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At the beginning of his performances, John Cale says, "I think a lot of people are kind of mystified by what I'm doing. But on a good night, they're intrigued by the end."

Those two sentences neatly encapsulate the dilemma that is Cale. Although he's most widely recognized as a co-founder, with Lou Reed, of the Velvet Underground--a band whose influence on art rockers, punk rockers and new wavers far outstripped its middling sales figures--Cale is now a quarter-century into a solo career that's confused as many listeners as it's fascinated. He's made recordings whose brilliance is obvious to everyone. He's made recordings whose brilliance is obvious to no one--probably including himself. But even the least of his efforts are enhanced by his beguiling nonconformity. When asked if he enjoys having a reputation for contrariness, his response is brevity itself. "Yes," he says in a stentorian voice that calls to mind Richard Burton in mid-soliloquy. "I do."

And he proves it night after night. On his current tour, for instance, Cale is confounding those fans hoping to hear him serve up scorched-earth versions of "White Light/White Heat" and "Sister Ray" by rearranging his work for a back-up band that consists of a string quartet and a pedal-steel guitarist. "It's very much a classical show," he notes. "Like a chamber-music version of many songs."

While such an approach may seem odd to listeners who know Cale only as VU's feedback-loving provocateur, it's hardly the first time this native of Garnant, South Wales, has ventured into such territory. In fact, young Cale (born in 1942 to a coal-miner father and a schoolteacher mother) was so adept on the piano and viola that he initially was groomed for a life of exploring the classics. When he was a student at London University's Goldsmiths' College circa the early Sixties, however, he started to drift toward the avant-garde. Composer Aaron Copland helped Cale win a scholarship to the Boston University Orchestra's Tanglewood summer school in 1963, but he wasn't interested in penning homages to "Appalachian Spring." That fall, he moved to New York and promptly began burrowing into musical netherworlds under the tutelage of experimentalists John Cage and La Monte Young. Before long, he was a regular violist for Young's Theater of Eternal Music, aka the Dream Syndicate--a primary inspiration for the Eighties-vintage L.A. punk band of the same name.

In 1964 Cale met Reed, then a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records, and began collaborating with him on a much less highbrow scheme; dubbing themselves the Primitives, they came up with "The Ostrich," a failed attempt to cash in on the dance craze. Fortunately, the pair wasn't discouraged by this flop, and over the next year, they hooked up with guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker to form a group whose moniker was borrowed from an obscure pornographic novel. The Velvet Underground went on to capture the attention of pop artist Andy Warhol, who made the quartet the house band for his 1966 Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia extravaganza. Warhol also conceived the memorable banana cover on VU's first LP, 1967's The Velvet Underground and Nico, in which Cale and company were paired with Nico, an icy German actress and singer. The disc, remembered for "Heroin," "Waiting for My Man," "Venus in Furs" and several equally staggering selections, was a groundbreaker--and its followup, 1968's White Light/White Heat, was just as striking. It was also among the least accessible discs of the era, largely because Cale's excursions into racket swathed many of the numbers in deafening, thrilling noise. When Reed wanted to quiet down for a followup, Cale objected--and departed.

Rather than immediately making a platter of his own, Cale stepped behind the soundboard for Nico's The Marble Index LP and the self-titled, protopunk debut by Iggy Pop's outfit, the Stooges. Since then, Cale has served as producer for a wide variety of performers, most notably Jonathan Richman (their quarrels became the stuff of pop-music legend), Patti Smith and Squeeze. Next month he'll be heading back into the studio to helm a comeback CD by the Raincoats. "I'm always very happy when progress is being made--when I can help someone make music that's really different from everybody else's, that has something to say and is unique in its own way," he says. "There's a lot of talent out there."

When Cale finally stepped out on his own, with the 1970 release Vintage Violence, he did so with material that was subdued by comparison with the early Velvets. This change of direction set the tenor for his Seventies offerings. The decade saw him deliver 1971's Church of Anthrax, a musical adventure constructed with the help of minimalist Terry Riley; 1972's Academy in Peril, which tilted toward the symphonic; 1973's Paris 1919, a gentle, affecting song cycle that featured several members of Little Feat; and Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy (all three were completed in 1974 and 1975), a vinyl triumvirate filled with bloody, scarifying psychodramas. Sabotage/Live, from 1979, was, if anything, more extreme--an aural affront so assaultive and grim that even fans of the Clash and the Sex Pistols found it tough to take. It was also terrific.

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.

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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.

But before any of that happens, Cale, his string quartet and his pedal-steel guitarist have more concertgoers to amaze and baffle. Which is nothing new to him. "The last time I was in Colorado," he recalls, "I played in kind of a country-and-western bar, and that was difficult, because what I do doesn't fall into that category." He pauses before adding, "Actually, it doesn't really fall into any category."

John Cale. 8 p.m. Friday, March 24, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $15/$17 day of show, 322-2308.

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