One Last Spin Around Palisades Park With Chuck Barris

Last night I took a walk after dark
A swingin' place called Palisades Park
To have some fun and see what I could see
That's where the girls are

I took a ride on a shoot-the-chute
That girl I sat beside was awful cute
After we stopped she was holdin' hands with me
My heart was flyin'
Up like a rocket ship
Down like a roller coaster
Back like a loop-the-loop
And around like a merry-go-round

We ate and ate at a hot dog stand
We danced around to a rockin' band
And when I could I gave that girl a hug
In the tunnel of love
You'll never know how great a kiss can feel
When you stop at the top of a ferris wheel
When I fell in love down at Palisades Park

-- Chuck Barris, "Palisades Park"


It may be impossible to remove the now dearly departed Chuck Barris from kitsch and camp, for these were the very things that brought him into being. But let’s take a moment here to respect Barris’s initial spark, for it was a perfect express of our local kitsch, our local camp; because before there was The Gong Show, and before all the wild (apocryphal? Who knows!) CIA stuff, there was “Palisades Park,” a song that namechecks a now-defunct amusement park off the cliffs of the Hudson but really, honestly, truly can only be about the southern end of the Jersey shore. Philly’s shore. And if we’re really gonna put the money on the table, we’re saying Wildwood explicitly.

Barris was raised in Oaklyn, NJ, and attended Drexel before trying to crack into showbiz any way he could. His first big break came as a result of his first big hire — to be Dick Clark’s minder on the then-Philly-based American Bandstand. Along the way, he and Clark became fast friends, but more importantly, Clark provided him with a model for success. Barris echoed Clark’s rise of course with the various TV properties that eventually brought him wealth and celebrity, but before that, there was his Clark-esque stab at actually becoming part of the revenue base of pop music. Which is where “Palisades Park” comes in.

By every account, the Palisades were the last referent to get packed into the song — it had otherwise already been written, before it went off to Boston’s Freddy Cannon and released on Philly-based Swan Records. So it’s no wonder than when you scan the lyrics, you get a slice of (well, I get a big slice of) Wildwood, NJ — both as it must have been then and also very much as it appears today. In all that wonderful, enticing trash — the hot dog stand, the rollercoaster — Barris sees mystery, excitement and even a little bit of madness. The song’s opening organ riff is one of the more manic bits you’ll hear in pop music of that time, and with it comes a kind of darkness that had to register to with everyone who’d go on to cover it, from the Beach Boys to the Ramones. (Sidebar: Is “96 Tears” by Question Mark & The Mysterians a direct descendant of “Palisades Park?” I’m saying it is.)

In any case, in just this one little ditty, Barris articulated what would become the key motifs of his future life and work: Trash and darkness. Is it that direct? Was the clue there from the first? We only offer this, as a matter for interpretation: He was born in Philly. But as the obits state today, he died in Palisades.