Everyone knows where this fairy tale ended, and I am willing to bet that most people think they know where it began. Surely when Cobain had his first band rehearsals in Olympia, Wash., right? Well, that's the technical beginning.
Most music fans acknowledge that a band is merely the sum of its influences. In order to examine the beginning of the tale of a band called Nirvana, one has to look back and see who inspired their punk-rock ethos. There, you will find arguably millions of bands that toured relentlessly and stuck to a vision of pure independence. The distillation of such a legacy is Nirvana, who got caught up in the paradox of trying to be anti-corporate/independent while being an insanely successful rock band.
This independent vision also meant no interference from corporate music labels, which will often try to compromise music to make it conform to what is popular for the sake of profit. This strategy leads to terribly bland music that people buy because it is the only music they can get.
An amazing starting place for potential music fans looking for a way out of the banality of popular music is Michael Azerrad's definitive book titled (from a Minutemen song, no less) "Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981-1991." Here you will find biographies of 13 different bands, ranging from indie hall-of-famers, such as Beat Happening and Fugazi, to hardcore punk bands including Black Flag and Minor Threat, to proto-grunge stars Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr., and finally, to gender-defying bands such as Mission of Burma and Big Black.
Azerrad surmises that the 13 bands profiled created an atmosphere unlike any other in music history. Through a small network of labels, college radio stations and bands, a unique music scene was created and maintained by the do-it-yourself attitude that fueled all of these bands' desire to play. Most of the music that came out of the period is quintessential rock music which anyone serious about rock music should own and memorize. (Good starting off points are "Daydream Nation" by Sonic Youth and "Zen Arcade" by Husker Du.)
What makes Azerrad's book so unique is that while most of these bands operated in the same manner until they were signed to major labels, the personalities of the bands are completely different.
Ian MacKaye's band Minor Threat has an anti-drug song called "Straightedge," while the Replacements are gloriously alcoholic. In one chapter, Azerrad details the insanely serious Henry Rollins and his group Black Flag. Another chapter takes a look at The Butthole Surfers, who have an album entitled "Hairway to Steven." After reading Azerrad's book, however, the reader realizes that there is one thing all of these bands had in common: They cared most about making great music.
Azerrad's book is not entirely flawless. The chapter on Sonic Youth is going to be repetitive for anyone who has read Alex Foege's book on the band, "Confusion is Next." Also, note to Michael Azerrad: Where are the Dead Kennedys? I know they're here someplace. I just saw Jello Biafra make a record with the Melvins - hey, where are the Melvins?
That complaint aside, in looking for a good read about underground music in the 1980s and the ways in which the music made back then is still influencing people today, you would be hard pressed to find a book better than "Our Band Could Be Your Life."