Bob Dylan is 70: but what about a birthday present?

Would Bob Dylan stop his punishing schedule for Martin Carthy's samurai sword or a slice of Alela Diane's apple pie? We asked some famous fans to come up with the perfect gift for him…

Geoff Dyer: writer

What I propose is this: that on 24 May, at 7pm BST precisely, we all throw open our windows and – in homes, cars or bars around the world – play a Dylan track on our stereos or iPods. Checking a photocopy of his birth certificate I see that Robert Zimmerman was born at 9.05pm, but 7pm is a good time because, well, it chimes with 70. It also means that a good part of the planet can join in the gift-celebration at the same moment (11am in California). The choice of track is up to you. Some people will go for anthems like "Blowin' in the Wind" that I can't bear to listen to or stuff from the recent albums (ditto). Others will prefer out-takes of classic tracks from the "official bootleg" series. Serious Dylan nuts will insist on items that are still not commercially available. The resulting global mash-up will be a tribute to the way that Dylan has been through so many phases and has meant many different things to people of different generations and nations.

I've narrowed my contribution to this celebration down to two possible choices. First, a live performance of "Going, Going, Gone" from Fort Worth, Texas, in 1976 that never made it on to Hard Rain. Partly because the opening line – "I've just reached a place" – fits in nicely with the way he will have just reached his 70th birthday. Mainly because the way he sings that line embodies something essential about Dylan's art. He sings it in such a way that it really does seem like… he's just reached a place! We believe him. However weird or tangled up things become, there always seems to be a literal truth at the heart of his songs. And this, I guess, feeds into the rationale behind my other potential choice, "Blind Willie McTell", which is representative in another way. Some of my favourite Dylan songs nudge right up to – are even about – the moment that he is writing them; they end with him arriving at the place he's just reached – reached and left.

Theresa Wayman: singer/guitarist in Warpaint

I've been listening to Dylan since I was born, thanks to my dad, but when I turned 12 I really started paying attention to the stories he told, in tracks like "Shelter from the Storm", and I weaved together this idea of Dylan as a bit of a troubled soul who can't always interact perfectly with the world. And I can relate to that. So it sounds really cheesy but I'd get him something ultra feminine, sweet and cuddly: a cute little black and fuzzy kitten. I know he's had a great life and is an amazing individual but he's got a bit of a hard edge so the kitten might bring out some tenderness, make him feel cosy.

Martin Carthy: folk singer/guitarist

I'd get him a piano and a samurai sword to keep him warm in the winter – when he came to London in 1962 he used a samurai sword to help me chop up a piano to keep us warm while we had a cup of tea after a gig. I haven't seen him since 1978 but I still love him to bits. I turn 70 a few days before him but we never discussed the fact that we're the same age. He's played a few more arenas than I have but he never paid much attention to fashion, just followed his heart. There's nobody who writes like him even after all these years. He upped everybody's game.

Alela Diane: US folk singer

Dylan can probably buy himself anything he might need or desire so I would bake him an apple pie. Putting a lot of personal energy into something shows much more love than purchasing something silly. And my mom has a great crust recipe that I always use so the guy wouldn't be disappointed! Folk music, at least at its deepest core, was invented for hanging out on back porches and I associate baking pies with that very down-home behaviour. I like to imagine that Dylan's life has gotten a bit simpler in his older age and that for his birthday he's able to chill out on his porch and do as he pleases. All he needs is an apple pie to keep him company.

Isobel Campbell: singer-songwriter

For me, birthday presents are tricky. They are not so important to me. I'd always rather share a good meal or good time spontaneously than fuss over obligatory occasions. I wouldn't like to guess what Dylan's take on birthdays must be. Born under the twin sign of Gemini, he's an entanglement of paradoxes, ruled by Mercury, messenger of the gods. His present to us has been the songs.

