Out shopping at Hideaway Music this past December, I was immediately drawn in by the cover art of Cinnamon Girl: Women Artists Cover Neil Young for Charity. Reminiscent of Neil Young’s legendary Decade album cover—a barren desert dotted with a solo guitar case, plastered with random stickers of hotels and hotspots, propped up by a body with two outstretched arms—this is a brilliant reimagination of Tom Wilkes’ (1939-2009) original photograph. Casey Burns’ brightly painted cover features a guitar case, plastered with women’s and band names, and the body behind the case has six, rather than two, lanky outstretched arms.
When I got the record home and opened the liner notes, I saw a sweet picture of a woman holding a peaceful sleeping baby. She’s turned toward the camera and presents her new baby to the world. Underneath, the caption reads: Mom and me, 1966.
In the photo are Norine Spadaro, who died in 2005 after a six-year journey with breast cancer, and her son, Joseph Spadaro. Founder of American Laundromat Records, Spadaro made Cinnamon Girl: Women Artists Cover Neil Young for Charity as a loving tribute to his mother’s spirit, legacy, and their shared love of Neil Young.
“The first album my mom ever bought me was Neil Young’s Decade,” Spadaro told me. Decade was Young’s first 35-song compilation album, featuring early classics from 1966 to 1976. Cinnamon Girl: Women Artists Cover Neil Young for Charity includes Tanya Donelly, Euro Trash Girl, Veruca Salt, and Lori McKenna, among a host of other talented female performers reimagining these songs.
Proceeds from the sales of Cinnamon Girl go to Casting for Recovery (CfR), an organization that provides “healing outdoor retreats for women with breast cancer, at no cost to the participants.” CfR recognizes the “natural world is a healing force” and offers women of all ages and stages of treatment and recovery a weekend away, so they can connect with other women, nature, and learn how to fly fish! For over 25 years, CfR has offered women from all walks of life a chance “to experience something new and challenging in a beautiful, safe environment.”
Norine Spadaro, as her son describes, was a “city woman,” but after her CfR retreat, she fell in love with the experience. She “lit up” when she talked about it, stayed in close relationship with many of the women, and requested that, upon her death, people send a donation to CfR rather than send flowers.
In all ways, Cinnamon Girl: Women Artists Cover Neil Young for Charity is filled with love. When Spadaro asked female singer-songwriters and bands that he knew and loved, everybody agreed. These renditions are filled with reverence for Young’s music and songwriting and respect and honor for Norine Spadaro as a woman, mother, and music lover. You can hear the tenderness and care with which each of these songs was made, and like many Neil Young classics, these songs hold heartbreak and heal sadness.
Here are a few of my favorites:
“The Needle and the Damage Done” from Harvest (1972) by Lori McKenna
Academy of Country Music and Grammy Award winner Lori McKenna transforms Young’s original anger about the perils of heroin into an introspective look at our collective human needs. The song’s opening question, “I love you, baby, can I have some more?” no longer feels desperate but rather like a question—one that she implores us to be bold enough to ask—to someone or something we love deeply. Because of her beautiful gravelly voice, I hear this question to the beloved as nourishing rather than destructive. And when she sings Young’s famous lines, “And every junkie’s like a setting sun,” there’s an ease that reveals the inevitably of this painful truth.
Fellow Canadian rocker Carmen Townsend takes on Young’s flippant song about the futility of life and transforms it. I trust her gritty and grungy rendition of Young’s lyrics: “got to get away/from this day to day/running around.” This is a singer who knows that a song about homegoing that is “cool and breezy” and where you can “just [pass] time” means something inherently different to her than to Young. Her youthful voice and electric guitar give the line, “Everybody knows/ this is nowhere” a weightiness that offers me a way to hear both the challenge and hope in that idea.
Singer-songwriter and “self-taught multi-instrumentalist,” Julie Peel ups the tempo and brings in an electric guitar on this version of “I Believe in You.” When Neil Young sings, “I believe in you” there’s certain bravado in his tone. But when Julie Peel sings those same lyrics, it sounds like an empowering affirmation, “Hey, I get you! We got this.” I also hear in her version of: “Now that you find yourself/ losing your mind/are you here again?” the breaking open of truth that loss may lead us to a profound insight or revelation. I hear the actualization of her own inner power.
“Tell Me Why,” the opening of After the Goldrush, is a jaunty song. Luff, originally founded as a guitar and cello duo, slows down the tempo and adds a plodding, bottomless guitar. From underneath, lead singer Sheila Sobolewski’s voice sounds as if she’s trying to come up for air. Yet her voice replaces Young’s bravado in the lines: “I am lonely/you can free me” with a recognition of our collective loneliness and an acknowledgment of what we all need to be loved.
Finally, Elk City, an American art-pop band from the 1990s, does a gut-wrenching version of “Helpless.” Spare and pared down (even further than Young’s harmonica version) it features Renee LoBue on lead vocals. Her lilting voice allows us to feel how the “chains are locked and tied” across so many of us and to hear the heartfelt recognition of place: “all my changes were there.” Most staggering is her repetition of “helpless, helpless, helpless” with the final question “Can you hear me now?” taking on universal importance. Her voice embodies a plea for the many who deserve to be heard.
Looking again at Casey Burns’ cover art, I am drawn back in by the faceless figure’s six goddess-like arms. An antidote to the original photograph’s loneliness, they remind me of the superpower strength of Norine Spadaro and others, like me, on the breast cancer journey. We are those arms, simply holding our friends and family, selves, and others in the world with pure love.