The man is back — back in Japan and back from the brink of mediocrity.

Sporting combat boots, a flannel shirt and a splotchy dye job, the David Bowie I first lay eyes on is a far cry from the suit-wearing soulster or cross-dressing alien of his golden years. He has an imposing aura — he sits in the corner of a dimly lit hotel room, shrouded in a cloud of cigarette smoke — but this is easily lightened by his motherly manager, a cup of tea and a friendly handshake.

He’s keen to talk about his role as Andy Warhol (whom he describes as a “maker of epic vacuousness”) in an upcoming movie directed by Julian Schnabel, and his disillusionment with the Internet (“a dumping of inconsequential crap”). But the promoters said only 15 minutes and the clock is ticking.

Fortunately, even midway through a world tour and a day of interviews, he is still eager to talk about his new metamorphosis, the “Outside” album and tour. It’s part of his “nonlinear Gothic Drama hyper cycle.” Buzzwords aside, the album is a definite return to form.

If it all goes as planned, Bowie will continue to break fertile ground over four more concept albums. He says he’s already looking forward to the finale, scheduled for the year 2000, especially since a dramatization of the cycle will be overseen by the esteemed stage director Robert Wilson.

Sounds like a grand fin de siecle event, par for the course of this art-rock forefather. With a little luck, Bowie might even redeem himself of his grand musical flops (c.f. “Tin Machine”).

Mere luck, however, didn’t produce the brilliance of Bowie’s comeback. Much of the credit should go to Brian Eno, the guru of ambient music who produced “Outside” and shaped the sound on Bowie’s late ’70s albums — “Low,” “Heroes” and “Lodger.”

As for Eno, Bowie has nothing but praise. “My favorite collaborations have always been with Brian. The man has something. I dunno what it is. What he does do is create conditions unlike anyone I’ve ever met. … He’s very good at creating a frame and a context for what one does.”

For examples, before recording, Eno gave everyone cards describing their designated persona. “You are a disgruntled ex-member of a South African rock band. Play the notes they won’t allow,” read one musician’s card.

“We made it as unlike a conservative recording as possible,” explains Bowie. “When you break down the industry vocabulary you free up a lot of things, a lot of inhibitions come out with it. Ideas of process become more important than end product.”

Improvisation was key, says Bowie, even when it came to writing. Rather than arriving at the studio with fully formed songs, Bowie says he just brought news clippings, anything related to art dealing with the body (Chris Burden, Kiki Smith) and a couple of Baudrillard books — “sort of grist for the mill.” He pushed the creative envelope further utilizing a computer program that randomized his lyrics (i.e. the cut-up method of writing minus scissors and glue.”)

“I’m not really a didactic writer at all,” Bowie admits. “I must say the subject of the writing is almost irrelevant to me. It’s the processes and the text that you conjure up. It’s almost like the way you use a subject as an armature. It’s not that different from the visual arts. I guess that’s fairly reactionary in a way, but that’s the way I work. I’m an old-fashioned expressionist.”

True to form, the story within “Outside,” involving a cast of bizarre characters, “art crimes” and ritual murder isn’t your typical “product.” Bowie should be proud.

“‘Outside’ was trying to develop a texture of what the middle 1990s was about, and looking more to things on the outside of the mainstream, things on the periphery, because both Brian and I always find that’s the most interesting area to look at. Once things get to what has been called the ‘tyranny of the mainstream,’ they lose so much of their potency. I think the flotsam and the jetsam on the outside tend to be more interesting.”

But can a man who plays the Budokan really be outside the mainstream? Well, not really, but at least he’s trying.

For the U.S. tour, Bowie earned points for inviting along Nine Inch Nails, the new flagbearers of tortured-artist rock. The real bonus, however, came with Bowie’s return to his catalog of lesser known gems, interspersed with the requisite cuts from his latest album. The tour’s theme isn’t “Let’s Dance,” but “Shall We Reminisce?” which is fine by me and a million other Bowie-heads. Rather than taking a safe walk down memory lane, though, Bowie took a risk at the June 4 concert at the Budokan by reworking many of his classics.

It was like being shot up with pure endorphins when Bowie launched into a revision of “Diamond Dogs” that fused the grand glam of the ’70s with a deep ’90s groove. “This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll — this is genocide” indeed. Likewise, “Aladdin Sane” and “Under Pressure” found new life in Bowie’s duets with talented bassist Gail Anne Dorsey. And “Heroes”? Heavenly. “All the Young Dudes”? Goose pimples.

The success of the revamps didn’t apply everywhere, though “Andy Warhol,” once an acoustic sing-along, was rendered as goofy techno-bop, and “Scary Monsters,” probably the most recent “hit” among the selected songs, was a murky ocean of noise.

Visually, the show was restrained yet effective. Banks of fluorescent lights appeared on “White Light/White Heat”; bronze pods descended to shine “electric eyes” on Bowie while he sang “Moonage Daydream.” For “The Man Who Sold the World,” a song any Nirvana fan knows and understands, the singer chose to sit lotus position on a wooden table.

The Japan tour sorely lacked the presence of NIN. Guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei, an obvious Bowie apprentice, opened the Budokan show instead. What I wished the show had lacked was guitarist Reeves Gabrel. His bombastic solos embodied all the worst indulgences of art rock. The sooner Bowie put this vestige of Tin Machine behind him, the better. The next millennium is fast approaching.

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