While Kubla Khan's Xanadu was fully stocked with honeydew and paradisiacal milk, John Lowe's pleasure dome, located inside an old brick bungalow on Central Avenue, is slightly more earthbound. Packed to the gills with worn science-fiction paperbacks, pulp-fiction novels, packets of guitar strings, and pedals, amplifiers, and musical equipment galore, it's heavenly nonetheless -- and ruled by a benign warlord from Arkansas who would rather noodle on a one-stringed diddley bow than amass any amount of riches.
"I'm kind of an outsider everywhere," offers Lowe (pictured), a hulking man with shoulder-length brown curls and piercing blue eyes who first opened Xanadu as a newsstand and bookstore in southeastern Shelby County back in 1989. Despite 10 years in the midst of suburban sprawl, neither he nor his wife, Beverly, a co-owner in the store, ever felt at home.
"It was such a culture shock out there," Beverly notes of the location, which was at the intersection of Winchester Avenue and Old Germantown Road. "We do worse business here, but we fit in better."
They're the perfect couple: Lowe is a do-it-yourselfer of the highest order, continually inventing new musical instruments, honing the efforts of his one-man band, and self-releasing CDs such as the sixteen track Banned on Beale, which includes covers of songs by Jessie Mae Hemphill, King Louie Bankston, the Stooges, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Chicago garage-rock outfit MOTO, all recorded during a single seven-hour session. Bev, on the other hand, prefers to sit back and take everything in. She's the avid sci-fi and classics reader who keeps things organized at home and at the store, where the couple spends the bulk of their days, keeping the operation open for 60-plus hours a week without additional help.
"We're the oldest Orange [amplifier] dealer in America," Lowe says, "and one of the only Danelectro [guitar] dealers in town."
However, most customers turn up on Xanadu's doorstep in search of the Lowebow, a modified electric diddley bow constructed out of a homemade pickup, a cigar box, and a broom handle.
Lowe gives credit to Oxford, Mississippi, resident Jay Kirgis, a maker of cigar-box guitars who began asking him for one-string pickups in the late '90s. Lowe began making feedback sticks -- motivated, he says, by Jimi Hendrix's method of beating his guitar against the amps to get feedback. "The stick was hard to hold onto, so I started doing strap-on models," he recalls. "Then Richard Johnston wanted a traditional one with more strings, and we collaborated on a bass-and-guitar combo."
In 2000, when Johnston purveyed his love of hill-country blues and his aptitude on the homemade instrument into a first-place win at the Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge, Lowe found demand for his craftsmanship. Today, he makes 50 to 60 cigar-box guitars a year, selling basic models for $150 apiece and more expensive styles for $1,000 and up. Players ranging from Luther Dickinson to Lyle Lovett have purchased them, but Lowe is proudest of his latest design, a rough-cut, mirror-inset Flying V style inspired by Louie Bankston, a versatile New Orleans-based musician who plays in a one-man band, provides guitar work for the Black Rose Band and Loose Diamonds, and plays drums in the Royal Pendletons. No stranger to the Memphis garage-rock scene (he has two releases on Goner Records), Bankston is a regular figure at Xanadu whenever he's in town.
"Louie's the most underrated songwriter around today," Lowe says excitedly. "As a musician, he really pushes my creativity. Through Richard, I was exposed to Jessie Mae's style, but recently, I've been more influenced by [Henderson, Tennessee, musician] Jeffrey Novak's One Man Band. Right now, I play a combination of Jeffrey's and Richard's style, but I'm not trying to plagiarize their work. I'm just inspired.
"Of course, the garage-rock world thinks I'm blues, and the blues world thinks I'm playing garage rock," Lowe adds with a sigh, noting in the next breath that as a one-man band, he's performed in locations as disparate as Otha Turner's annual Labor Day picnic in Senatobia, Mississippi, the Cigar Box Guitar Festival in Carrolton, Kentucky, and the Uno A Go Go One Man Band Fest in Chicago.
Picking up one of his handmade instruments, a multi-stringed model, he plays a chugging riff and smiles. "This is my crusade against the great sameness," he proclaims. "Every person who buys one of these [guitars] comes up with his own unique style."
Happy to have a few minutes alone in his shop, Lowe closes his eyes and forms another chord, a tattered poster of counterculture enthusiast Timothy Leary hanging on the wall behind him. "I don't want to be Fender. I don't want to make a million guitars every year," he muses. "I see this as rebellion against all that. It's exciting to be an artist and get this kind of exposure in my lifetime." ●
Xanadu Music & Books West, 2200 Central (274-9885)