Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an author, astrophysicist, and Director of The Hayden Planetarium at The American Museum of Natural History. He names blues as his favorite genre, but his song picks are mostly a celebration of life – from a gospel classic to a Van Morrison love song and a prog rock hit with an interesting twist. His late night talk show on the National Geographic Channel, Star Talk, launches on April 20.
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- Koko Taylor - "I'm A Woman"
- Aretha Franklin - "Old Landmark"
- Van Morrison - "Moondance"
- Styx - "Come Sail Away"
- Louis Armstrong - "What A Wonderful World"
Aaron Byrd: Hey there, I’m Aaron Byrd and I’m here with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s an author, astrophysicist, and Director of The Hayden Planetarium at The American Museum of Natural History.
He’s set to host a late night talk show on the National Geographic Channel starting this April called Star Talk, after his popular podcast of the same name. So we’re here with Dr. Tyson to talk about some of the songs that have inspired him throughout his life, as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project.
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson: I am thrilled to be a Guest DJ. No one ever asked me to do that before, so thank you.
AB: It’s great to have you. So, what did you bring in for us today?
DT: One of them is a blues song by Koko Taylor.
Blues is, I guess, my single favorite genre.
If I had to pick one to go to Mars with I think they’d all be Blues. Koko Taylor has a song called “I'm A Woman.”
Now, this is not some secret passion of mine to be a woman (laughs), it’s just that when you hear the song, it is such an emotional expression of the power of being a woman and recognizing the forces against you that you must then overcome.
It is coming from deep within her. It’s an anthem for any population; any demographic that feels strength burning within but knows that the society, the culture, the civilization in which you are embedded somehow does not grant you that access and so you will rise up from within. So this song has been an inspiration for me my whole life.
AB: Let’s take a listen to “I’m A Woman” by Koko Taylor.
Song: “I’m a Woman” -- Koko Taylor
AB: Alright, what’s coming up next?
DT: No list for me is complete without Aretha Franklin.
I am a fan of her entire catalog, but one that rises up above the rest for me is from her Amazing Grace album, which I think is a masterpiece. It’s a common favorite gospel tune is called “Old Landmark.”
The song is very upbeat and it is the kind of song, especially when sung by Aretha Franklin, that I want to feel the way she feels as she sings this song. I want to feel that way about everything I do in life.
You listen to this song and if you’re seated when this song is playing, you have to get off your ass and shake something.
I say to myself, I want to feel that way about the universe, about life, about fatherhood, about being a husband.
I want to feel that way about the world and so, for me, it’s like fuel, no it's rocket fuel.
AB: Ok, be prepared. “Old Landmark” by Aretha Franklin.
Song: “Old Landmark” -- Aretha Franklin
AB: That was Aretha Franklin with the gospel standard "Old Landmark." I’m here with Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson, the author, astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium. So what do you have next for us?
DT: How could I not pick Van Morrison’s “Moondance”? I mean, come on now, an astrophysicist? (laughs)
You know love songs are interesting because, if they are written well, you can feel that love for whatever it is that you love.
For me, not enough people dance at all, much less dance in the moonlight. So, it is a call for people to feel love -- not in your traditional ways, yes at night, and night is a romantic time, and moonlight is a romantic occasion but dancing under moonlight is just that extra push I think you need to complete the scene of what it is to be in love.
AB: Would you consider yourself a romantic?
DT: That has to be assessed by others, I think.
You can say you’re romantic, but if no one agrees with you, you’re not romantic. So I hesitate to assert that about myself.
But I do like things that make no sense other than to be shared with someone you love. You know: candlelight dinners, or a nice bottle of wine, a walk on the beach at night with the shimmering moonlight on the ocean.
I love doing all these things and they’re especially enhanced when it’s with someone you love, so I guess, by that measure, I would be.
AB: Alright, let’s check it out, this is Van Morrison with “Moondance.”
Song: “Moondance” – Van Morrison
AB: And of course that was the classic “Moondance” by Van Morrison. Here with the Dr, Neil Degrasse Tyson, master of the universe, and up next I think this next pick might surprise a few folks.
DT: "Come Sail Away" by Styx.
DT: It hit the charts and I think it was a well-loved song, but I think I liked it for perhaps reasons different from others.
I like the fact that the open sea is an analogue to the yet uncharted trajectories of any person’s life.
When we think of embarking on a voyage in the open seas, this is what I think of as we explore space.
There’s a phrase out there -- I first heard Carl Sagan say it but I think others have said it as well -- that when you are on earth’s surface, you are on the shores of the cosmic ocean. And so, when I hear this song, and I hear the longing for what the ocean would bring, I just like that kind of simple and poetic story telling but, most important, this song is actually about an alien abduction!
The very last line you learn this is an alien abduction song and any time I am out under the stars looking up I say to myself wouldn’t it be cool if aliens came down and took me away. (laughs)
AB: Let’s check out Styx with "Come Sail Away."
Song: “Come Sail Away” - Styx
AB: And as we come to a close what’s the last song that you have for us today?
DT: It’s Louis Armstrong’s version of "What a Wonderful World."
I study the universe and the intersection of our mind with understanding that universe, the math that’s required, the methods and tools of physics. And in this universe, is this place called earth.
And earth is teeming with life. Earth is not as supportive of life as you might think -- more than 97% of all species that ever lived are now extinct -- so life is actually a struggle for species, if you look over the tree of life.
So, here’s a song that selects from this world that which is beautiful and compels you to pay close attention to that.
In case you are down, in case you think that all is lost, it’s an appeal to embrace all that is beautiful on earth and in the universe: "The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night, I think to myself what a wonderful world."
For me, when I smile everyday embracing the world I don’t know that I could convey that as beautifully and as poetically and as compellingly as Louis Armstrong does in "What a Wonderful World."
Song: “What a Wonderful World” – Louis Armstrong
AB: Dr. Neil, it’s been beyond a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us on KCRW.com.
DT: Well I’m glad it finally happened and that I could share these loves with your audience.