EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED

FORMER VELVET UNDERGROUNDER JOHN CALE IS STILL DOING WHATEVER HE DAMN WELL PLEASES.

Over the next ten years or so, Cale bounced from label to label, assembling music that ranged from the critically revered (1990's wonderful Wrong Way Up, made with Brian Eno) to the commercially ignored (practically everything else). As the Nineties dawned, he was simultaneously famous and broke. "That was pretty much the problem," he confirms. "But the most difficult part of it was not really the financial side of things. It was that I had no clear understanding of the relationship between talent and money or goals and money. And my not being able to understand that was something that really kind of spooked me for a while."

To Cale's surprise, the person who helped him through this period of professional doubt was Lou Reed, whom he had not worked with since the Nixon administration. The late-Eighties death of VU mentor Warhol inspired the ex-partners to generate 1990's Songs for Drella, which combined elements of musical biography with songwriting of the most personal kind. The disc was no smash, but for Reed and Cale it served as a salve on wounds that had been festering for more than twenty years. In short order they began to discuss the possibility of putting the Velvets together again--and by 1993, Reed, Cale, Morrison and Tucker were in Europe, playing before ecstatic fans who could scarcely believe what they were seeing and hearing. But before plans for an American tour and an appearance on MTV Unplugged could be finalized, everything fell apart.

Cale is not shy about placing the blame for this collapse. "Basically, I think most of the people in the band felt that Lou mistreated them in Europe, and they were not prepared to be mistreated again," he claims. "The opportunity was there for us to do MTV Unplugged, but then Lou started making demands that he should be the producer, he should run the show and he should be the one calling the shots. And no one was prepared to give him that right. As a band, we'd always done a pretty good job of not letting anyone tell us what to do, and Lou was trying to do just that."

The subsequent fireworks permanently squelched any U.S. dates, the cancellation of which particularly upset Cale. "On the one hand, I can understand Lou saying, `I don't care about the United States. They treated us like dogs when we first came around,'" he concedes. "That's fine--but that was then and this is now. We could have really given a lot of our fans some pleasure. I often think about it regretfully, but I don't think there was anything anyone could have done to make it work."

Is another reconciliation with Reed possible? Again, Cale is succinct: "Not at all."

The finality of this statement is borne out by Cale's recent activity; he's certainly not sitting around his Manhattan apartment waiting for the phone to ring. Last year, for example, he assisted Rhino Records in the compilation of John Cale: Seducing Down the Door, a two-disc retrospective that manages the near-miraculous feat of giving his disparate output shape. Highlights include the gentle "Child's Christmas in Wales," the exceedingly intense "Gun," several startling covers ("Heartbreak Hotel," "Pablo Picasso," "Memphis," "Walking the Dog"), the Cale/Eno piece "One Word" and "Trouble With Classicists," a cut from Drella in which the listener discovers the parallels between Warhol and the rockers paying tribute to him.

For his part, Cale has nothing but praise for the collection. "I think it was intelligently done," he admits. "When I saw the lineup, I was very happy. It's a fairly good representation of different periods of the music, some of which I'd forgotten about." An example of the latter is "Dixieland in Dixie," a 1971 ditty that he'd recorded with Little Feat's Lowell George. It never received an official release, but a few copies filtered out anyhow; a scavenger located one in a Pasadena bookstore and got it to Cale.

Less well-received was last year's Last Day on Earth, a joint project with songwriter/Bob Dylan buddy Bob Neuwirth that's described in its liner notes as "a blueprint for theatre." In layman's terms, that means that Earth wasn't a grouping of songs but a sonic collage that begged for visuals not provided by its creators. Reviews were, in the main, dreadful, but Cale stands behind the piece. "Bob and I performed it in Europe last May, and when we did it live, it was very mysterious and alluring," he insists. "They were ready for that kind of panoramic thing that the record had, and they understood that it was telling a story. The record itself leaned toward the cinematic, but I think it works as part of the Blade Runner milieu."

Even more ambitious is Cale's current project: He's writing an opera based on the story of Mata Hari. The spectacle was commissioned by the city of Vienna, and Cale says he's already received invitations to bring it to Glasgow, Scotland, and Adelaide, Australia, as well. "By October I think we'll have a musical version ready," he predicts. A month later he's scheduled to enter a studio with Morrison, Tucker and Chris Thomas, who produced Paris 1919, to fashion a new album of mainstream music--or at least music as close to mainstream as he's capable of constructing.

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