got the Beatles. I too had an infantile acquaintance with the group — I was smitten with “Yellow Submarine,” both the animated movie and the soundtrack, as a wee one — but there was no follow through until college.

It hit hard. I got so into every nook and cranny of the band that I was inspired to buy a harmonica and an electronic piano, both of which proved embarrassing and foolhardy acquisitions. The Beatles, like Brando and Shakespeare, were a blinding Damascus moment, earth-rattling, a crack in the cosmos. Their various looks, images, melodies, harmonies, beats, hooks and lyrics dovetailed, in my mind, into an unearthly incandescence so often ascribed to genius.

A few of my niece’s favorite Beatles songs include “Here Comes the Sun,” “Let it Be,” “I Am the Walrus” and “With a Little Help from My Friends” — as good as any Beatles starter kit as any.

These songs are easy ones, Muzak-ready, plucked off the top of any Beatles fan’s pop-addled head. Soon she’ll be singing and swaying to the likes of “Golden Slumbers,” “Norwegian Wood,” “A Day in the Life,” “Lovely Rita,” “In My Life,” “Blackbird,” “The Night Before,” and on and on. (The band recorded 213 songs.) She knows the stinkers, too. She tells Siri to skip “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” when it comes on. Even Siri loathes this song.

0005976_beatles-sign-uk-album-covers-chronologically_415.jpeg

The depth and breadth of one’s favorite Beatles songs is unfathomable — I like almost all of them (almost). Over at Vulture, there’s a brilliantly informative and very funny list of every Beatles song ranked from worst to best. “Silver Hammer” clocks in at a charitable #182. “Ob-La-Di. Ob-La-Dais properly called one of “the top five Most Irritating Songs Paul McCartney Ever Wrote.” It sits at #194. The worst slot, at #213, goes to “Good Day Sunshine,” a snappy McCartney ditty I rather like. (The best? Not telling. I will reveal #2: the twirling, kaleidoscopic “Strawberry Fields Forever.”)

Some think the Beatles are a band you grow out of, not into. I demur. This polymorphously gifted quartet — well, quintet; one can’t leave out uber-producer George Martin — is a perennial, one for the ages. Once bitten, you’re infected for life. Not liking the Beatles, a laughable proposition, is akin to not liking pizza, puppies or “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Like Spielberg and Mozart, they may appeal to the masses but, if you’re listening closely, that doesn’t diminish their brilliance one scintilla.

My niece is lucky. She’s just getting started, peeling back the layers and layers of Beatles enchantments, music that rewards the more you listen. “They have sweet tunes and sunny music that’s poetic,” she tells me. On the eternal, deal-breaking question “John or Paul?” she doesn’t hesitate: John.

If she sticks with them — I think she will — she’ll take some of the best artistic journeys she’ll ever take. Lucky indeed: She has a multitude of tuneful universes ahead of her.