I haven't seen it yet, but James Marsh's documentary Man on Wire was released theatrically in the US on Friday, and it sounds riveting. To coincide, here's a section from Hayden Childs' very recent volume in the series, about Shoot Out the Lights. This is taken, of course, from the chapter about the song "Walking on a Wire" (as well as the earlier Thompson composition, "The Great Valerio").
I like to imagine myself perched on a point impossibly high over this next song. Even up here, the sound of the raging emotion below is an undeniable roar, but as long as my footing holds, I can take a breath and appreciate my surroundings. To walk up here is to be untouchable, a superman or an angel.
That's not what I am, though, nor anyone else. Everyone will slip and fall eventually. So let's take a minute before the inevitable. Don't be afraid.
I am reminded of a moment back in 1974. It was early in August, and Bonny and I were staying with a friend in New York. The heat was like the whole city was sinking into the fiery center of the earth. Bonny and I had been out drinking late the night before, and we hadn't been in bed long when the phone began ringing. I was awake at the first ring, but unwilling to move, a little drunk still. A friend had given Bonny and me his bed while he crashed on the floor. Was his name Joe? I don't recall.
Anyway, Joe got to the phone, and I remember how loud he shouted, "Wow, okay!" before he hung up. He smashed open a closet and came up with a telescope, then glanced over and saw that I was looking at him. "No time! C'mon!" he yelled, all jittery. I thought the building might be on fire, but somehow (and this shames me to this day) didn't think of Bonny, still asleep on the bed, until we were on the stairs.
But that's when it struck me, the wrongness of our route. We were headed up, not down. I remember yelling at him, about a floor above me, but he didn't break stride. Then we were on the roof. He was pointing up between a couple of buildings, the telescope already steady on a tripod while he made obscure adjustments to it. He looked into it for what seemed like forever, although it was probably only a minute or so. Then he pulled back, almost as if it were hot, gasping for a second before turning to me. I remember my recoil from his expression. Here I was, still heaving, gulping air, bone-dry deep in my chest, and my fight-or-flight reflex was a full-on throb in my fingertips. My friend looked insane, his face of full of something I'd never seen in someone so unflappable and urbane.
He gestured toward the telescope with one hand and pointed up with the other. I followed his finger to the barely visible area between the giant, unfinished World Trade Center towers, which seemed miles away. I was dubious, but I put my eye to that telescope.
A couple of seconds later, I saw - how to describe this? - a vague mark in the sky that suddenly, horribly, unmistakably resolved into the shape of a man. A man in that impossible space. Unfalling. Suspended. A man, and nothing else, in the sky, a quarter mile above New York City.
I looked at my friend and he looked at me. And we laughed like mystics sharing a particularly ecstatic vision.
Later, the news told us the man's name was Philippe Petit, a tightrope walker who'd pulled similar stunts in Paris and in Sydney. No, not stunts. Exhibitions. Sermons, even. The whole thing felt like an elaborate morality play for my benefit. Be better at life, Petit had said to me. Tens of thousands of people saw him up there, but I was young and narcissistic, and I thought his message was for me. Be better.