As an angsty teenager I used to blast out "The Times They Are A-Changin'" on my record player, devouring the line "Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don't criticise what you can't understand, your sons and your daughters are beyond your command…" It's amusing to me now and must have seemed comical to my mum and dad back then but when I was 15 I took this song very seriously! As a teenager in Glasgow I had never heard of protest singers or Woody Guthrie. Nor have I ever heard a Hammond organ sound so great as it does on "Like A Rolling Stone". Or heard a break-up record as sagacious as Blood On The Tracks. Appreciating Bob Dylan's work led me to other great artists. His music opened my ears up to a lot of folk, country, rock and soul.

My friend Cindy recorded his performance at the Academy awards and played it to me a couple of nights ago. I noticed he was dressed pretty sharp. He had moves, almost vaudevillian. So I'd probably buy him a fine silk shirt, Italian shoes or maybe even just send him good thoughts.

I hope he gets to kick up his heels or kick back on his birthday, whichever he likes best, with friends and loved ones and enjoys the fact that he is one of the last standing truly outstanding troubadours of all time.

Cate Blanchett: actor, who portrayed Dylan in Todd Haynes's I'm Not There

I would buy him Henry Handel Richardson's The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. It's a great book about exile isolation, abandonment and luck. It's probably one of the few books he hasn't read.

Ke$ha: pop singer

What do you give a musical god? How about a baby elephant that's been taught to paint at a sanctuary or rescue. Elephants are really deep and sentient beings; they even hold funerals for each other in the wild. They're also very affectionate creatures so Dylan's pet, which I would name Tyrone, could offer him undying love and keep him company if he gets lonesome. Finally, it could help him decorate his house with its amazing artwork.

Howard Sounes: author of Down the Highway: the Life of Bob Dylan

Back in 1974, when Bob Dylan was still a relatively young man of 33, he wrote one of his most tender and popular songs, "Forever Young".

"I wrote it thinking about one of my boys and not wanting to be too sentimental," Dylan has said. His third son, Jakob, then five, now a middle-aged rock star, believes Dad wrote the song about him. Although "Forever Young" concerns a father's aspirations for his child, when Dylan sings "May you build a ladder to the stars/ and climb on every rung" we also hear his preoccupation with the eternal.

Closer now to the end of life, Dylan will soon discover what, if anything, there is in "the world we can't see", as he describes the hereafter.

As one of his biographers and an atheist, it has always perplexed me that a man of such intelligence should be so hung up on religion. Yet Bob clearly believes in a life to come, where he may be reunited with friends who have gone before him.

A key member of Dylan's inner circle, his road manager Victor Maymudes – who had never previously spoken about the poet-troubadour – told me before he died that Dylan is "not the giant that we all wanted him to be" and Dylan the songwriter is "10 times the man he is in real life".

Victor knew Bob better than most. But he was also a bitter witness who had fallen out with his boss. For my part, I cannot believe that the man who wrote songs as beautiful as "Forever Young" is not also a fine human being. In any event, I am grateful to Bob Dylan for enriching my life with his work and I sincerely hope his "wishes all come true ".

So although I can't share his belief in the hereafter, I'd like to tell Bob at 70, not knowing if we'll be able to celebrate his 80th birthday, "Thanks for everything, Bob, and when you're ready here's a ladder to climb to the stars on." If anybody deserves a glimpse of paradise, Dylan does.

Down the Highway: the Life of Bob Dylan, is published in an updated edition by Doubleday for Dylan's 70th

Mike Skinner, aka the Streets: musician

Dylan has written some piff bars for sure. I'd buy him some kosher bacon and Laurence of Arabia's motorbike.

Thea Gilmore: singer-songwriter, whose latest album is her interpretation of Dylan's classic John Wesley Harding

Maybe I'm being hard on Dylan, he's given us plenty already, but he's mellowed a bit and there just aren't any musicians today really standing up and shouting for what they believe in like he did. I miss that rawness, there's too much media cleanliness nowadays. So I'd buy him two things: a copy of every album in the UK charts at the moment in the hope it may inspire a little of the Dylanesque anger that I love so much, and another 70 years to play with. I can't imagine Dylan with a party hat and balloons, I expect he'll be putting his feet up with a large whisky and planning his next 70 years.

Chrissie Hynde: musician/lead singer of the Pretenders

I would buy Bob a dart board and some darts. No reason really, just seems like something he might like.


The GuardianTramp

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